A mind is like a parachute
It might save your life,
but you have to know how to use it first.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Revisiting the Big Blue Marble Brain Thingy

It's high time we brought our hive-mind analogy into the 21st century.

When last we left our heroes, they were engaged in global realtime communication about the Persian Gulf War.  We concluded that they were capable of 62 billion "daily synapses" if we assumed an average of four useful sentences for each person every day.  This compared with just 78 million synapses in the days of early Homo-Sapiens (and their flatmates Neanderthals).

But now we have a brave new world of social media.  Each individual has the potential to communicate in a one-to-many channel that simply did not exist in previous eras.  Okay, strictly speaking this is not true.  "Ham radio" operators have been engaged in one-to-many communication since the early 20th century.  We left them out of our previous calculations.  And the "CB radio" craze that hit the US in the 1970's had a great number of folks asking who had their "ears on" every time they  ran to the store for bread and milk.  This is another form of one-to-many communication that we ignored.  But while these media make perfectly good examples of one-to-many communication it was probably sufficient that we ignored them -- or at least let our assumptions about "media penetration" encompass them as well.  From a numbers point of view, there were not enough folks to really move the needle.

I'm sure there are plenty of examples of folks using ham radios or CB's to spread information about public safety and perform exactly the kind of communication that we would be interested in when considering the individual's ability to act like a brain cell and communicate with the greater organism we call a community.  But on a daily communication capacity basis, the existence of CB and ham radio can comfortably fall into the .1% of folks we assumed could talk to 100 people at once. 

But the internet and its modern persona -- "social media"-- has changed everything.  We now have the equivalent of tens of millions of amateur radio operators logging on and communicating what they ate for breakfast, what they disliked about last night's X Factor, and how great they would look in these new shoes on a daily basis.  OMG. I know, right?  Powerful stuff.

It's easy to talk about how pointless most of what is "communicated" on social media really is.  In fact one would be remiss not to consider that the vast amount of comments are pointless babble.  There is no reason to consider social media as a profound tool for global communication... except for one:  If there ever really is something worth saying, the modern world has an unparalleled capacity to say it.  For all of its whining about homework, sniping about Lindsay Lohan, and obsession about what's for dinner, social media on the whole provides an avenue for exchange of ideas or news updates that is a first for our species.  

Just how powerful is this new medium?  

Well for starters Facebook is thought to have 100 million daily users.  The average number of contacts (friends) for a Facebook user is 100.  Facebook themselves report many more user accounts, but they are happy to inflate the figure by counting inactive or seldom active accounts, so I am sticking with fairly reliable estimates to get at the number of people who could truly communicate on Facebook each day.  And I'll be making another adjustment to assumptions that will further ensure the contact power of Facebook users is not overstated.  More on that later.

But we also have to consider Twitter while we are at it.  Twitter is thought to have 50 million regular users, 10% of whom follow more than 50 people. We'll work those numbers into our formula in a minute.

Beyond these two social media titans we have a number of other sources to consider.  LinkedIn, Yelp, Sina Weibo, and even Myspace and YouTube are among other one-to-many media.  And of course there are countless bloggers on the internet, some of whom have actual traffic to their site.  They would further count towards the communication power of the modern individual.

Duplicate Accounts

But if we are to assign each of these accounts the power of one-to-many media communication, don't we risk double counting or even triple or quadruple counting some folks?  Isn't it entirely reasonable to assume that many Facebook users would also be Twitter users as well?  It is, and that is why we are going to adjust our "synapse" rate to account for this.  For purposes of social media, we will be counting just two meaningful sentence per social media account each day.  This will help reduce duplication of information across different brands of social media.

Doing the Math

So now we can finally assign our 2012 total synaptic magnitude (communication power) of the earth.  We will start with the same assumptions that we used for 1990 -- that .1% of the population is media with a reach of 100, 4.9% are "community leaders" with a reach of 20, and 95% engage in daily one-to-one communication.  But over and beyond this, we are going to add in our Facebook users (100 million people with a reach of 100 each) our Twitter users (5 million folks with a reach of 50 each), and we'll assume another 10 million people on other social media who have 50 contacts each.  In reality these numbers undercount the influence of social media.  Sina Weibo, for example, commonly called the "Chinese Twitter" has 300 million registered users.  Since we don't know enough about how many of those accounts are active and how many people each account follows, we'll be conservative.  We are adding these folks on top of the population, because we are going to go ahead and assume that they are culled from the "95 per centers" who engage in daily one-to-one communication as well.

The population of the planet is 7,029,588,738 as I write this (according to the global population clock at  census.gov).  This is a 33% population growth over 1990 levels.  That fact alone is astounding.  And it leads to a 33% growth in communication capacity as well -- before accounting for social media.  If we use 1990 assumptions on the 2012 population, we end up with 82.36 billion daily "synapses" worldwide.  But factoring in social media adds an incredible 20.7 billion ADDITIONAL messages.  That represents nearly a third of the communication capacity of the entire planet in 1990, added to the mix just because of this thing called the internet.

So the grand total from all sources (again likely undercounting social media participation and allowing these folks only 2 daily sentences instead of 4 for everyone else) is over 103 billion daily sentences.  The "synaptic capacity" of the planet in 2012 is 66% greater than it was 22 years ago.

The Limits of our Assumptions

Earlier I remarked that we should feel free to make assumptions, but should never forget that they are in the end, simply assumptions.  So now that we have reached some sort of end point for our model that explores the growth in communication power of the human race or "synaptic capacity of the hive-mind", it wouldn't hurt to go back and look at the assumptions we made and how they affected our results and most importantly how these assumptions could affect anything we can infer from our results.

The first important assumption we made was to limit daily communication to four sentences.  This seems to artificially downplay the communication power of one-to-one channels.  Because obviously I can have a long conversation with someone and we can exchange many more than four sentences.  So our model appears to have a bias against the effectiveness of one-to-one communication in our daily lives.  But let's reflect on that for a second.  What we wanted to explore in some very general way was the ability of the little human communication nodes -- the human as neuron -- to convey for the benefit of society a piece of information.  Let's look at an example which will make things more clear.

A brain must respond to danger by setting in motion a complex series of communication across the entire brain.   There is the perception of the elements of danger (the "information" portion in our ICA model), there is the assessment of these elements to determine whether any danger exists and if so what the nature of this emergency may be (this is the "context" portion in ICA parlance), and there is the brain activity that must lead to the response to this danger, for example the decision to run away followed by all the requisite muscle movements involved in this activity.  (This is of course the "action" part of ICA.)

Now if we are looking at the earth as if it were a brain (we already agree it is not, but we are imagining it is for the sake of analogy), then we must be thinking of trans-human communication along the same lines of synaptic activity.  So in other words, what if the planet came under attack and the people of earth needed to respond?  There would necessarily be the same process of information-context-action that would take place on a global scale. And human activity would need to communicate the same sorts of elements.  That is to say, some humans would identify the threat and communicate it to others.  These folks would assess the threat and devise a plan, and then they would communicate to other humans who would need to respond to the threat.

Now a global threat that would require the actions of all its citizens is not necessarily something we can easily imagine.  But let's take an alien invasion as a case study just for fun.

Little Green Cavemen from Outer Space

To begin with, let's imagine that a clan of neanderthals were visited by little green cavemen from outer space.  The image delights me, because I can see them armed with their special high tech stone clubs tricked out with whatever little stylistic flourish might give them that Buck Rodgers appeal.  The neanderthals would, obviously, be quite threatened by the arrival of these invading cavemen, who arrived on some huge space Mastodon no doubt. (Look, no one ever knows the propulsion system that brings UFO's to Earth, so the neanderthals are being no more ignorant than witnesses in the 1950's).

Well, the neanderthals want to communicate this global threat to the rest of the planet -- presumably so that action can be taken and survival can be ensured.  Well, they have two problems.  The first is the limited communication capacity we have already explored, and the second is the RANGE of their communication.  In a practical sense, all the nodes of the neanderthal earth are not connected.  It would take a great deal of travel and time for one clan to bring word of the alien invasion to all other clans.  I intentionally ignored that factor in my model.  Why?  Because that limitation goes away in the modern era so it only handicaps the communication capacity of the ancient peoples we already knew had an inferior communication capacity.  No reason to throw sand in their face and remind them that not only are they dumb but also slow.

Little Green Secularists from Outer Space

Leap ahead to the modern era and use the same example.  Only now our aliens are some godless race of humanoids who arrived by some specialized rocket armed with tricked out laser guns.  (Are you sensing a pattern in the ridiculous level of athropomorphization going on?)   Well now at least if we want to convey our concern globally there is a mechanism to do so.   And this is why we limited even one-to-one communication to four sentences a day.  Because in a truly urgent threat, the kind of message that needs to spread like wild-fire, the extra conversational capacity of one-to-one communication is not nearly as important.  What most of the world will be abuzz with is the perception and dissemination of the threat of alien invasion.  True that in the think tanks and command centers where a response is hammered out, there will be a great deal more than four sentences exchanged.  But this critical "context forming" will be taking place among a comparatively small number of nodes, so it is easy to discount again in our model.  Then finally, when they word to "MOBILIZE the military and SHELTER the civilians" needs to be spread, this again will be broadcast with a kind of economy that makes the four sentence daily synapse seem more fair.  Maybe eight sentences would be a better number.  Or ten.  But in the end it doesn't matter.  All that would prove is that the modern world is drastically even more more communicative than it was just 22 years ago.  Choosing a nice low data exchange rate helps keep us from wondering if we have produced a big number just by assigning big numbers to begin with.

In the final analysis we can see that the number of sentences we used as a stand in for our "synapse rate" is not that critical.  If anything it was better to shoot too low.  So this weak spot in the model turns out not to matter.  And we also established that the error of not accounting for how the neanderthal nodes were not all connected was not a real problem, either.   None of these modeling glitches therefore can prevent us from being properly awed by the expansion of global communication capacity.

To Infinity and Beyond

There is much more we haven't considered yet.  So far we've restricted the concept of information to what is communicated between two nodes.  Add in our increasing capacity to STORE information and the brainpower of the modern world becomes mind bogglingly greater than it was 22 years ago.  But quantifying information will have to wait for a better analysis of what we actually mean when we say information.  And figuring out what our new global brainpower may imply for our future is further off still.  But we're chipping away at the edges of this formless conceptual boulder, and that's a start.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Three Amigos: Information, Context, and Action

In the working model I am gradually trying to explore, the universe can be described in terms of three components:  Information, Context, and Action.

A physicist might be more comfortable with the notion that the universe consists of matter and energy (and that matter is just a special case of energy).  That is fine.  On some basic level one could argue that all we see and do and think and dream is simply a complex ballet of energy.  But for my purposes that is a bit like suggesting that all the literature of the world -- from Beowulf and the Bible to the collected works of Shakespeare and all the Harry Potter novels -- is just a "special ballet" of letters.  It is true in a basic sense, but it does little to reflect the content or meaning of the literature in question.

So I can accept that energy is the alphabet of the universe and matter merely its upper case manifestation.  I won't split atoms with particle physicists over their view of reality.  But just as letters congeal somewhere up the chain into plot, motive, and irony, so too the basic building blocks of the universe form the components I am choosing to focus on:  Information, Context, and Action.


I hope to explore in some detail just what is meant by "information" in the future, but just as I have touched upon in the past I think we can make do with the very basic and more or less intuitive sense of what is meant by "information".  This is simply the collection of descriptors we use to define any object or event.  A cup of coffee contains information about its temperature, its weight, its caffeine content, its sweetness, etc.  It also contains information about its location in time and space.  For example my cup of coffee on the morning of July 29th, 2012 in Vermont is different from even a nearly identical cup of coffee on the morning of Jan 1st 1963 in New York City simply because it contains whatever information is necessary to distinguish it from any other cup of coffee.  If an object is unique it will have at least one piece of information that sets it apart from all impostors.

We are awash with information.  If even a simple object like my cup of coffee contains so much information, we'd be hard pressed to consider all of the information contained in every object at every place at one time on the planet.  Too say nothing of all the information that spans time.  

But we don't need to worry about the almost infinite quantity of information in the universe in order to appreciate what information is and how it can be used in the present context.  If we were talking about water, we would not need to concern ourselves with the contents of all the rivers and lakes and oceans on Earth in order to have a basic appreciation for the stuff.  So too with information.  We do not need to worry about how much information is out there nor specifically what that information is in order to describe what we mean by "information".  Information is any piece of data about any thing.


We have touched upon context in the past as well, and we will really plow through this notion now to stick with what we have already determined -- that Context is information placed into some sort of frame of reference.  Context is loaded with power and we can't hope to do it justice right now, so we'll stick with the basic gut reaction that context is the "meaning" we assign to the information we receive.  It is the movie now showing, and any one piece of information is merely the latest character to enter the frame.


Action is simply a special case of information, the same way matter is a special case of energy, but it is useful for our purposes to consider it separately.  Action, in this model, is the response to information which is advised by the current context.

For example, if we stick with the cup of coffee from earlier:  I am at my desk.  I take a sip of coffee.  The coffee is hot.  I decide that it is too hot for comfort.  I put it down and wait a while before I continue to drink it. In this simple model, the relevant information was the temperature of the coffee.  It was hot.  The context I put that into was that it was so hot that I experienced pain when I drank it.  This advised me to perform the action of waiting to drink it.

Now even in such a pathetically simple example there are all kinds of things we glossed over.  The coffee contains much more information than merely its temperature.  Furthermore my decision to pick it up and drink it was advised by a great deal of context -- I have a routine where I drink coffee every morning, I am chemically addicted to caffeine, I wanted the liquid to help wash down the peanut butter toast in my mouth, etc. etc..  And of course I could not take the action of putting down the coffee if I had not taken the actions of making it, pouring it, picking it up, tasting it, and on and on.  Even the "action" of waiting for it to cool is a number of distinct actions including putting it down and deciding not to pick it up for some time and then ultimately deciding to pick it up again.

This one very simple example contains almost too much information, context, and action to hope to describe.  How are we ever to make any progress with bigger concepts than my morning coffee?

The answer lies in the genius of context.  For whatever reason, context is a magical bubble that can expand and contract around information to exclude anything we don't want to be bothered with while trapping neatly inside most or all of the information we do want to consider.  So as we explore the model of ICA (information, context, and action), we can easily stop ourselves from wondering about every fine detail.

When we're riding in a car speeding down the interstate, we may look out the window, but our minds are perfectly comfortable with the notion that we really can't see very much.  We speed past trees so quickly we can't always even make out what kind they are, let alone their age, how healthy they are, whether they house any squirrels inside, etc.  We simply see a bunch of trees and our minds are perfectly content to leave it at that. But if we were walking along a path through the same woods, we would undoubtedly learn just a bit more about the trees around us.  And we could choose to learn even more still if we were so inclined (or if we had some sort of school project to complete.)   The context of our travel down the interstate takes care of excluding huge swaths of information we simply don't care about (or at least accept that we can't perceive).

So we're going to speed down a mental interstate right now.  We are not going to worry about the shape of every tree. We have a destination to get to and we'll settle for blurry shapes passing by, at least for now.

So the three basic particles of my working model about how we think and communicate are Information, Context, and Action.  We're going to be seeing a lot of these Three Amigos.  But don't worry, it will be much less painful than watching the movie.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Of Course We Can Predict the Future

We often hear that the future is unknown, and (in the words of Yogi Berra) "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

We generally accept it on the face of it that we can't predict the future, but of course this is about as far away from the truth as we could be.  The fact is we predict the future all the time.  Our survival and our civilization depend upon it.  And we're very good at it.

Imagine you are at a park and you see a boy who has gotten his frisbee stuck in a tree.  He tries to shake the tree but it is too big and it doesn't budge.  He tries to throw things at the frisbee to knock it down, but he keeps missing.  He almost gets his baseball glove stuck as well before he decides to abandon the idea of throwing other objects into the tree.  Then he gets an idea.

The boy runs off and returns shortly with a jump-rope.  He throws one end of the rope up onto the limb of the tree and, after succeeding in getting it sufficiently stuck, he pulls hard on the tree limb to loosen his toy.  He lets go of the rope and the tree limb bounces back into the air, jump-rope dangling and swinging just above his head.  But the frisbee is really wedged in the branches and doesn't move.  The boy starts to pull hard on the jumprope.  The limb bends down and then bends some more.  It is apparent to you that the limb is near its breaking point.  But the boy keeps pulling until finally, SNAP.  The branch gives way and swings wildly toward the ground, striking the boy in the head.  He starts to cry.  You run over but by the time you get there, others have come to his aid and have determined he is not seriously hurt.

You walk back over to your bench in the park and tell your friend, "I knew that was going to happen." And the thing is, you did know what was going to happen.  From your vantage you could see the limb bending and you sensed it was about to break.  Further you could see that it was likely to swing down and strike the boy when it did.  Was this simply a blind guess or were you telling the future?

I'm not sure where Little Orphan Annie ranks in the pantheon of financial planners, but she has assured us that we can bet our bottom dollar that the sun will come out tomorrow.  Is she some sort of all seeing sorceress?  (She does have the spooky eyes for the job.) How can she possibly predict the future?

Now some folks will insist that I am playing word games or splitting hairs.  Surely the idea that the sun will rise is not telling the future, it's just science, right?  And so is the understanding that a branch pulled by a child to the breaking point will come snapping back and hit him in the face.  This is not what we mean when we talk about predicting the future is it?  And what about the chance that the branch will miss the child as it swings through the air?  Or the one in a gazillion chance that something will happen and the sun will not in fact come out tomorrow? (In which case our bottom dollar is worthless anyway, so it's still a good bet to take.)

Well, what do we mean when we talk about predicting the future?  We usually mean calling for things that will happen or are very likely to happen.  If you learned from a reliable source that you had a 99% chance of being in the path of the oncoming wild-fire, would you really think that it didn't matter because the prediction lacked 100% certainty?  Absolute certainty is clearly not a requirement for us to assess a credible threat, so it can not be a requirement in any of our predictions about what is about to happen.

So what is going on here?  How can the future be both unknowable and so readily predicted in so many ways -- in many cases to accuracy that approaches 100%? Does anything that is "too obvious" not count as predicting the future?  Are we really only concerned with our inability to predict things we don't see coming?  If that is the case, then we are simply defining the future as what we don't know, so who's playing word games now?

No, it is clear that a better assessment of the situation may be something like:

"Our long history of curiosity about our surroundings has lead us to a level of understanding that makes many things appear reasonably certain.  Highly regular events can be predicted to a great degree of accuracy, as can things in the very near future.  However, things subject to a lot of input variables (those containing many "moving parts") are harder to predict.  And events in the distant future which may be subject to the as yet undetermined outcomes of other events which we can not accurately predict become harder still."

I like Yogi Berra's quote better.

But more poetically, it is as if the future is shrouded in fog.  We can make out the details of only those things which are very close.  Further off we can make out shapes, and further still we can not see anything.  Additionally, we can make inferences about things in our environment which appear unchanging.  For example if we stood next to a long stone wall in the fog, we would not need to see it in the distance to be able to infer that it extended out in front of us.  The longer we walk along the wall, the more confident we can be that it continues in front of us -- similar to how we have as a species observed so many sunrises that we understand the almost certainty that sunrises extend into our future for as long as our mortal selves can see.

What are the specific factors that influence our ability to predict the future?  How can we know if we are predicting the future or merely think we are?

The answer to these questions and many other interesting ones lie in the nature of how we perceive information.  And as we have already discussed "perception of information" is merely another way of saying "context".  So we'll be looking at context and the role it plays in our ability to tell the future.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Is Earth a Brain? No of Course Not, But...

Let's pretend for a moment that the communication which takes place between human beings is analogous to an electrochemical synaptic firing that conveys some tiny amount of information in cells of the brain.

Now we've already established that the brain is capable of some crazy level of data exchange, but we've also said that most of the data processing power of the brain is either dormant at any given time or focused on biological maintenance issue.  Most of the synaptic firing currency is spent on defense and infrastructure, if you will.

Let's apply the same model and come up with a way to find the raw fire power of the hive-mind if it were actually a brain.  To do this, we need to assign some fairly arbitrary values to some variables, like how much communication between two people constitutes one "synapse".  The nice thing is that we don't need to worry about the accuracy or reasonableness of our values, because all we're really doing is making a model for comparison.

We're going to take what we learned from our brain example and accept right away that not every human-neuron will be firing at peak capacity all the time.  Further we are going to ignore the vast amount of synapses that are dealing with self maintenance.  We also need to come up with some unit of information that might be approximately analogous to a synaptic connection.

Let's start there, with the synapse.  Now, a synaptic connection is something that is passed along the change of connections, branching and looping back as it winds it way around the brain.  If we had to characterize a single synapse, it is as if one neuron is saying to another "Here's a charge.  Pass it on."

And the "pass it on" portion of the process reminds me of the children's game of telephone, where one child whispers to another, "The monkey ate the tree at sundown, pass it on."  Look, I know it makes no sense, but that's what I heard.  "The monkey ate the tree at sundown."  I swear. Now pass it on. Anyway, it doesn't matter.

The point is that it seems fair that we would consider a sentence as an information unit that had some analogous relationship to a synaptic connection.   When one human being on the planet shares a meaningful sentence (or even a meaningless sentence as long as it is a valid sentence) then we can call that "one synapse".   But a neural synapse doesn't carry "meaning", it is just an electrochemical spark of sorts.  Why would we map a meaningful unit of data onto something that had no meaning?

Well, the easy answer is that a sentence does not carry meaning.  It carries information.  Information is nothing but data.  It is perception.  MEANING is what happens when we give data (perception) context.

What is it now?

Take the sentence "It is time."  Since this is a valid sentence, it carries information.  But what sort of information is impossible to tell.  We need to take this data "in relation" to other data -- put it into context -- and then this information helps us to form meaning.  For example, if a chef walks into the room wearing two oven gloves and carrying a steaming casserole dish, what would the sentence, "It is time" suggest to us?  We'd probably think it was time to eat. The meaning is simply "dinnertime!"  But if a pregnant woman has her hand on her belly and tells her husband "It is time," would we really be inclined to think it was dinnertime?  Of course not.  It is time to go to the hospital. And if this happens to be taking place on a sitcom, "it is time" for all sorts of hilarity to ensue.  A prisoner sits in a cell anxious to hear the verdict of his trial.  His lawyer comes to him and says, "It is time."  Do you think the prisoner is thinking that maybe there is a steaming casserole in the other room?  A woman about to give birth?  No, of course he knows it is time to hear the verdict.

Now you may notice that some of this example relies on the fact that the pronoun "it" carries no set meaning. "It" can mean any number of things.  "It" tends to be the most obvious thing for the current context.  That is the magic of this particular pro-noun.  "It" is a stand-in for whatever object or concept is relevant at the time.  "It is on fire." "It is not going to work."  "It is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

But the fact that we don't know what "it" is is precisely why it is important.  The sentence "It is time" is information.  We just don't know what it means.

In fact, we may never know what it means and we don't need to understand the meaning of the sentence for the information to carry meaning for another person.  If I told you to tell Bob that I said "It is time," it doesn't matter if you know what I mean as long as Bob does.  You will tell Bob, "It's time" and Bob will know what "IT" is, so the sentence will have meaning for him even though all it was to you was information with no context.

And as luck would have it, this is precisely what we require of neurons when they perform the voodoo that they do so well.  One neuron says to another "here is data, pass it on"  He does not say "You are not going to believe this but Rachel is finally having her baby."  He just says "The other neuron told me this.  Pass it on."

So in other words, we don't expect or need or even want our neurons to understand the context of the data they are conveying.  We just need them to convey the information.  Which they do -- in the form of firing or not firing.

Now we could get very distracted by continuing to be amazed that the mind can find meaning -- or even information -- from the millions and billions of synaptic firings and non-firings taking place at any given time.  But trying to figure out precisely how a bunch of high speed sparks could ever give rise to symbols, tokens, thoughts, and concepts is not useful right now.  What is useful (or at least interesting) right now is to imagine that each human's information passing capacity may be analogous to a synaptic firing in the brain.

So let's go back to this whole notion of how a sentence can be seen as a basic information block and constitute a "synapse" of sort.  Not because that's the truth, but let's just ponder for a second what things would be like if it were true.

Now humans are passing information units in the form of sentences back and forth all day long.  Do we really want to get into complicated math about firing speeds and total synaptic capacity?  Well, no, in fact we can look at a very simplified model and still have a lot of fun.

Now I don't want to say that most of human communication is just a bunch of nonsense and garbage and gossip... but if we assume that is the case for our model, we can make huge strides in advancing this analogy.  So just as most synaptic firings in the brain have to deal with things that aren't the kind of thinking we are interested in, we'll assume that the vast majority of human communication is not relevant for our purposes.

So what we can do is assume that each human has four sentences every day that carry information that is important enough for us to worry about.  We are skipping all the times Neanderthal Mr. White says to  Neanderthal Mr. Green, "I always hate it when the wind is coming from the carrion pile," and "So I hear you got your wife a new bone handled knife.  I was planning on getting one for my wife, but without celebrating Christmas or birthdays it's hard to know when to time that exactly."  Skipping that stuff.  No, we're saving all of our "data exchanges" for the sentences that carry the really good information.  Things like "Water bad."   And we are going to assume that each human manages (on average) four of those each day.  If this number seems really low, that's a good thing.  We want to make sure that our final model has used very conservative measurements so that we can appreciate the size of the final number without wondering if we inflated it during our assumption process.  So we're allowing for each human to utter 4 information sentences to another human each day.

The Hive-mind 100,000 years ago

Since we've already mentioned the jolly Neanderthals, we can start there.  Recall that most of their communication was one-to-one, except for whatever they may have discussed around the fireside as a group.  Now we don't need an anthropologically sound estimate of their culture to get a decent model of how much communication was going on 100,000 years ago.  We can simply assume that every 20th person was a "fireside chat" leader and whenever he said something important it was heard by 20 other people.  As for the rest of them, their four daily sentences of vital information was shared one-to-one.

Great, we can almost do some math to determine the "synaptic firepower" of the "hive-mind" earth (i.e. total communication capacity) in the dawn of modern man.  But we're still missing something.  We need to know how many neurons (people) there were.

Estimates vary, of course.  There were no Neanderthal census takers going from cave to cave asking entirely inappropriate questions about each family's living arrangements.  The nosy census is a modern invention.  So we have to guess.  But 1 million is a common (and fairly safe) approximation of the population capacity under a nomadic structure.  As agriculture took hold, the population capacity expanded greatly and it is assumed that the global population of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon folks combined never exceeded 15 million.

I think 1 million is an entirely reasonable guesstimate, but I don't want to make the ancient globe less communicative that it really was in relation to the modern one, so I am going to use the more generous assumption of 10 million people.  We suggested that 5% of these people were "team leaders" who communicated with groups of 20 others at one time.  They are the pillars of the community of the ancient world.  What they said carried a lot more clout for communication purposes.

So what we have then is a global population of 10 million folks.  5% of them (500,000) are "community leaders" and convey their message to 20 people each.  95% are simple folk who talk one-to-one.  This yields a daily "communication power" for the planet 100,000 years ago of 78 million sentences or "synapses".

Communication in the Colonial Era

Now let's look at our colonial era earth. It is of course ridiculous to call this the "colonial era" when we are considering the entire planet, but when we are conceptualizing, it helps us to fall back on context we are familiar with, and most Americans have a mental image of the speed of life in the colonies which is easier to conceptualize than trying to imagine China in 1770. So we will think in terms of colonial America, while we understand that we are talking about the population of the entire planet.

For this era, we are going to stick with the assumption that most people perform one-to-one communication.  But we still have a portion of the population that has a greater audience.  We have social, political, and religious gatherings where one or more people have a larger audience.  These are the colonial "community leaders" who speak to groups and perform a simple one-to-many form of communication.  But we also have the birth of media.  There aren't a great many newspapers in the 18th century world, but they do have a greater reach than other forms of communication.  The average colonial newspaper was a weekly with circulation of 500, but in Europe there were dailies like the London Times with circulations in the thousands (5000 in 1815).

Tracking every possible avenue of communication and assigning it a value would be doubly pointless.  To begin with it would be extremely hard to do and secondly it would not be terribly accurate.  But if we take our known data points, we can get an general idea of how we should ballpark the reach of media and other "one-to-many" forms of communication.  So for simplicity, we'll stick with the idea that 5% of the population has a greater reach than the rest (they are ministers, politicians, teachers, activists, business leaders) and we'll stick with the conservative reach of 20 people per day for these folks.  In addition, we are going to assume that .1% of the population has an extended reach through "media".  We'll assign a reach of 100 for this category. All that remains is to get the total population.

The  world population was about 850 million people.  At 4 significant sentences a day with 5% of the population having a one-to-many reach of 20, and .1% reaching 100 people daily, and the rest doing all their talking one-to-one, we end up with just shy of 7 billion daily "synapses".  The population over the time period grew by 85 times, but the communication power is almost 89 times greater.  This is because of the introduction of high reach media (the newspaper).


By the time we get to the 90's we have lots of media to consider -- mostly newspapers, radio and television.  The reach of this media has grown considerably over the media we found in its infancy in 1770.  So we're going to adjust our figures accordingly.  We can keep our assumptions about the vast majority of the population engaging in one-to-one communication, and 5% of the population being "community leaders".  We'll keep the "media" component at .1% but extend its reach to 1000.  Even though some "super media" exist with a reach in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, the vast amount of media we are capturing by assigning a .1% value to the population dictates that we keep very conservative estimates of the reach.

Let's reality check our assumptions here.  The global population in 1990 was 5.28 billion people.  BY saying .1% is "media" we are saying that 5.27 million people have a media reach of 1000.  Now there are only about 44,000 radio stations in the world today (according to the CIA World Factbook), so why are we assuming 5.27 MILLION people have a media reach in 1990?  Well to begin with we are considering all media of the 1990's including not only radios but also television and newspapers and magazines.  But more importantly, we are accounting for the fact that each form of media has more than one writer (or news anchor or DJ) and many forms of media have reaches greater than 1000 people.  So if a weekly magazine has seven writers and a circulation or 100,000 for example, it's daily reach would be 100,000.  So this magazine counts as much as 100 small time media with circulation or listenership of 1000.

So this means we rare assuming 94.9% of the globe still engaged in one-to-one communication, 5% in one-to-many with a reach of 20, and .1% media communicating one-to-many with a reach of 1000 people each day.  Since the population of the planet in 1990 was 5.28 Billion, the daily communication power of the earth in 1990 described in the model was 62 billion "synapses".  The population is 6 times that of 1770 but the communication power is 9 times greater, owing to the increasing influence of media.

Are we there yet?

In modeling our human informational sentences onto a kind of global brain, we are still well short of the awesome synaptic power of the mind -- at least in 1990.  But what happens when social networking allows for individuals to literally "branch out" and become their own one-to-many media channels?  The results are astounding.  And as we shall see, so are the implications for the power and speed of global communication.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assume anything you want. Just don't believe it.

Earlier I said:
If you're going to allow your own preconceptions to rule how you think, you may as well make it easy on yourself and stock up on the microwavable answer packs that the conspiracy theorists sell. 

Which is all well and good until we realize that thinking RELIES on preconception.  As I said before, "context is everything."  And you can't have context without preconception.  In fact if you had to define "preconception" one acceptable definition for our purposes would be "context you have previously constructed."  In other words, we can't understand anything -- we can't put anything into context -- without building on what we think we already know.  We have to ASSUME that certain things are as we expect them to be or we are stuck re-inventing the steering wheel at every turn.  And the assumptions we have about the world, this context we have established to this point in our lives, these are nothing if not preconceptions.  So how could we not "allow our own preconceptions to rule how we think"?

Well, because there is a critical distinction which can be illustrated with a fun little dialogue.

Imagine that we are both sitting around without much to do.  You say to me, "Assuming you had ten million dollars and no commitments to worry about, what would you do with the money?"

I'd say something like, "I think I would buy a really big house in the woods and spend all of my time on the computer.  And in my game room.  I'd have a very nice game room.  What about you?"

"Oh you know, I'd give it to charity.  Except maybe I'd keep some for traveling the world."

"Uh-huh.  Say, do you want to come over and play pool tonight?"

"You don't have a pool table."

"Yeah, I do."

"Since when?"

"Since I got ten million dollars.  I have a huge house with a music studio and a game room and this beautiful pool table."

"Yeah, right.  You never had ten million dollars."

"I didn't?  I guess I just assumed I did."

And you'd clarify the situation for me.  "No, you see, it is fine to assume something.  But don't make the mistake of forgetting that you are only making an assumption.  Just because you assume something does not make it true."

"Yeah, see I knew that.  But it's hard.  I always forget that the things I assume aren't necessarily true."

Oh sure go ahead and laugh at how stupid I must be to forget that we were only pretending to have ten million dollars.  But the fact is that we all make assumptions all the time.  We have to in order to make sense of the world.  And most of us repeatedly forget that the assumptions we are making do not necessarily have any basis in reality.

So when I say, we shouldn't allow preconceptions to rule how we think, I am not saying that we can avoid preconceptions.  But we need to understand what they are and never put our faith in them.  It may save us some embarrassment and disappointment later.