Shortly before the pandemic started to have an impact in the UK, I went to our local second-hand bookshop and bought a pile of old paperbacks to read. One of them was ‘Daisy Miller and Other Stories’ by Henry James (published in 1983 as Penguin Modern Classic). The title of this post is a quote from one of the ‘other stories’, ‘The Lesson of the Master’, which was first published in 1888. ‘Success is to have made people wriggle to another tune’ is said by the successful fictional novelist, Henry St George as words of encouragement to the young novelist Paul Ovett. It struck a chord with me because I think it sums up academic life. Success in teaching is to inspire a new level of insight and way of thinking amongst our students; while, success in research is to change the way in which society, or at least a section of it, thinks or operates, i.e. to have made people wriggle to another tune.
Sadly my vacation is finished [see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019] and I have reconnected to the digital world, including the news media. Despite the sensational headlines and plenty of rhetoric from politicians, nothing very much appears to have really changed in the world. Yes, we have a new prime minister in the UK, who has a different agenda to the previous incumbent; however, the impact of actions by politicians on society and the economy seems rather limited unless the action represents a step change and is accompanied by appropriate resources. In addition, the consequences of such changes are often different to those anticipated by our leaders. Perhaps, this is because society is a global network with simple operating rules, some of which we know intuitively, and without a central control because governments exert only limited and local control. It is well-known in the scientific community that large networks, without central control but with simple operating rules, usually exhibit self-organising and non-trivial emergent behaviour. The emergent behaviour of a complex system cannot be predicted from the behaviour of its constituent components or sub-systems, i.e., the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The mathematical approach to describing such systems is to use non-linear dynamics with solutions lying in phase space. Modelling complex systems is difficult and interpreting the predictions is challenging; so, it is not surprising that when the actions of government have an impact then the outcomes are often unexpected and unintended. However, if global society can be considered as a complex system, then it would appear that its self-organising behaviour tends to blunt the effectiveness of many of the actions of government. This seems be a fortuitous regulatory mechanism that helps maintain the status quo. In addition, we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our powers of explanation, or we use over-simplified explanations [see ‘Is the world incomprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017 and Blind to complexity‘ on December 19th, 2018]. And, politicians are no exception to this tendency; so, they usually legislate based on simple ideology rather than rational consideration of the likely outcomes of change on the complex system we call society. And, this is probably a further regulatory mechanism.
However, all of this is evolving rapidly because a small number of tech companies have created a central control by grabbing the flow of data between us and they are using it to manipulate those simple operating rules. This appears to be weakening the self-organising and emergent characteristics of society so that the system can be controlled more easily without the influence of its constituent parts, i.e. us.
For a more straightforward explanation listen to Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy‘ or if you have more time on your hands then watch the new documentary movie ‘The Great Hack‘. My thanks to Gillian Tett in the FT last weekend who alerted me to the scale of the issue: ‘Data brokers: from poachers to gamekeepers?‘
Have you ever wondered why Einstein is so frequently quoted on so many topics? I have cited him seven times in the past on this blog [https://realizeengineering.blog/tag/einstein/] and only four occasions relate to his scientific breakthroughs. Robbert Dijkgraaf has suggested that Einstein pretty much invented that concept of a scientist as a public intellectual. Although Einstein may not have been reticient about commenting on world affairs, his remarks and aphorisms were as carefully crafted as his contribution to science which is why they are so frequently quoted.
I have remarked before about the tendency of engineers to hide away and avoid communicating with society, in part because we are trained as problem-solvers and solving problems often requires a degree of solitude and silence that is incompatible with public profile [see ‘The Charismatic Engineer‘ on June 4th, 2014]. However, there are many potenting existential challenges facing society for which the solutions involving engineering or an understanding of technology [see ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015]; engineers have a responsibility to follow Einstein’s example and become public intellectuals taking as much care over their remarks as their engineering.
Naturally, I and my engineering colleagues will worry about making mistakes and will be tempted to use it as reason for keeping quiet; however, even Einstein made mistakes. Carlo Rovelli in his book ‘The Order of Time’ provides a reassuringly long list of six things that Einstein got wrong or about which he changed his mind. On that note, I feel I should end with one of Einstein’s quotes: ‘A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new’.
Robbert Dijkgraaf, ‘The World of Tomorrow’ in The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge by A.Flexner, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2015.