Social Information

From: Bob Artigiani <>
Date: Wed 28 Oct 1998 - 00:42:15 CET

I would like to try responding to several commentators with, in effect, a very brief summary of my position. This will be so short that anyone can pick it a part. But I am hoping that it will be clear enough for others to refine and correct.

My basic position is that (1) people acquire new attributes as members of societies and (2) that societies constitute themselves in the process of creating their worlds. The world a society creates is a natural environment transformed by human interactio
n. Nature is transformed when interacting humans--willfully or not, willingly or not*correlate their behaviors. If a society self-organizes, correlating behaviors has had effects on the environment that are greater than the sum of the individual interac
tions. In that case, the flow of environmental resources will be too great or, perhaps, too diverse, to process by humans acting individually. If they stop cooperating, the individual humans will return to their initial state, the increased flow will ev
aporate, and natural conditions will be restored. The social equivalent of thermodynamic equilibrium will obtain as what was, briefly, a social system collapses back into an aggregation of individuals. The individual humans,!
 of course, will be biological organisms and thus far from equilibrium; but their behavior being independently determined and, in effect, random relative to one another, there will be virtually no social organization. So in social terms entropy will be v
ery high.

However, if the individuals who have serendipitously or purposefully cooperated should continue to do so, the flow generated by interaction will be sustained and the consequence of processing it will be things like increased population. Since that increa
sed population depends on what interacting people have collectively done to the environment, continuing to correlate behaviors is the only way for them to survive. But for individuals to act so that the cooperating system upon which all depend endures th
ey must be habituated to specific, non-average behaviors.

Values, Ethics, and Morals (VEMs) are not the necessary or immediate consequence of population growth or concentration. It is probably possible that behaviors can be regularized or ordered*moved away from equiprobability*by physical techniques in the fir
st instance. Rites and rituals which put individuals in relationships where their options are constrained exemplify this possibility. Similarly, of course, whips and chains can coerce cooperation, as Spencer rightly recognized. In any case, the mere fa
ct that individuals do not do whatever they feel like doing but constrain their choices to a limited, improbable repertoire of options indicates a *society* of sorts exists and that it is storing information about its reduced uncertainty about its created
 environment. But that information is being stored in the rites and rituals*or the social roles of slaves*not in the bodies or brains of individuals. And, as Whitehead said, it is likely that the relative order in rites and !
rituals would make the *chaos* of nature stand out, providing the difference from which a collective awareness arises.

Now it is unlikely that rites and rituals*or bonded behaviors*can map a great number of social environments or adapt as those environments change. Yet because collective actions have pushed nature farther from equilibrium by creating the environment in w
hich the society is embedded, it becomes ever more likely that any deviation in individual choices could trigger nonlinear reactions with profound effects upon the social whole. It is, of course, just as likely that any variation in the environment will
trigger similarly nonlinear reactions by the society, since the environment itself has been driven far from equilibrium. Either situation leads directly to circumstances in which the dynamic stability of society and environment reaches a crisis or bifurc
ation point.

So for social systems to endure they must be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. However, adaptation means they will have to reduce uncertainty about parts of the world never before experienced. Storing new information may lead to the inven
tion of new media, some of which may be more effective than rites, rituals and force. Technologies and arts, for instance, store information*and it may be that the earliest arts are descriptions of how to locate and exploit resources upon which the colle
ctive depends. In any case, the most effective ways to store and communicate social information use language. Legends and myths, for example, can tell stories about ancestral actions and describe results in ways that will encourage succeeding generation
s to mimic those behaviors in pursuit of expected results. You can tell stories faster than you can act out rituals, or force slaves to embody actions. But the number of environments a society can map by reorganizing its rel!
ationships and the individual behaviors relationships make probable remains limited. Still, as the Australian song-lines or the navigation myths of the Pacific Islanders indicate, quite an encyclopedia of collectively generated information can be stored
in legends and myths.

But if language could map relationships, the capacity of a social system to store and communicate information would be vastly increased. It would no longer be necessary to tell individuals exactly what they should do, which would limit collective possibi
lities to a small number of known options. Individuals could determine their own actions, for they would be able to see the relationships they are in and deduce the behaviors appropriate to those relationships. This distribution of decision making autho
rity, combined with the possibility that individuals could spontaneously adjust their actions to those of others, would immensely increase the flexibility of the social system*it could preserve its order even as it moved from one environmentally adaptive
state to another.

For separately choosing individuals to preserve organization each must be able to anticipate the consequences of their actions for the collective. In effect, individuals must be able to envisage the social whole and view themselves from the perspective o
f the system. The consequences of actions by parts on the wholes to which they belong is what actions *mean*. Meaning stores a new kind of information*it records how far from independence an actor is not just how far from equiprobability the actions are.
  When language maps meaning*when it symbolizes how actions affect systems*a new medium for storing social information has emerged.

This new medium is the VEMs characteristic of a particular society. There must be some threshold of population size, density, and distribution beyond which VEMs emerge, but I do not know what it is. Suffice it to say the emergence of VEMs marks the evol
ution of complex social systems. This makes logical sense because one definition of complex systems is that they have models of themselves, which is what VEMs are in terms of social information.

All societies have the same goal of preserving organization in a far from equilibrium environment. Yet every society has different VEMs. VEMs differ from society to society because VEMs are the peculiar symbols which are able to excite individuals to ch
oose behaviors forming a non-average set of possibilities. That is, VEMs trigger the constrained actions which define *social roles.* When individuals, choosing in deference to their VEMs, recreate social roles they are replicating their societies.

Since the society is not REPRODUCING but is REPLICATING, the analogy between VEMs and DNA looks proper. DNA replicates an organism by mapping the molecular activities and chemicals forming particular cells. Analogously, VEMs map choices leading to behav
iors replicating social systems. Cells are what constitute organisms*they are the *stuff* of which the organisms is made. But cells are not just the chemicals in the molecules making them up. Rather, cells are what the chemical molecules in them do*mol
ecules, reduced out of the organisms, are just chemicals, after all. Similarly, if we analyze people out of societies we find organisms equipped with biological information about their immediate, natural environments. But an aggregation of people is no
more a society than a heap of chemicals is an organisms. People must be taught how to act to replicate a social system, and it is their socially scripted behaviors that are the *stuff* of societies.

Like VEMs, social roles vary from society to society. There is, therefore, a population of societies, which will successfully replicate for greater or lesser periods of time. Those which replicate roles on the basis of humanistic VEMs, I think, tend to
adapt and survive better. They are more fit because their members have greater autonomy. More humane societies are not necessary, although they probably do increase the rate at which universal entropy is produced. Such societies evolve, because every n
ow and a great then some real deviation occurs and the KIND of social systems making up the population changes. Such social evolution is rare, indeed. I think the shift from bands to civilized societies is one such symmetry breaking discontinuity. I th
ink the shift from Classical to Modern Civilization is another. And it may be possible that there is a comparably radical shift taking place now as a new, Post-Modern civilization emerges. But about that we will see*or, perh!
aps, our descendants will see because these dramatic, rapid punctuations are only dramatic and rapid at the system scale. What is instantaneous for the systems may take life times for their human components.

I hope at least the major objections to what was said previously are addressed above. I also hope that my ignorance of basic science will be corrected by better informed participants.

Bob Artigiani
Received on Tue Oct 27 22:50:51 1998

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