Collectives

December 5, 2019

Mini

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I recently wrote “if [a thing] is not under some central control, then there is nobody who can make it other than what it is”, talking about Decentralised Monopolies.

I just remembered that three years earlier I wrote, “To change the action of a collective, some more significant force than an individual impulse normally has to act on it”, talking about Personal and Collective Power.

Around the same time, I described the collective of shareholders of a company as “a single non-human ‘virtual’ decision-maker, the shareholder-value maximiser“, in Checked Power.

It seems to be an important idea to me, that I haven’t previously isolated as something worth thinking about directly.

There is a slight connection to Asimov’s (fictional) “psycho-history” — the idea that while individual humans are hard to predict, collectives can in principle be predicted reliably. But while I wrote “In many cases, we can predict the action of the collective with virtual certainty”, I don’t think that is generally the case, and I never have. In 2012, I wrote “Predicting herd behaviour, contra Isaac Asimov, is probably the hardest thing there is.”, in The Unthinkable. Maybe, compared to individual behaviour, collective behaviour is subject to fairly simple rules. But even things subject to fairly simple rules are not always predictable, but can instead be chaotic.

On those lines, I wrote while considering voting in the 2010 election that “A butterfly’s wings might affect the path of a hurricane, but it’s not possible to aim a hurricane at a particular target by strategically releasing butterflies.”

Just to emphasize how correct that was: The result of that election gave enough seats to Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties together to form a government, but did not give Labour enough seats to form a government even with Lib Dem support. This produced a Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, but one in which the Lib Dems had little influence, because they had no other choices of coalition partner. This produced a 2015 campaign in which the Conservatives felt safe to offer a referendum on membership of the EU, which they could later renege on by blaming the necessity of future coalition with the Lib Dems, but on unexpectedly winning an overall majority in 2015 — in part because the lack of influence that the LDs had over coalition policy meant they failed to satisfy their voters and lost votes — they had to go through with it, but Cameron, in his second term as PM and with an increased vote, was overconfident he could win it. How predictable was all that when I blogged about releasing butterflies in April 2010?

Anyway, this is supposed to be a “mini”, I’ve noticed the link between all these references I’ve made previously to “collective behaviour”, and it needs more focus.



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