Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Looking Backward

Dear S16A Student:

Hello and welcome to your first assigned experience for LearningSpot S16A: Freshman Seminar on Early Information-Age America.

Governing science is today so firmly established as an empirical discipline that we often forget it was not always so. As recently as 150 years ago governing science was more art than science, and consisted largely of a hodge-podge of folk superstitions passed from one generation to the next in the form of traditional fables with morals, much like Aesop's Tales. (Particularly noteworthy for the budding art historians among you are the many elegantly-written traditional moral tales published serially by the New York Times between 1930 and 2015.)

What was it like to live in an era when important social decisions were made without the smallest shred of scientific guidance? Imagine, if you will, being a young voter in the 2020s, listening to a politician campaigning for high office and offering you a bewildering array of social solution memes for the problems of the day. What would it be like knowing that neither you nor he have any way, at any price, to test those memes before you choose one? Talk about opening Pandora's Box, or buying a pig in a poke!

Even worse, social success of implemented memes not only couldn't be measured in this era -- it couldn't even be quantified. That means even when, as a voter, you implemented a politician's recommended solution meme (or rather, as would be typical for this era, hired a political collective to implement it for you), you and your fellow voters would be utterly unable to measure whether the solution was in fact successful.

Your situation would have been hardly better than the most primitive witch doctor confronting a physical illness. You'd have only speculative theory and superstitious tradition to guide you. Perhaps eating some of this fruit mold will cure the aches and chills, or perhaps what's needed is shaking a dried gourd and chanting a spell. There's no way to know, and, worse, no way to unambigously evaluate the results. If you shake the gourd and get better, did the gourd rattling actually work? Or did you just get better on your own?

In just such a manner, as a 2020s voter you might have to decide whether an income tax cut or interest rate cut would best fix a spot of unemployment -- without being able to test either approach before implementing it, and, worse, without knowing for certain after the fact whether the chosen solution in fact solved the problem, was irrelevant to it, or made it worse.

Used as we are to more than a half-century of reliable governing science, we do not always clearly understand, at a gut level, the impact on our ancestors of these basic unsettling facts. Therefore, the primary purpose of this first S16A experience will be just to give you a taste for what it was like more than a hundred years ago, when our great-grandcestors tackled the quotidian necessity of making important social decisions with little more than a hunch and a prayer.

To give your experience more vitality (especially given the limitations of the realistic simulation we have chosen, about which we will say more later), and to also illuminate a fascinating but sterile early offshoot of modern governing science, we will zero in on the Little American Renaissance, generally agreed to have begun around the time of the re-election of President Bush II in 2004, and to have concluded with the 2048 Infopanic triggered by the viral sabotage of IPv6.1 by euroterrorists.

Prior to the Little Renaissance social decisions, while arbitrary and based on little more than folklore and tradition, were surprisingly stable, perhaps because they were analyzed and implemented strictly within a small info-rich caste of kings, senators and p-ministers. Simulations suggest the social space accessible to this caste was probably just too small to support anything but the simplest of error memes, and to this we may attribute the stability and meager success of this decision-making process.

The United States, for example, had managed by blind trial-and-error to achieve a partial stabilization of its economy by 1990 and had dodged a surprising number of sizeable war sinks. (Bear in mind that instantiated wars of this era would have been entirely non-virtual, hence extremely destructive and frequently indecisive. At least one instantiated war in this era ended with the actual detonation of nuclear fission bombs on the surface of the Earth.)

Rational growth in the United States did not begin until the last two decades of the 21st century, of course. And yet something very like it underlay the Little Renaissance, a period of historically unprecedented wealth and well-being expansion. During the roughly forty years of the Little Renaissance per-capita wealth and well-being in the United States increased by an average of 9.2% annually. While this is modest by rational growth standards, it must be borne in mind that it was truly spectacular by the standards of the day. Indeed, although modern governing theory tells us the collapse into anarchy of the European continent in 2035-40 was wholly inevitable, at the time it was generally blamed on the enormous difference between U.S. and European growth during the first two decades of the Little American Renaissance, which utterly impoverished the European economy.

How, then, did people of the Little Renaissance era solve the problem of making the rational social decisions that underly rational growth, long before modern governing science was a twinkle in its founders' eyes? Historians call their fascinating and idiosyncratic solution Open Source Government, in part because of its thematic similarities to the quirky Open Source Software technology movement, which peaked in roughly the same era.

Open Source Government consisted of the following memes:
  • Information about social events and social problems was disseminated to citizens via Internets 1, 2 and 3. Because of the exceedingly low bandwidths of these early nets the experiences distributed were largely text-only and almost entirely dead.
  • A substantial class of modestly info-rich entrepreneurs competed for social status by establishing info-error correction pools for the purpose of analyzing solution memes to the social problems of the day. These pools provided a crude but (as we shall see) surprisingly effective substitute for the rigorous simulation testing used in modern governing science. The earliest contemporary term for an info-error correction pool was a blog. The exact origins of this word are unclear.
  • Each info-error correction pool was organized essentially as a feudal kingdom around one or a few info-rich entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur(s) managed the pool, provided virtual meeting and coordination facilities, and were most active in soliciting new solution memes for analysis, typically (and exclusively towards the end of this era) from other pools, as well as from older social sources such as members of the ancient governing caste of kings, senators and p-ministers.
  • Each pool also consisted of approximately 10-150 relatively info-poor followers. Followers spent up to 90% of their time and effort supplying error correction to the pool. This may strike you as stunningly inefficient, but bear in mind that autonomic error correction of any kind simply did not exist. The only way to detect info-error was by hand: an individual follower had to painstakingly track down original data that verified or contradicted each important aspect of a solution meme. At times, the required data was not even available on the net and required physical travel.
  • Not surprisingly, such fantastically labor-intensive error correction methods could only detect info-errors which would be huge by today's standards. Info-errors which we would consider laughably obvious were routinely overlooked. Nevertheless, while massively inefficient compared to the simulations of rational governing science, by 2030 the error-correction pools of Open Source Government had achieved a stunningly high level of reliability and accuracy in the analysis of social solution memes. Modern simulations put the typical error rate of American political decisions of the mid to late 2030s at no higher than 11-13%, quite comparable to the 4% typical error rate of modern governing science.
  • Fit social solution memes were not implemented directly by the pools until late in the Little Renaissance, essentially only within the last ten years of the era. For much of the Little Renaissance implementation of solution memes was accomplished by the ancient regime of kings, senators and p-ministers, who by 2030 had been essentially driven out of the meme analysis business altogether by the pools. (Indeed, after 2025 ancient regime politicians, excepting a small number of free agents, were directly employed by one of the large pools or a consortium of smaller pools.)
  • Pools acquired social status when their analysis of social solution memes proved conclusive or at least memorable (preferably humorously so). The generally prevailing spirit of optimism, self-reliance and confidence in the American future helped give the era its name.
One of the greatest puzzles of the Open Source Government movement is the overall success rate in the face of its known gross inefficiencies, mentioned above. Historians as recently as the 2120s hotly debated how the pools coped with low-intensity long-wavelength solution meme errors such as the Socialist Error (SE) memes, since there is no direct evidence that the pools were even generally aware of these ubiquitous but exceedingly hardy error memes.

(The SE memes, for those of you who have not yet studied basic governing science, are a large class of erroneous social solution memes which are exceedingly robust in non-error-correcting social systems. We have neither time nor space to even list the most common SE memes, of which there are literally thousands, but one of the simplest and most destructive is: To each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities..)

One English historian of sixty years ago made this now famous complaint about the mystery of the effectiveness of Open Source Government: "It's as astonishing as if a team of Neanderthals led by a chimpanzee, given a few used uniforms and 20 minutes to mess around with the ball, were able to deduce from such pathetically meager data how to play championship international soccer -- and went on to win the World Cup that afternoon!"

Historians now agree, thanks to the seminal MANIFESTO simulation study of K. Marx et al. (University of Chicago Press, 2133) , that in fact the high effectiveness of Open Source Government in the Little American Renaissance was essentially a fluke, a one-time historical accident. Open Source Government would be a complete flop if implemented with modern information technology.

It turns out that low-intensity long-wavelength error memes always grow slowly in the low but exponentially-growing bandwidth stage of a new information exchange environment. The situation can be likened to a cold desert natural habitat which has a sudden warming spell. Initially the environment is unusually "healthy" -- free of pathogens -- simply because the environment was up until recently unusually poor in nutrients. Similarly, a newborn information environment is initially unusually poor in the spontaneous social and logic error sources that sustain and propagate SE error memes and their like, and so these memes initially propagate quite slowly compared to valid memes.

Ironically, it is the very maturity of a raw (non-error-corrected) information technology, in which bandwidth sharply rises and the "average citizen" enjoys tremendously improved access to information, that produces the sudden sharp growth of pernicious error memes, including, typically, the SE error memes. That is, raw information exchange technologies almost always increase the quality of social decision-making in their infancy, only to suddenly decrease the quality as soon as they reach maturity. Many historical example experiences can be found in your textbook, such as those covering the initial stages of print, radio, television and Internet 1 technologies.

The solution to the inevitable infection of raw information exchange technology is, of course, networked error correction -- roughly speaking "the truth shall make ye free," or what information theorists term a memetic immune system. However, sound empirically-based theories of info-error correction did not become available until the last 50 years, as mentioned in the first paragraph.

Consequently, our ancestors made their social decisions essentially in darkness, groping blindly towards the truth, guided by little more than an almost religious faith that some decisions were probably better than others, and that good decisions could perhaps make life permanently better for everyone, everywhere.

It's not easy to fully realize how much modern empirical governing theory has freed us from that fretful, chaotic existence, which a historian of the last century once waspishly characterized as "nasty, brutish and altogether too blue-state-like."

In the following experience you will participate in a simulation of an Open Source Government error-correction pool in about 2010, which you now understand was essentially a primitive manual alternative to the largely autonomous modern apparatus of networked error meme correction. We hope this experience gives you a feel for the magnitude of an achievement -- measurably good government -- which in our modern day we too often take for granted.

The contemporary term for the experience you're about to begin would be surfacing the blogosphere or serving the blogerol. Be sure to give the occasional hat-tip to your fellow participants when they tell you to just keep scrolling!

This experience will be graded Pass/Fail, like the course itself. We hope the resulting freedom from "grade pressure" will encourage you to be more experimental, playful, and bold in how you approach an experience which, if we do say so ourselves, you should find as fascinating, engaging, entertaining, and occasionally frighteningly chaotic as it is educational.

Good luck and have fun! Ready? Begin!