NECSI’s Yaneer Bar-Yam on globalization and why we need a “social brain”
Understanding how collective behavior works can help us make better decisions, keep the peace and innovate. Could network science hold the keys to designing for emergence…and avoiding extinction?
There is a general assumption, even if it’s unspoken, that everyone should get along. That diverse perspectives lead to innovation. That we should have melting pot societies and decentralized organizations and global systems where everyone cooperates. As hyperconnectivity becomes more of a reality everywhere, do we really understand its implications? If you have any part in designing human networks, complexity science tells us, you should consider carefully how you design the boundaries of your networks to encourage or suppress connectivity, encourage independence, and even solve conflict. In this interview with New England Complex Systems Institute’s president, Yaneer Bar-Yam, we explore common network behaviors and how they affect the systems of our brains, our organizations and our nations in ways that scientists are learning to model.
Yaneer Bar-Yam: There a lot of people who think of emergence as an inherently good thing. But emergence is about collective behaviors, whether they’re good or bad.
d4e: Can we make emergence happen the way we want it?
YBY: The thing is, we don’t always know how to want the right thing. That’s just life. Definitely emergence can be the right thing. But it’s just being.
Let’s start with boundaries. Some of the earliest work I did on the issue of boundaries was studying how the brain works. I think you’d really like to read about that, because it will help you with your thinking about innovation.
There’s a section in Making Things Work about how the brain and mind work. The part of the work that I added is how boundaries are in fact related to creativity, and that’s related to innovation and how teams work. We have this idea that connectivity is good, but it turns out that non-connectivity is also good for things.
d4e: Like when you want to ring-fence part of a culture to turn it in a different direction…
YBY: Right. And the basic idea is that if you want everything to be really tied together, then it doesn’t have flexibility. But if you create boundaries, then different parts can do different things. The way it works in creativity is the following: Let’s say you see a person walking, and you see a bird flying. There are two different parts of your brain — one which stores the shape and one which stores the motion. In the shape part, you have the person shape and the bird shape. In the motion part you have the walking and the flying. And you jiggle things around a bit, and all of a sudden you have the bird walking…or the person flying. People don’t fly. But we have no trouble imagining people flying. That’s really the basis of creativity — the ability to make composites out of things that were present that you did see, but now you can see them in the other combinations.
d4e: Exaptation. Producing novelty out of what already exists.
YBY: It turns out that a lot of my work over the years is about this. It used to be to think about pieces, then we realized that we had to think about things as connected. But there’s this sort of immediate zone where you have pieces that are partially connected. So you have some independence and some connection and when the balance is right, you have new things happen. Because they’re not really independent, and they’re not completely dependent. It’s in that intermediate domain that you get all kinds of interesting things happening.
d4e: An ecotone.
YBY: So there is a social science correspondence with this. It’s not done by me, but it’s very well known. And that’s the work on weak ties. The idea is that you have strong ties within a group that makes everyone do the same thing, but then in society there are these groups, and the weak ties between the groups are what propagate what groups do to other groups. So the overall behavior of the society has to do with the weak ties more than it has to do with the strong ties. The propagation of ideas through society is actually dominated by the weak ties.
d4e: So we should be looking at those weak ties, but we’re usually looking at strong correlations instead. How do you mine those weak links?
YBY: There’s lots of marvelous things to talk about in that area. But let’s talk about the other stuff, because you wanted to talk about society. Okay. You have to think about what is the right picture for society as a whole. One of the main things that’s happening is that society is becoming integrated. We have this global connectivity which is incredibly tight. How do I know that? One of the ways is that it’s really easy to get from here to almost anywhere in the world. You can hop on a plane and be on the other side of the world in 24 hours. You can also talk to someone anywhere in the world. You can also send stuff.
All of this is stuff that you know, but one of the things to understand is that this is very weird. For instance, it’s really surprising that we share food globally. The stuff that’s grown in the US feeds a large part of the world.
d4e: In some unfortunate cases, that’s a problem.
YBY: Yes. And it is part of how the world works. That makes us all in the same boat, in a very strong way. Because of that, we’re all vulnerable. Somebody sneezes and everyone gets a cold. We’re incredibly connected, and you can go anywhere in the world almost and buy food that was made in London. Or an iPhone. So you can go all the way from basic food to the latest manufactured goods, and you can get it almost anywhere. Maybe not North Korea.
Now, even though the world is becoming really integrated, it’s actually not becoming homogenous. That is also surprisingly important. When things become integrated, when they’re interacting very strongly, there’s really two different things that can happen. They can either all become the same because they all adopt each other’s views and attitudes and ways of eating and so forth, or they can push each other in different directions. Let’s take a step back and talk about the science that we’ve been doing on different pieces of this.
One of these studies is on global prices.
We’re connected, we’re vulnerable, so when there’s a financial crisis, it propagates around the world. If you want to think about it historically, WWI and WWII were the first time we talked about wars. WWII was much more global. The point is that things became global because we’re so connected. Now everything that happens is global. We’ve studied these problems, not just the financial crisis but the follow-on effects. What we found was that the financial crisis triggered increasing food prices, which triggered the Arab Spring, which triggered the dissolution of Syria, which triggered Isis, which triggered the European refugee crisis.
What we’re looking at here are cascading effects. Far from a linear causal chain, it’s going from money to food to social unrest to political instability to terrorist organizations to refugee crises. Our global interconnectivity has created this general vulnerability to shocks.
By the way did you see our paper on food prices? So you saw that the cause of the increasing food prices was the ethanol policy and the deregulation of commodity markets. You had these people who said, “Hey wouldn’t it be good to have an ethanol policy (totally wrong), and all of the sudden we have the Middle East falling apart.”
d4e: Pull at one string, and everything shakes.
YBY: Policymakers don’t understand this, really. The need to be careful and to understand the consequences of actions has come into incredible demand. People aren’t ready for it. We also talk about the Precautionary Principle — I don’t know if you saw that work.
The Precautionary Principle (PP) states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety. Under these conditions, the burden of proof about absence of harm falls on those proposing an action, not those opposing it.
(This is a work by Bar-Yam and Nassim Taleb. Traditional cost benefit analyses need not apply because “some costs are infinite.” They call this a “ruin problem” because — you get it — everybody dies.)
YBY: The Precautionary Principle is the idea that policymakers shouldn’t put the world at risk. If you’re a mayor and you take some risk and you do the wrong thing, people in the city will suffer. But if we destroy all of civilization there’s not much left. You have to be incredibly careful with how you make decisions when things are propagating around the world.
d4e: Decisions of policymakers can have potentially global consequences that we’re unable to see because of the complexity. How can designing borders and boundaries minimize cascade effects? Back to using boundaries for innovation, can we apply the same principle to government? Why do we focus so much on national policy? If we want to minimize vulnerability and cascade effects, why don’t we localize a bit more?
YBY: Part of the answer is that we should, but we need a global policy because of the vulnerability. That policy has to be very carefully thought out using the best tools that we have to analyze it. The other example of this is about pandemics. Unless we shut down global transportation, the fact that we are increasing transportation makes us more and more vulnerable.
We wrote a paper in 2006 that said there’s a phase transition to extinction as we add more and more transportation. At some point the diseases become so bad that we’re toast. Did you see that one?
d4e: Somehow I missed the little paper about the end of the world. We don’t understand our own scale. Isn’t it time we crowdsource network science as that powerful tool?
YBY: Incredibly right. And we’re working on it. The idea of crowdsourcing is that collectives of people are very effective. That’s actually not something that’s well understood yet. Crowdsourcing is a simple idea. The right idea is teams. We need teams of people that work together.
If you think about it, it’s like the brain. Neurons talk to each other during this conversation. And that conversation gives rise to the decision making that the brain is capable of. So we need a social brain that’s similar. Society has to work the same way. It’s not about sourcing the crowd, it’s about the social brain.
So we have to work on that. That’s an emergent property of the process we’re going through today.
d4e: Do we have the right tech for this?
YBY: We have modeling that can do an analysis of these global crises. That’s what we’ve been doing in my research institute. So in some sense these two things are separate — people getting together making collective decisions, and the software modeling analysis kind of stuff is a little bit different. Maybe we need to put those things together, but in the meantime we’re not doing either of them very much, yet. Those are two things that really need to be done: We need to do the collective decision making instead of our government. And we need to do complex systems modeling and analysis for a better understanding of how the system works mathematically.
So we have this picture of global things. We’ve also said there’s this local picture. Let’s tie them together. Part of the work that ties them together is this work on ethnic violence. This work says people fight each other when they live in geographical patches the size of about a neighborhood (20-60 km).
d4e: Why does patch size determine when people fight?
YBY: The physics answer is that size is the only relevant parameter, and therefore it has to be a function of size.
This part of physics is about understanding why things work together and why they work all together. The bottom line is that, remember, things work together because they work together. So size says something about how much they work together.
d4e: So that’s in any domain. So why do people fight each other in groups like that?
YBY: If you live next to someone who’s different, and you have them kind of scattered around the neighborhood, then your home is your space and their home is their space. It’s a shared, public space. And that’s how you think about your world. And you get to know them and they get to know you. So you don’t fight each other.
If there is a large area that’s of one group, then you basically never see the other people — so why would you fight them? But if there’s a neighborhood of your type and a neighborhood of the other type, then you not only want your home to be your space, you want your neighborhood to be your neighborhood in terms of type. So you speak a certain language, you want the stores and schools and everybody else to speak that language. If you have cultural norms you want those to be in the public space, not just the private space.
In the mixed areas, everybody can share. In the separated areas, the people live there want to have their space. When other people come in and interfere with it, that creates friction and conflict and violence.
d4e: Cue the snapping of fingers.
YBY: The other way to think about it, even more complex systems way to think about it, is that in this society we believe that individuals have autonomy and rights. But complex systems is a multi-scale picture, and so it’s not only individuals but it’s groups and larger groups and larger groups that should have autonomy and rights in their space. So there’s tension between individual and collective rights.
In the US, we may decide to adopt only a single level of structure, but I don’t think that’s what’s really going to happen, because we see it breaking up. In the world in other places, surely that’s not the case. People have neighborhoods, and they choose not to live in mixed neighborhoods, but in homogenous neighborhoods, and that’s what they want. The point of our analysis is not that it’s right or wrong, but if people choose to live in these homogenous neighborhoods, we’d better give them autonomy. You have to create a boundary.
This is what Switzerland did in the cantons. The Alps separate an Italian speaking part of Switzerland from the German speaking part. And there are several things, including the Alps and a certain range called the Jura mountain range, that separate the German-speaking part from the French-speaking part. There’s an area where there’s a flat place, and an area where the Jura range are not quite steep enough, and it’s in the canton of Bern. Believe it or not, the German-speaking and French-speaking Swiss fight each other in that space. Arson, bombings, all that bad stuff.
d4e: We think of the Swiss as being nice and peaceful…
YBY: Except right there.
The cantons are different. They exist because, or in conjunction with the fact that there are Catholics and Protestants there. During the time of the Reformation, Switzerland was kind of forming itself out of these cantons. So they created autonomy by canton for religion.
So there are Catholic cantons and Protestant cantons, and even half-cantons in areas where there the canton was split by religion and there was fighting. There’s one canton that’s very big in the mountains called Graubünden. It’s in the mountains with all these mountain valleys, and each one has a different religion. So they have a sub-canton unit called a circle. Circles are autonomous and separate the religions. That way everybody can set up their own rules, and they don’t fight each other. Some cantons are mixed. Some cantons have peninsulas of one group and the rest of another. Some cantons have little tiny pieces of them embedded in other cantons. So it’s like Swiss cheese.
d4e: I see what you did there.
YBY: The point is that Switzerland understood that creating local economy was the way to stop people from fighting. They made autonomous areas, the cantons, and they have a federal system of government, like we do. We have states, they have cantons. But their cantons have religious character. This is a model for how to solve a lot of the ethnic violence in the world.
Now people are afraid of this for two reasons: The global order is set up around nation-states. The autonomy of the nation-state is the reason the UN works the way it does. There’s something called the Treaty of Westphalia that said, “We’re not going to get involved in your matters if you don’t get involved in ours,” and the basic idea is that that’s kind of an agreement by which we don’t go meddling in other people’s affairs so we don’t have to fight each other over them. It’s a good idea, in that sense, but the problem is that nations are now not the right unit of governance.
d4e: But you have to have your government set up that way to come and play at the UN.
YBY: Federal governments are a sort of intermediate solution. But then the question is, who is it that sets up the federal government? If the country doesn’t set it up themselves, do we go in there and help them? That’s meddling. You got it?
d4e: We need a better prime directive.
YBY: People are worried about it. Spain would split up, because Spain has different languages. They want to secede. So even Western countries like the UK are worried about falling apart if all of a sudden it becomes acceptable to have all these sub-units that are culturally or religiously based.
The other reason is different: People think that everyone should just get along. Remember this is the Western ideal of the US that it’s the individual that’s autonomous, but we need separation of church and state, and so everyone can have their own religion, and yet we can all get along. And the diplomats learn how to make everyone talk to each other in order to get along.
Well, maybe it doesn’t work quite that way. We’ve said now look, what we need is a global government, and we need local governments, and that’s all true. So we need a multi-scale governance structure. We haven’t figured out how to do that yet, but it’s important.
d4e: How could people be adopting this idea on smaller scale so that people get used to the idea?
The answer may be that it would be good to target city and town governments. Remember, we don’t have to have one local government for all of one group. Switzerland has multiple cantons for Catholics and multiple cantons for Protestants. We just have to have local town or city governments that start doing better things, and are successful. And in being successful they show everybody else how to do things.
d4e: How do you model something like that within existing cities so that you don’t have to move out to the middle of nowhere and start a cult?
YBY: The answer is that we have to start convincing local governments to start adopting some complex systems type policies. The other thing is figuring out how to adopt those policies. We have new technology for analyzing different policies, and we also want collective brains, and we could use that in local villages and so on. That might be a good way to start.
d4e: What would a “collective brain” look like? How do you even begin to imagine how to do that?
YBY: Well it’s a team of people that know how to make decisions together. Because different people are good at different things. Remember that goes back to the idea of the brain.
d4e: Are you talking about self-organized teams?
YBY: Yes. Remember you asked me earlier about value systems locally? So it turns out that this kind of partitioning is really not universal. And it’s not universal in the same way that the brain is not universal, in some sense. And all of them have to do with the fact that people are different from each other — because if the brain is not universal then that makes us different from each other.
But that also makes what happens in the world not universal. Instead, think about it as a functioning whole.
Remember we have this global food supply, and this global financial system, and this global manufacturing system, and all of these global systems. It’s a functional system. So what is a functional system that’s highly integrated, and yet differentiated? And the answer is it’s like an animal. Animals have tissues and organs.
They don’t all do the same thing, but they work together.
And that correspondence is really a kind of mathematical correspondence. It’s not just an analogy. That’s part of what I talk about in Complexity Rising. The fact that that’s happening in the world today means that it’s clearly important. It also helps us think about what’s happening globally. We are turning into a kind of collective organism, and the fact that there are different things in different places is necessary. So the idea that we should respect local value systems and allow them the right kind of local autonomy is not just because otherwise they would fight each other, which is true, but also because that’s really fundamentally essential.
d4e: You said mathematical correspondence…
YBY: Because the functionality is collective, it has to be this way.
d4e: So the biomimicry people have it right! It’s almost like nature has an algorithm.
YBY: The point of complex systems science is to understand how these kinds of interdependencies are related to each other, and the mathematical part of it is just embodying that understanding. The thing about the biomimicry people is that in some sense they’re right, but really what we’re saying is that there are these universal properties of systems. But when you think about the universal properties of systems, you can’t always just guess it.
For example, how do you know whether the world is a plant, or whether the world is an animal? And the answer is it’s not a plant. It’s an animal.