Category Archives: Socialization

On Failure & Resilience in Optimization of Human Systems, Ecological Systems, and Networked Systems of Systems

I was recently watching Eleanor Saitta’s talk called “Your Infrastructure Will Kill You“.  Part of her talk outlined how optimization equals fragility (more or less).  That to the degree that something is cleaner, more elegant, or more efficient, it is fragile, and a break in the system can be potentially catastrophic.

In thinking about her comments I thought of a few examples where I have observed optimization creating a state of fragility, here are a few of my thoughts:

  • This has interesting considerations for general principles of design, specifically the form/function aspect of design. Probably the point at which form begins to extend beyond the needs of function the focus on form becomes gratuitous and potentially even hazardous (depending on the type of system).  Ironically, optimization in this case is not absolute optimization, but only optimization considering a specific set of requirements: when things are running smoothly then the system is optimized.
  • Another place for failure is when relationships are optimized; when the dispersal of information through a system relies on optimized relationships it only takes the breaking of one of the nodes in a network to create a chain reaction of subsequent nodes being uninformed.We think about how a well-connected network effectively distributes information, specifically in recent thought this informed an analysis of William Dawes vs. Paul Revere – showing how Revere’s relationship of network brokers enabled him to broadcast more extensively than Dawes’ impoverished closed network.  This is good thinking, except that it misses the point of threat: Revere was a weak link in that optimized chain of information; had he been eliminated his message would have been eliminated.  Revere and his network, although connected and optimized, were fragile.
  • In generative linguistics there is an optimization of the lexicon. Economy in space is valued above economy in processing; if this is opaque to you, I mean that generative linguistics tries to minimize the amount of information that it stores as unique units.  It is called “generative” because it generates complex utterances from values stored in the lexicon through recursion, instead of storing those values as wholes.  But there is a weakness; in optimizing the lexicon the generative power of the spell-out rules of Universal Grammar are fragile when it comes to dealing with actual language usage (which is the test of a linguistic theory, is it not?), and the rules fail to account for some foundational constructions of language (like idioms for example).

Ok, so there are lots of places where optimization leads to failure, but what are some ways in which optimization leads to resilience?  What are some solutions to these problems?

Redundancy is a great solution, but it is bulky.

  • When function is optimized it allows you to work backwards in the process of making things have better forms. This is actually how a lot of design progresses.  Think about how every piece of electronic technology that we have today had a larger predecessor.  Think about those clunky mobile phones from the eighties with the handset, base and cord in a leather bag, now look at the mobile phone you carry in your pocket.  Functionality was concept proven in the clunky design, and the form was optimized to enhance the function.
  • It seems to me that the optimization weakness in the Revere incident was that Revere was the weak link.  Instead of depending on the optimization of Revere’s relationships, perhaps the message itself needed optimization. One possible way to optimize the information load of a message is to abstract it (as was done with the signal of the hanging lanterns to indicate the route of attack), and another way is to reduce dependence upon a single messenger exploiting a network (In 1775 the sexton who hung the lanterns was a single messenger, Revere was a single messenger, et cetera).  Flooding a network with messengers bearing an abstracted signal would have been less fragile (put aside for the moment the need for secrecy in the 1775 incident).  In situations where secrecy is not vital, consider how this kind of network flooding would communicate the coherence of the message; when you hear the same thing from five people you at least start giving some credence to the constancy of the message.  In such cases what may have been unknown or even background information becomes salient and foregrounded through repeated exposure. Also, consider other types of signals that can be exploited to prompt a response of crowd mobilization, noises work particularly well.  Sirens and loud noises alert and orient people’s attentional systems toward the source of the signal, and that source becomes figural in the contextual noise of that signal.
  • Optimization can lead to resilience in online processing, like in a maximized lexicon that places the task of optimization on the processing skills required in the selection and extraction of form-meaning elements from the inventory.  Cognitive approaches to the lexicon seek to preserve economy in processing; instead of having a minimal lexicon with lots of processing rules, the cognitive approach has an ordered inventory of form-meaning pairings (including monomorphemic elements, constructions, and phrases that are learned whole), with an optimized processing system of constraints, schemas, and other elements of cognitive processing (see this week’s post on emergentist vs. universalist view for understanding the contrast in general cognitive processing vs. modular mind).
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Baby Behaviors Around 9-12 Months Enable “Conversation”

Joint Attention

Image by jeanbaptisteparis via Flickr

Infants move from a strictly dyadic sort of attentional phenomena to a triadic behavioral attention at around 9-12 months of age.  This opens the world for infants to allow them to consider other people as intentional agents with whom it is possible to interact.  This provides a platform for the infants to begin engaging in a relational way as a precursor to conversation including new ways of referencing the world around them and new ways of coordinating attention of the outside intentional agents.  Without this development into the capacity for accessing a triadic perspective children would be unable to operate in a joint attention frame, would be unable to read intention, and would not maximize cultural learning – all of which depend on recognizing the other-than-self as self-motivated.

I added this picture because it represents Joint Attention…now, substitute the three adults for an adult and an infant – this represents the ability to focus in a joint attention frame so as to develop a sense of common ground.  Stay tuned…more to come.

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Guest Post: The Digital Polis – Nicholas Carson Miller

I invited Nicholas Carson Miller to guest post on the shape of a particular internet culture…I hope you enjoy his work -SportLinguist

I. The New Prehistory

We can’t go ask ancient peoples what was going on when they decided to get together and start building cities. Frustratingly, none of the folks involved in the development of prehistoric communities are still around to ask and weren’t kind enough to leave detailed ethnographic and historical accounts of their experiences. Shame on them. We can, however, connect to the internet and observe the development of a new kind of community.

Early humans, tiring of wandering and hunting alone, began living around one another, trying their hands at farming, trading necessities and surpluses, and finding increasingly productive and complex ways to protect and govern the communities that developed. Early internet users logged on alone, visiting web pages and sending limited communications—but then a need for specialized communal activities lead to email lists, chat rooms, social networks, and, most interestingly, forums.

These internet communities, especially certain infamous and influential forums such as 4chan, Gaia Online, and Something Awful, are beginning to exhibit fascinating cultural trends that are to me reminiscent of early city-states. The development of the culture of these communities should be taken as a possible reflection of the development of real-world communities and is conveniently occurring right before our eyes at a highly accelerated rate. Continue reading

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What Is a Digital City? It is Interconnected Collaboration and Flexibility

When you hear the words “Digital City” what comes to mind?  Is it a virtual city created from ad hoc groups of people converging in an electronic marketplace?  Is it an actual physical city boasting all the amenities of technology? Or is it a combination of the two?  For me, when I hear “Digital City” I usually find myself thinking about the third option, an actual place that sustains a physical population but who are networked to conduct virtual lives that interface with physical lives on a perpetual basis. Continue reading

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The First Shall Be Last: A shift from First Person to Third Person in the Scientific Enterprise

I was reading this article by Ray Kurzweil and immediately connected with an idea that he expressed which I have been trying to articulate over the past year or so. He said that basically, in science there is no first person, there is only the third person. Continue reading

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A Micro Approach to Sociology & Identity – SocialPsych

I have a new website listed in the links section, it is a project by a doctoral candidate in social psychology.  Check out his website, follow him on Twitter & like him on Facebook

“Sociological social psychology is a micro approach of sociology that relates macro level social phenomena on the individual level. This discipline of sociology pulls strongly from symbolic interactionism. Special topics in sociologically oriented social psychology are social inequality, group behavior, social change, socialization, self and identity.” []

I hope you check it out!


how to talk about linguistics with non-linguists

As a specialist you have a level of contextual understanding for realms of knowledge contained in words for which non-specialists also have normal everyday uses.

Consider words like: “context”, “ungrammatical”, “attention”, and “construe”…these words mean entirely different things to a non-linguist than they do to a linguist (let alone the differences between a cognitive linguist and a generative linguist).

Using these types of words with non-linguists as if they understood the linguistic sense of the word will not work; you will have failed communication. Continue reading

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Ethnocentrism in Parenting

I just started reading an ethnomusicology book and I was struck by this definition of ethnocentrism.  Being an anthropologist I am conscious of the dangers of ethnocentrism in my practice and I can look at members in their context and not force my own values onto those members in my evaluation.  But still the clarity of this quote haunted me a little.

When the commonsense perspective dominates the attitude of anyone confronting new and strange experiences, it becomes ethnocentrism.  Ethnocentrism is the common tendency to view all human behavior from the value system of one’s own society, often including the tendency to consider other practices inferior and misguided.  The scholar must therefore avoid the commonsense perspective of his or her own society, and seek to understand other people’s practices from their point of view. Every society has its own commonsense perspective, and part of the task of understanding music in other societies is to understand the commonsense perspective commonly held in those societies.

[2-3, Kaemmer, 1993]

When I read this passage it reminded me of my own fears of ethnocentrism in my life.  My fear is that one day I will have a child who values a different type of creativity than I value.  Actually, it is not necessarily a different type of creativity as much as it is a preference for a different aesthetic in my child’s progression into self-expression.  I am embarrassed to even admit that fear. Continue reading

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