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.