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Self-Similarity & Society

museJun 2, 2018, 12:13:42 PM

[This blog looks big, but it has pictures!!]

Follow up blog:
Protocols & Society: HTTP & HTML

Self-similarity is an incredibly profound concept that shows up at every scale of our lives. It is the property of some kind of organism, or network to be the same on every scale of analysis. This is hard to explain with words, but its likely to become clearer with pictures and examples. You can see the definition given by Merriam-Webster given below, followed by some explanation of my own.

Self Similarity: the quality or state of having an appearance that is invariant upon being scaled larger or smaller

You can see what this means, if you zoom up on an object, and the object still looks the same as it did before you zoomed up. Some popular memes use this for fun.

Self-similarity is in Biology, in Geography, and in social interactions. Even more interesting is that you can consider each of these as being self-similar to each other, having similar patterns, but on a different scale, and all interdependent on each other.

The patterns that we see are dependent on a small number of parameters that shape our lives and our environment. In each of these realms, very subtle changes in these parameters can influence the whole environment and result in an entirely new pattern being seen. In Biology these parameters are our DNA(and a small change can mean big differences), In the Geographical world it is the terrain and the weather, in the Social sphere, it is partly protocols and algorithms, and partly our personal ethics and desires that determine the boundaries of our interactions with others. Yet each of these could be in some way interdependent with the others.

This means that Biology can affect Social factors, but Social factors can also affect Biological factors. This is in contrast to deterministic beliefs such as:

"Biological Determinism is the belief that human behaviour is controlled by an individual's genes or some component of their physiology"
"Environmental Determinism (or Geographical Determinism) is the study of how the physical environment predisposes societies and states towards particular development trajectories."

These will both have some truth in them, but we should always be careful when saying it's the whole truth.

I will provide some examples of self-similarity in the three spheres mentioned above. The point of emphasis today however, is that the basic parameters in the social sphere are partly internet protocols, and partly the social rules which we conform to, such as etiquette, manners, and the respect with which we treat each other.


In the physical sphere, a trunk is to a branch, what a branch is to stem. A stem is to a leaf what a leaf is to its veins.


In the Geographical Sphere, a small difference between two small bits of land, may determine which way a river will go. The composition of dirt, or the wind, or the temperature, or elevation, these are natural "parameters" which determine the shape of a river. Small changes to these parameters may apply to the river at every level, from its source right down to its minor tributaries.

See here for more examples.


Internet Protocols & Social Networks

The Algorithms you use, and the online services you use, Minds, Youtube, Facebook, these can affect the entire arrangement of our social interactions without us even knowing. This is so much the case, that all sorts of complex things, things which you would always imagine are far too abstract to affect everyday life, these things have effects that you would never imagine.

Small changes in an algorithm, may affect how we choose to arrange ourselves into groups. If the network rewards us for making more friends, we may form larger groups, and in larger groups there may be lower levels of trust or depth of conversations. Additionally, if users with the most social connections are rewarded disproportionately to those with less, we may see heirarchical interactions and "gateways" start to evolve.

For this reason one can talk about "The Ethics of TCP/IP", "The Ethics of the Client/Server Model", "The Ethics of Distributed Ledger Technology". Mathematics, algorithms, protocols. The choices of algorithm we make have profound effects on our everyday lives.

Imagine that every person had two good friends who they talk with everyday, but they talk with nobody else. Imagine how fast news would spread under this arrangement. It turns out, this can be calculated Mathematically. Now imagine if everybody had three good friends who they talk with everyday. It turns out, the speed of news spreading in this network can also be calculated Mathematically. And the speed of news in moving through a network can affect the pace of our lives, including the effectiveness of propaganda, and the spread of technology and ideas.

Thus small changes in an algorithm to make communications with peers easier, may change how ideas are spread in profound ways.

Love & Social Networks

In addition to the effect that internet protocols have on our interactions, there is another kind of "protocol" that is never forced upon us, that is, the way we choose to deal with individuals in our lives.

The little things we do every day may be considered the "protocols" by which we operate: a kind word, a careful analysis, a good deed. These things will always have effects you will never see, also, if every act you performed became a universal law, as Kant suggested it should, and as "a smile is contagious", and as religions tend to proselytize, and as children copy their own parents, the entire network would change so much as to be completely different from the first, with only a very minor alterations in behavior across the network.


The important points in this post are as follows:

    Little things, done at large scale, make a huge difference.

    Your choice of social network(s) will almost surely affect who is/are your friend(s).

⏺    Small distinctions in algorithms are important, and have the power to completely change your network of friends, while you never even know why this happened.

⏺     No matter how much algorithms or protocols change, the protocols by which you act, that is, your code of ethics, or how you act toward other people, can never be ultimately controlled by your environment.