We are Fractal Sheep

Margaret Bourke-White - Leipzig, 1945

Boingboing's current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is married 

When my friend John started going to the Bronx High School of Science, he was surprised to find that it contained the same cliques that his former, neighborhood school had had-- the jocks, the geeks, etc. He figured that because the student body consisted of all the geeks taken from other schools, he would only find geeks there. But no-- and when he got to know the school's Chess Team, the geeks among geeks, he saw that they paralleled the same divisions.

Humans and human groupings always seem to break down into the same archetypes, and this also seems to happen at all levels of granularity, from national character to impulses within an individual. Maybe they're the elements from some periodic table of strategies that game theorists haven't yet discovered. Maybe we all intuitively know this table and overlay it with our changing estimations of what niches are open and where we can fit in.

If so, it's a great blueprint for survival, for a group intelligence that reaches into every corner and processes everything. Imagine a prehistoric tribe suffering through a series of cold winters. The conservatives argue to stay, the malcontents argue to go someplace new, the physical risk-takers scout out unknown territories, and so on. Advocates on all sides try to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the middle, who make their own observations and assessments, but also want the tribe to stick together. Consensus is usually found, but when differences become too great, the group splits.

Today, a voter might decide at the last possible minute because they want the most accurate sense of how others will vote. A new Supreme Court justice might go against their prior voting record because they're now in a group where they see new niches that need to be filled. Our programming is simple, but the game setup and ever-changing environment makes complexity grow to the limits of our massive processing power.

I remember an illustration, possibly from my high school biology textbook, of a bunch of ants carrying a chunk of food. It showed that the ants don't all pull in the same direction; instead, they pull in different directions and the vector sum of all their efforts points the way home, to their colony.

And so it is with us. What stories inspire you most? The Lord of the Rings? The Matrix? Hey, I know-- it's that one about the ordinary person who gradually finds out, through a series of eye-opening events, that they're actually a pivotal figure in the great battle between Good and Evil, that everything they do matters, and so they step up to their new-found responsibility.

We like these epic tales because they're true. Our survival as a species (a.k.a. Good) depends on each of us fighting for what we believe in. We all have a different perspective that's valuable to the whole, even when (sometimes especially when) we're confused and undecided. If we aren't true to ourselves and don't think we matter, it diminishes the overall survivability of us all, especially during times of change and new threats.

When disaster does happen, this distributed setup is highly fault-tolerant. Honestly, if 90% of the human population were wiped out today, the rest of us would fill in the gaps and carry on. But two constants, true from a small tribe up to a planet of 6 billion, are that we need each other always, and that we must fight with each other always.

Photo: Margaret Bourke-White - LIFE © Time Inc. 

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  1. I agree with this point of view. I’m a “progressive” and constantly argue with “conservatives” and see a history of bad deeds amongst some of them (if only the GOP would get rid of the Tom DeLays and the Roves and find Goldwaters and Eisenhowers again) but I believe, as just one example of this, that conservatives are necessary; they moderate excesses. They provide perspective. On some issues, they’re even right–it turns out that it’s stupid to take a bunch of drugs and have sex irresponsible sex. Turns out sex addiction is real and sexual diseases a serious risk. (One must be intelligent about sexual freedom, at least.) So to some extent they were right about that. They are wrong about the environment, and unions. But there *is* stupid environmentalism, so it’s good they constantly critique environmentalism; they exert a pressure on it that brings about a kind of useful self-consciousness in the movement. Just one example…

  2. Nice post, I think I have too much to say on this subject for the ‘blog comment’ format. But hell…

    I think what this post says effectively forms whatever passes for my ‘religion’, or my ‘politics’. I’ve tried explaining this concept to people before and it never turns out well, I usually feel like I just confessed to being a sociopath.

    I did not just confess to being a sociopath BTW.

  3. And so it is with us. What stories inspire you most? The Lord of the Rings? The Matrix? Hey, I know– it’s that one about the ordinary person who gradually finds out, through a series of eye-opening events, that they’re actually a pivotal figure in the great battle between Good and Evil, that everything they do matters, and so they step up to their new-found responsibility.

    Isn’t that the Monomyth?

    A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

  4. Thanks, a really thought-provoking post.

    I must say I like the notion that we are naturally “programmed” to fall into niches, and that having these niches helps the survival of the group, because many AI decision-making strategies are modeled on the same principle.

    Often, a program will consist of a large number of different “agents,” all of whom have their own biases and prejudices and opinions. All will be given the same information, and then start making their own opinion. In the better programs, agents start to fight it out, perhaps trying to persuade each other. In the end, a decision is usually made through a straight vote.

    I think there was a recent poker playing program that beat all the others by using this strategy: it was essentially an amalgamation of several different strategies, “aggressive,” “sneaky,” whatever, which then tried to come up with a decision as to what to play.

    So if we were no naturally come into a group and find that we ought to start playing a role that isn’t currently voiced, it would only help the group. Of course, it’s a nice idea, but I always find the subtle “group survival” arguments a little too just-so to actually fit into evolution over the time Humans have been evolving.

  5. I did not just confess to being a sociopath BTW.

    As a sociopath, you would say that. ;)

    When disaster does happen, this distributed setup is highly fault-tolerant. Honestly, if 90% of the human population were wiped out today, the rest of us would fill in the gaps and carry on. But two constants, true from a small tribe up to a planet of 6 billion, are that we need each other always, and that we must fight with each other always.

    I’m still not giving up on putting the useless third into the B Ark. ;)

  6. “On some issues, they’re even right–it turns out that it’s stupid to take a bunch of drugs and have sex irresponsible sex.”

    But sex irresponsible sex while you’re on drugs has got to be totally hot.

    Preferably said in one’s best Sean Connery voice.

  7. There used to be this screen saver called “Electric Sheep” which constantly downloaded trippy looking, sort-of-fractal images. There were many times when I was staring at it, hypnotised, that I also would have much enjoyed this article.

  8. “time” and “progress” are illusions. Our “success” at filling the planet is no more remarkable than an algal bloom. Whether a species lasts a few hundred thousand years or a day, they have the same import and “value”. My estimation of the force that drives humanity is “stupidity”. It’s taken us this long to get just this far, whereas if sensible heads had prevailed we’d be in the stars by now. We are capable easily of so, so much more. Yet we prefer to roll in the pigshit.

  9. We are born with a wet bio-computer that takes about 8 years to wire up, and a lifetime to troubleshoot the missing and burned out connections. Programing and Meta-programing the human bio-computer was deeply explored by Dr. J.C. Lilly. His work is like a chapter out of our operation manual that opens up the chance for productive brain maintenance. A chance to grasp the simple notion that we are born awake and start to go back to sleep when someone batters us and makes cry. We are only sheep for comfort. Click that Amygdala to turbo and have fun with your Wife. Ask her if She would like to swap bodies. More fun that way.

  10. Great post. Thinking like this makes it easier to bless all those annoying people. They provide the contrast without which we would not be inspired to move in a new, and better direction.

  11. Tak’s right. For all our hero modeling, and mythmaking, we revel in the god of celebrity, The mosh-pit of entropy, The creation of convenience. And above all, the holy spirit of procrastination.

    ::Steps out of the pigshit, shaking leg::

    The human traits mentioned by Paul slumber, awaiting the aftermath of “The Whatever.” Hi Paul, very thought provoking stuff. Keep it up! We could all use more head food.

  12. Very thought provoking. We really ARE John Malkovich.

    It’s been years since I glanced at a religion, but isn’t celebrating diversity of belief a tenet of some of the Eastern religions?

  13. I’ll usually take that wildcard. If two people are arguing I’ll take the third position. If it doesn’t exists I’ll create it. I see discussion differently than some I guess. Sometimes I don’t know what I think about a subject until I talk about it.

    I’m a little bit leery of this “Let’s all step back and see the big picture” stuff. There might be a proper distance, not too far and not too close up.

  14. This post is incredibly depressing. It’s a combination of observation that society is a mutual recognition of the survival benefits of interdependence and that competing interest reach stasis. Also, that society is often represented in microcosm, and that as a whole and in parts it appears that we’re cogs in a survival machine. It goes on to point out that our popular entertainment like LOTR and The Matrix express wish fulfillment, that one’s personal interests will out.

    The depressing part about all of this is that the only commentary offered is it’s good we’re surviving, and the placid acceptance of social convenience triumphing over reason and justice. Surviving isn’t that great, it’s just the status quo, until it isn’t, at which point no one will care because no one is left. The expression of values is the only thing that can be of value, ontologically. Discourse’s purpose therefore shouldn’t be achieving a low stasis, but in optimizing the expression of values. An increased recognition of the same is therefore the highest good, unless you’re a solipsist, in which case discourse consists of “I want X, let me have it,” and which is unconvincing.

    Also, expressing that we’re all sheep in a gleeful and wondrous tone makes me want to take away your soma.

  15. No man is an island. entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    John Donne 1624

  16. The characters and themes of The Matrix and Lord of the Rings are distinctly Euro-American. Not everyone around the world shares these values. The similarities you notice among social categories are a product of a specific culture, not some universal differentiation of innate personal types.

  17. “Boingboing’s current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is married .”

    That’s the extent of the bio, and beneath a picture of sheep. Am I the only person LOL’ing?

  18. I’ve always liked this:

    ”[T]he reformer or ‘Liberal’ is one who feels the pull of those striving to preserve the obsolete, and those struggling to destroy the old in order to create the new. They deplore the evils of the old system and urge reforms. Held fast by both sets of forces, they can neither relinquish the past nor give themselves up to revolutionary advance. They wish to keep the old system but without its defects. They desire the new but without the trauma of change. They lie midway between the poles of the magnet. They have neither a positive nor a negative charge. They are the human neutrons of history.”

    There’s a lot of that going around these days. It’s called the Democratic party.

  19. i live in austria and i have always been amused my us-highscool movies with their funny geek/cheerleader stereotypes. back in my school i didn’t find social categories remotely resembeling those cliches. much less do i find them in university now. i would suggest that culture plays a huge role in how these behavioral patterns repeat themselves. you may have a tendency to subconsciously recaputulate your highscool experiences ad infinitum but if you never had those kinds of experiences in the first place (maybe because of a less competitive school enviroment or whatever) there are no fractal patterns to be observed later in life (or rather very different ones).

  20. Takuan, Got myself tied down trying to finish up a couple of projects I’ve put off too long. Wish I had the energy, that you, Arky, MinT, Nail, Noen, Canuck, Xopher, the wolf mother, and a dozen others possess.

  21. I remember there being loose cliques at Bronx Science (I was in the class of ’84) — the SF geeks were my crowd, and there were theater people, serious math heads, political wonks, stoners, and so on, but I don’t recall much in the way of jocks. Probably because the school had no football team, so athletics wasn’t as dominant as it is in a lot of schools. (We had a swim team, though, and a pretty good ultimate frisbee team.) I don’t remember there being a rich-and-good-looking alpha clique like there is in most high school comedy movies.

    I also remember there being quite a lot of overlap and travel among the cliques. I knew people in my clique who were also in theater, or on the math team.

  22. “Boingboing’s current guestblogger Paul Spinrad is married”

    Uh… So what? Does this guy have women beating down his door? If so, what’s the secret?

    This article was good, but that article would be mind-blowing. :-)

  23. I’d have to agree with the Anonymous Aussie. In New Zealand we continuously hear about this parallel culture that exists in American high schools, completely insulated from “real life” outside the school gates. How the school community splits itself up into different tribes: Jocks, Geeks, etc. Just doesn’t happen in NZ. Having gone to primary school in the UK and having lots of UK friends and relatives, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t happen there either. Does it happen in Canada or is it just a US phenomenon?

    BTW, My niece from North Carolina has been staying with us for a couple of years. She confirms that the culture in New Zealand schools is nothing like that of the US.

  24. “…the ants don’t all pull in the same direction; instead, they pull in different directions and the vector sum of all their efforts points the way home, to their colony.”

    I love that!
    We ARE those ants, and while it seems at times like we’re fighting and pulling in different directions, we’re all working toward a common destination. Never seen a chatroom this polite or harmonious.

  25. I like the idea of using fractals to describe roles in groups. But – as it is always true – I’m not so sure if this idea is really new to social science. If you take 1970s Talcott Parsons AGIL scheme (structural functionalism), you’ll get the same fractalisation of the social: his idea was that every social system needs A,G,I and L (adaptation, goal-attainment, integration, and latency; see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AGIL_Paradigm). Each of these subsystems itselfs needs again functional diversifications for each of the four functions Parsons looked at. And so on.

  26. @#39
    …thus structural functionists have difficulty thinking of society anyTHING other than that which replicates endlessly without change. monomyths are required in order to imagine, anticipate and explain change.

    yes, very 1970s and Parsons & Co.

  27. What stories inspire you most? […] I know– it’s that one about the ordinary person who gradually finds out, through a series of eye-opening events, that they’re actually a pivotal figure in the great battle between Good and Evil, that everything they do matters, and so they step up to their new-found responsibility.

    Actually, I like the one about the ordinary person who gradually finds out, through a series of mind-boggling events, that they’re actually insignificant, that there is no great battle, that nothing they do makes any difference, and so they go mad when faced with the uncaring universe.

    I am half-serious about this- I suspect the belief that one is ‘special’ and ‘pivotal’ leads to all sorts of unhealthy behaviour ranging from queue-jumping to murder.

    Surely managing to live with the knowledge of one’s insignificance is one of the greatest challenges there is…

  28. All human groups are hierarchical. The geeks I knew in high school had a pecking order. The ruling geeks were those that could play sports, have great grades, play a wicked game of D&D, and kick your ass if you made fun of them or their friends.

  29. “Our survival as a species (a.k.a. Good) depends on each of us fighting for what we believe in.” a nice discussion, but how do you make these grandiose statements that are so easily disputable? You cannot compare the human population to an ant colony. Clearly if we continue to fight (with Iran China NKorea Pakistan etc/other), we move further away from the simple necessities of the species (organizing the systems for the greater “Good”). Ants do not have millions of starving, uneducated, homeless, members within a colony. Ants do not set up systems where corruption and greed rule the day and the little man within the system loses. Ants do not have egos. A recent ‘study’ said we should be ‘evolved’ to a point of no war in about 300years… if we can see it now, why don’t we do it now? Egos. Our survival as a species is about as far from “Good” for the rest of the planet and the other creatures, and ourselves, as you can get. Whitewashing the ‘human condition” is bunk. you’re going to rely on Group intelligence? you mean like we see in these comments sometimes? it gets us nowhere. if they don’t like your comment, they don’t post it. if they don’t like what you say, you’re a pariah, go somewhere else, they say, we’re cool, and you, therefore, must not be. These comicbook fantasy-realities you dream about “because they’re true” (WTF?!) (if the Matrix inspires you to think you are the One, you need to see a psychiatrist) – jeez, they’re for kids. On another blog I just saw: “Customers demand soft and comfortable,” a quote from a toilet paper producer, explaining why recycled toilet paper is not de riguer, even though the trees are trashed so we can get soft and comfortable – apparently the recycled feeling is not right on my sphincter. (I lived in Moscow, and bad toilet paper works fine, just needs some getting used to.) So our ‘fighting for what we believe in’ (in this case “proper’ toilet paper) will actually aid in our demise, and NOT ‘our survival”. There are countless examples of this sort of human stupidity. WAY too stupid to see AND act on the big picture. hey, some dude is fighting for what he believes in, trying to make Dinosaurs out of chickens (see WIRED)… he says he’s doing it for research into genes, “for the survival of our species” as you say – I say he’s doing it to play god, he wants to make something new, like Frankenstein… is he “the One”!? You read too much sci-fi. Call a spade a spade.

  30. I’ve thought for countless years on how to explain that same point.

    Thank you for this Paul. I’ve been awake for 2 hours and this has already made this day worthwhile.

  31. smoke some salvia.. this will then become very clear, and then not clear at all.. then you will say “what the fuuuuu%%%&*&%” and then stuff like this will remind you of that experience.

  32. #42 posted by gtron: Yes, very much yes. It’s lazy thinking and bad argumentation which replaces thought with ill-conceived and inappropriate heuristics.

  33. This article suggests that people in large numbers individually work towards one particular goal, survival, and achieve it, much like ants moving a giant leaf, through aggregate action, which, over time, leads us in the correct direction, despite the difference in action and opinion of members of the group.

    I disagree with the main pillar of that argument, that we all wish to achieve survival. I think there are plenty of people who don’t want to survive, at all. They may not be suicidal, but they will act in ways that will eventually get them, and possibly others killed. Some people may do that consciously, in the case of sociopaths, who have no desire to manipulate others. Others do it out of ignorance and misguided belief.

    The effect of mirrored cliques in life has little to do with aggregate survival mechanisms, but a simple aspect of human consciousness. Since we’re social animals, we look to others to define ourselves. Dominant minded people will always attempt to make someone else submit. The submissive will always look to be dominated. Early on, we learn to accept these roles, and forget they were forged all in our heads. The groups you describe, are simply cultural expressions of these roles.

  34. Our survival as a species (a.k.a. Good) depends on each of us fighting for what we believe in. We all have a different perspective that’s valuable to the whole, even when (sometimes especially when) we’re confused and undecided. If we aren’t true to ourselves and don’t think we matter, it diminishes the overall survivability of us all, especially during times of change and new threats.

    When, in political arguments, one side accuses the other of “treason”, of “hating their country”, they don’t realize that each of the parties involved usually has the interests of the country in mind, they just disagree on the path to get to “good.” Usually the accuser is just simple minded and can’t understand his opponents position, a la “How can you even think that? It makes no sense to me! . . . you must be working at cross-purposes to the good of our country.” So much of political discourse in the US has devolved into this kind of pointless argument. I try to understand the other side, even if I disagree with them, and I think there are variations on “treason”– being a traitor to your country, to your state/town, being a traitor to your family, or being a traitor to the whole of humanity (for example, what’s good for your country may not be good for the Earth as a whole, or a congressman may have to vote for a bill that will end up hurting his home state because he knows it will help the nation as a whole, etc.)

  35. @#35: That was pretty much my experience at Bronx Science (class of ’02) as well. My clique, if I had one, was the punks and some of my neighborhood friends. But I definitely hung out with many other cliques as well.

    I find it interesting that the cliques at BS ran the gamut, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to what I’ve heard about many other high schools.

  36. Brilliant blog post, thank you! The idea of fractals used in social sciences is fresh to me, and very inspiring.

    – Filip Hracek

  37. I’m reminded of a Phil Dick story about a planet sized lunatic asylum where the different neurosis types had taken over the various societal roles. So for instance the manic depressives tried to lead, the paranoids were in charge of defence and so on. Perhaps it was this one http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clans_of_the_Alphane_Moon

    The other was Vacuum Flowers by Michael Swanwick. There’s an idea in there about Aborigines going out in groups of 4 on walkabout. No matter what personality types come together they each always end up taking one of 4 roles; Hero, Comic, Servant and Shaman. And on different journeys one person may take a different role but the 4 roles and divisions of duty always appear. And there’s recognition that all 4 roles are necessary for the group to be successful. Western society and myth always seems to promote the idea of the Hero at the expense of the others. It also pushes the idea that you can’t really escape the role you are made in except to occasionally become a Hero. As though everyone must be Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is “only the servant”. And yet it’s Sancho Panza who is the real actor in that story.

    No More Heroes! Any more.

  38. What #23 said.

    “Humans and human groupings always seem to break down into the same archetypes, and this also seems to happen at all levels of granularity, from national character to impulses within an individual.”

    Your premise is broken.

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