Thursday, May 28, 2015

A nation of Billion/3

Also possibly titled: a billion/3 memes and something like a zeitgeist; how to look at history.

I had an odd but somewhat invigorating conversation on the internet a few months ago. That it still stuck with me is a testament to its strength. We were trying to talk about what happened in the 80s for a specific act concerning President Reagan; I forget what exactly and it’s not important. What was important was what the people then were thinking, as well as the major and minor political players of the moment. The other person lived through it, while I did not. I presumed to tell him what the polls more or less indicated about the time and the official statements from the major players. He pointed out that he was there and that things weren’t as clear cut as the simplistic sample I took would indicate. 

At first I pushed back, claiming what else could there be? But there was a lot more to it than that, and he was right. Would polls and the official statements of officials be a proper approximation or even summation of the zeitgeist or what the nation is truly thinking today? The man was right. It would come nowhere near an approximation of what people are thinking or feeling or all the motivations that went into certain decisions or compromises.

Thing is, I’m one of those people who thinks that history needs to be studied, and studied as accurately as possible, with regard to as many views as possible so as to get to a very blurry but very real truth about us, about people, about what really happened so that we may know more about ourselves and better serve future generations with regard to what needs to be done for future decision making points. This stands in great contrast to the current or the prevailing moods of what history ends up becoming. It ends up becoming something that’s to be twisted and that needs to be molded into a certain group’s image. In other words it becomes a matter of vanity instead of truth, and everyone starts to look for things that will better help their ego (tribe). 

But to get at the truth is indeed what many historians are working on. Many are now looking to computers to sift through the millions of documents to absorb this history (transcripts, cables and so forth), seeing that it’s impossible for humans to read even a slight amount of what’s out there (to say nothing of processing that information). All the better, I say, and when computers end up ruling the earth, we’ll have to see if they are better able to get at a true history.

Nevertheless, it’s good to hear that somewhere out there people are looking for a solution to reading the past. Perhaps some all-knowing algorithm will arise and teach us to properly read history (or we’ll merely trust it to do so), to sift through the millions of streams of thoughts and to find something like a truth out of all that people are thinking. In fact, the modern world as we know it may end up being one of the best to study since there are so many streams that will provide this truth (or, I should say, more ways to approximate the zeitgeist of any given moment, since now the computers can sift through twitter feeds and perhaps even other personal communications, allowing us to better see how the people are doing and how that affects even official and seemingly removed decisions).

Oh, the endless possibilities.

Yet there is one more matter here and perhaps it is computers that shall save us from it. The intransitivity [1] of causality in history. Now I’ve seen this problem crop up in geo-politics; especially when it comes up not only in terms of causality, but in terms of the game everyone likes to play: “who was worse and who was better”; usually cloaked in the language of crimes against humanity. Who is worse? There is a numbers game tied up with causality (and who helped who), but there is rarely a proper way to assign blame. In other words, something like intransitivity crops up; there isn’t always someone/something worse in all situations [2]. With all these streams/memes that any computer will study, there will certainly crop up the issue of needing to assign an original cause, but instead, intransitivity will have to be programmed into these computers. 

It will also have to be taught to humans. We are too quick to assign blame in history and in modern day life (if you haven’t noticed, history is always happening, isn’t it?). And though it may sometimes be done, we have to assume that intransitivity plays a greater role than we may think or have been led to think. If so, a better model for history may yet arise. It may be up to the computers to think on this. 

[1] In Psychology, intransitivity is the inability to have  best choice. Usually this is presented in terms of voting. If given three items, one can not really say that any one is better: example a>b, b>c, c>a (each being better than another in certain terms, usually at least two variables are needed).

This isn't a matter of only humans beings having some glitch. Even animals do. An experiment with a certain bird that gets food from holes. It usually takes the food that is closer to the opening and in the widest possible hole. So there were 3 choices, each compared to one another in pairs. Each being better or worse in terms of food placement and size of hole. This specific bird also fell into a intransitivity trap. (a>b, b>c, c>a). Each time, it chose a single hole over the other and yet all three were technically chosen.

This effect is also seen in food chains, where things aren't always in a "rising" with a top, but rather in a circle, even with three species.  

[2] Also known as, in geo politics, being caught between a rock and a hard place.

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