Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Fractal Nature of Civilization

Civilization is a very difficult to get a handle on. First of all, we are living in the middle of it as part of it. It is hard to really see something you are a part of objectively. Second, there is no governing document, board, U.N. Committee, constitution, or any identifiable thing or group to consult for a defining statement. It is the product of billions of individuals acting in their own self interest. Third, there is no black or white, good or evil in civilization. Every part of it is gray, fuzzy, good AND bad, black AND white. It is a non-linear, fuzzy, chaotic system, and it is very difficult to imagine there are rules that make it function.

We are at the same place Benoit Mandelbrot was when he took chaotic, unsolvable problems and discovered a way to make sense of them. Fractals - a complicated structure arising from a simple definition.

I like this particular set as an example of civilization. The edge is where we live, the now, the complex daily life interactions of billions of people. The edge represents the benefits of civilization to us, individually and collectively. Yet the edge can’t exist without the void, the space and resources used up in the process of creating an ever-expanding edge. On a small scale, this isn’t too big a problem, but when this mode of living encompasses the whole planet we eventually run out of space to expand the edge and the void starts eating away at everything.

In Fuzzy Logic, a non-linear, multivalent system of mathematics used in system controls, artificial intelligence, neural networks, etc, we also find examples of complex systems and behaviors governed by a few simple rules. The actions of flocks of birds, colonies of ants, beehives, traffic, and other random systems can be mimicked by the application of a few simple rules rather than complex bivalent logic trees. Civilization is such a system. There is no central governing body, there are no missionaries teaching civilization, there is no enforcement squad ensuring everyone conforms to the rules of civilization, and yet in a very short time it has enveloped the earth. The force behind civilization must be able to pass from person to person quickly, easily, without any deliberate effort on the part of the conveyor, and must result in almost immediate benefit to the new practitioner of civilization. That is the only way it could spread unaided to envelope the planet.

So, what is this simple rule that both results in immediate benefit to the individual and, when extrapolated out over billions of people, creates the complex, good/bad chaotic/fuzzy system we call civilization?

1 comment:

Sheria said...

A very interesting assessment of civilization. I can't help but connect civilization and government. I think that one of the ongoing questions is the purpose of government and why governments arose. Are you familiar with Hobbes and Rousseau's contrasting views of why humankind was compelled to form governments? If not, I think that you would find both fascinating reading. Are governments a result of our fear of one another or of a desire to promote the common good? My additional thought is to ponder if it really matters? Isn't the utlimate result the same--a system of agreed upon rules and laws that attempt to protect the common good? Of course, democracy, republic, or dictatorship, none of the systems work perfectly.

You are quite a philosopher, Alan. Fascinating reading.