Saturday, November 07, 2015

Connections

The average Human brain consists of at least 86 billion neurons and perhaps ten times more glyial cells. Yet each neuron, through synapses, can connect to as many as ten thousand other cells. The estimated number of neural connections is thus in the order of trillions: in fact an estimated 0.15 quadrillion connections. Brain specialists believe that each Human Brain may be capable of processing as much as 2.5 petabytes of information through these synapse connections. This is about seven times larger than the entire library of congress.  Incidentally, to build a computer of similar power on current technology would require the power of a small city to run it. For the brain it is not the total number of cells, but the connections between them that makes its processing ability so powerful. 

As for the Brain so for other systems.

In information systems, the value of an individual computer, no matter how fast its processing power or how large its memory, is as nothing compared to the power of being connected to the Internet. For decades, Moores law, has predicted logarithmic increases in the processing speed of computer hardware. Yet even as we may be reaching the molecular limits of materials such as silicon or gallium, the prospect of continued advances in processing power based on cloud-based Internet solutions or even quantum computing is still offering fantastic increases in performance. Yet the very name the "Internet" was only adopted by the FNC on October 24th 1995. We are still establishing the early parameters of the global system. The success of the system is based on open architecture and the ability, as with the human brain, to make as many connections to as many node points as possible.

Both the brain and the Internet derive their power from the ability to make connections, yet there is a vulnerability: connections can be relatively easy to disrupt. Brains can suffer degenerative conditions and lose the power to connect across synapses, the results can include Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. With the Internet, the system relies on physical connections, such as undersea cables, and these carry so much traffic that even a relatively minor disruption could effectively unplug whole parts of the planetary network from each other. More pressingly, cyber-attacks are used across the network, especially by the closed societies of Russia and China, to attempt to deflect information that may challenge the official point of view. In this sense the exponential growth in the number of node points on the Internet carries not merely the opportunity of greater knowledge and interconnectivity, but also the threat of the eventual disruption of the network as malware and cyber-security failures combine to attack critical pathways.

Yet it is not simply in the abstract that open connections generate strength. Trade is more powerful than the mere possession of assets. The successful experiment that Kyle MacDonald made to trade one red paperclip up to a house, is a classic example of how trade can add value- and to both parties. Being [;aced at a trade node point thus has been a far greater source of wealth than simply possession of any given asset, such as land or minerals. Again it is the network that generates power within the system. Thus Singapore, despite possessing essentially no resources- not even sufficient water- has grown far more rapidly than either Indonesia or Malaysia, its neighbours, because it is a more open node point with greater connections than any city nearby. China, by opening its economy to the world after the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, has raised 250 million people out of poverty. Britain, a small island but open to global sea connections, has always been richer than Russia, despite the fact that Russia has the largest territory and possesses the worlds greatest supply of natural assets from gold to oil. The point is that Russia was, and remains, a closed society, with far fewer links to the rest of the planet, despite its gargantuan size. Singapore or Britain, like a healthy neuron, have general integrity in their systems - especially clear rule of law- and thus are able to reach out without interference or damage.

This, then, is part of the root of my optimism about the increasingly global society that seems to be emerging. Open societies, in such a world, have critical competitive advantages. An efficient and informed allocation of resources, greater opportunity for its citizens, greater innovation and ultimately a more complex foundation for a happier society.

Yet open societies have critical vulnerabilities too. As the fall of the Roman Republic shows, it is perfectly possible to disrupt and destroy even the most powerful and legitimate open system from within, if critical weaknesses are not addressed. The most obvious threat to the open society is irrationality. This reduction in social efficiency- like aluminium platelets reducing the efficiency of the brains of Alzheimer's patients- can have strongly negative effects. We see, in democratic states, that irrational and ignorant populists may seek to close down open debate, may seek to claim- for security or corruption reasons- part of the popular sphere as their own domain, and above all may seek to impose corrupt rent-seeking practices which both reduce the efficiency of the economy and wider society and thus reduce its legitimacy. Open societies rely on the consent of the governed, and corruption corrosively reduces this consent. The critical elements of a successful society, as Mikhail Gorbachev understood so clearly, are openness and accountability, which he called "glasnost". A free and informed population is a critical part of this, but it is also necessary to have a political system that makes its leaders accountable- and that has been a perennial struggle since well before the inception of democracy. 

Of course the threats of irrationality may come from external sources too. The ideology of Nazi Germany was not rooted in any legitimate science, but untrammelled by accountability, or even morality, it led to almost limitless brutality. Yet, even such an advanced country as Germany was fatally weakened by its disassociation from the wider global community. As its scientists and thinkers, such as Einstein, went into exile, they were able to warn the free world of the capabilities that Hitler might have gained and to work in, for example, the Manhattan project, to contribute to his downfall.

In our own day we see the attempts by Vladimir Putin to seal-off Russia from interactions with the open societies of the West. The allegedly high popularity of the Russian leader may be a chimera based on his temporary control of the Russian information space, but as propaganda and reality diverge, it is hard to see that Mr. Putin can maintain control against truth for ever. However, he has the capacity, as Hitler did, to lash out and using nuclear weapons and attacks on critical Internet nodes to disrupt the platform of global connectivity. As with Rome, it is not impossible that a new Dark Ages may yet come at the hands of the barbarians. Nor is the threat solely human- a global event, such as a caldera eruption or a comet or meteor strike could equally destabilise the open society to beyond its limits.

So, yes there are risks to the myriad processes of globalisation and integration. And yet, still, I am inspired by the positive opportunity of the information sphere of the planet. As we continue to learn, we can overcome both our own political and social shortcomings, we can create technological solutions to the threat of a meteor strike, for example. We can create sustainable systems to improve not only our chances of survival, but offer greater opportunity and greater wealth for humanity and the whole of the wider global biosphere.

So using our brains, we can create a rational basis for mutual respect and openness, tempered with both scientific scepticism and tolerance for those who have different views. After all, like the neurons in the body and brain, we are part of the wider, atomic structure of the Universe, but we are actually directly related to the entire biosphere of the Planet. From the molecular structure of the brain to the whole of the biosphere, it is connections and connectivity that will dictate our success or failure.     

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