Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It's a Matter of Scale

In 1977,  the documentary Powers of Ten described the Universe through the lens of scale:


Until physicists develop a  theory of everything  we utilize the lenses of quantum field theory and general relativity to make sense of dynamics at the very small and very large scales.

Human dynamics are often looked-at/analyzed  through the lenses that reveal patterns at different scales.  Consider the disciplines of micro/macro-economics and individual/group psychology.

Our politics (the compromise of principles by principals) would benefit from an appreciation that scale matters.  Michael Shermer's book 'The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule' uses the lenses of anthropology, psychology and evolution to make the case that "everything is the way it is because it got that way". 

One of the primary insights of the analysis Shermer makes is that many human dynamics were forged by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years in small, tribal settings.  We as humans have only been socializing in large coalitions (towns, cities, states, countries) for a relatively short time compared to our long history as a species.

When you hear a politician making pathos (arguing from emotion) and ethos (arguing from authority) arguments for social policy, keep in mind (pun intended, because it is the biological dynamics of the brain that implement both cooperative and competitive strategies) our adaptive skills for compassion evolved in small group settings where the complimentary skills of shame, retribution and revenge counter-acted freeloading behaviors.  

Charity and compassion have diminishing returns (they're non-linear) as they're scaled up beyond the ability of charitable/compassionate individuals to discern that their altruism is being abused.  Food for thought in the age of PigfordObama phones (update) and food stamp fraud.

Update 11/29/2016:

The Wall Street Journal published an article entitled 'China’s New Tool for Social Control: A Credit Rating for Everything':

Beijing wants to give every citizen a score based on behavior such as spending habits, turnstile violations and filial piety, which can blacklist citizens from loans, jobs, air travel... 
...More than three dozen local governments across China are beginning to compile digital records of social and financial behavior to rate creditworthiness. A person can incur black marks for infractions such as fare cheating, jaywalking and violating family-planning rules. The effort echoes the dang’an, a system of dossiers the Communist party keeps on urban workers’ behavior...

This represents an interesting strategy in an attempt to 'scale' the complimentary skills of shame, retrtibution and revenge to counter-act freeloading behaviors as referenced above. There may be unintended consequences from this approach; as George Orwell cautioned.


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