Wednesday 6 July 2011

Designing emergent government

nationcrafting: designing emergent government

John Conway, the mathematician, developed a wonderful mathematical game he called "Game of Life" which is an excellent way to understand the concept of meta-intelligence, or the emergent intelligence I spoke about in my last essay.

On a large grid, a few squares are coloured either black (live) or left white (dead) according to a very simple rule:

1. Any live cell with fewer than two live neighbours dies.
2. Any live cell with two or three live neighbours lives on to the next generation.
3. Any live cell with more than three live neighbours dies.
4. Any dead cell with exactly three live neighbours becomes a live cell.

The rule is repeated, round after round, ad infinitum, so this is a zero-player game once it starts. In other words, the player sets up the game and has no subsequent input in the game's outcome.

Very soon, we see patterns emerge and larger shapes "moving" across the grid. Of course, just like the knot in the rope we discussed in earlier essays, no cells actually do any of the moving: intricate shapes are just being translated from cell group to cell group, round after round. You get shapes of just 5 black cells, for example, that "bounce off each other" turning on and off, each round translating the whole shape one cell up and one cell to the right. Conway called those shapes "gliders". You also have what he called "guns": shapes that, as the grid redraws itself round after round, appear to emit gliders on a regular basis. The animation above is one of those.

The point is this: all these shapes and patterns exist purely in a kind of meta-reality, that is, a reality that is beyond the one each of the cells inhabits individually. It is worth noting that the individual cells are not wise or enlightened, they do not have any kind of awareness of the collective shapes that are formed. They do not need to be wise or enlightened about the larger shapes in order for the larger shapes to form. The movement we perceive of "glider" shapes passing over the grid, and of "guns" emitting "gliders" into existence, etc. exists on a fundamentally different level.

This relationship between the individual cell's reality and the collective or "hive" reality is something only a handful of economists have properly understood. One of them is Thomas Schelling, who had a flash of inspiration when entering a hall he was about to give a lecture in as he was struck by the odd seating pattern of the audience in front of him:

"There are several reasons we might interest ourselves in what it is that the people in this audience were doing, or thought they were doing, or were trying to do, when they seated themselves in that way.

One is that we may not like the result: we prefer they all be in the first twenty-four rows, not the last twenty-four, or distributed over the whole auditorium. If we want to change the pattern with a minimum of organization, interfering as little as possible with the preferences of the audience, we need to know whether we can subtly change their incentives or their perceptions of the auditorium itself, so that they will 'voluntarily' choose a better seating pattern.

Before we do any such thing we ought to know whether the audience itself likes the seating arrangement that it chose organically, and whether the fact that they chose their seats as they did is evidence that they must be satisfied with the final outcome.

A second reason for interest is that there may be something about this process that reminds us of other situations in which people locate themselves voluntarily in some pattern that does not possess evident advantages even for the people who by their own choices form the pattern."

What nationcrafting is about, then, is a kind of analysis that explores the relation between the behaviour of individuals who comprise a hive, and the characteristics of the hive itself. In another essay, Schelling walks down a similar path, this time coming close to John Conway's model, by describing the scenario of car drivers turning their lights on or off depending on their perception not only of the lightness or darkness of their environment, but of the other drivers who themselves live by the same "rule" or "algorithm" that they live by:

"There are easy cases, of course, in which an aggregate is merely an extrapolation from the individual. For example, if we know that every driver, on his own, turns his car's lights on at sundown, we can guess that, from a helicopter's point of view, we shall see all the car lights in a local area going on at about the same time. We could even get our compass bearings by reflecting that the cascade of lights will flow westward as the dusk settles.

But if most people turn their lights on when some fraction of the oncoming cars already have their lights on, we'll get a different picture from our helicopter. In this case, drivers are responding to each other's behavior and influencing each other's behavior. People are responding to an environment that consists of other people responding to their environment, which consists of people responding to an environment of people's responses.

Sometimes the dynamics are sequential: if your lights induce me to turn mine on, mine may induce someone else but not you. Sometimes the dynamics are reciprocal: hearing your car horn [ anger, or to celebrate something...], I honk mine, thus encouraging you to honk more insistently.

These situations, in which people's behavior or people's choices depend on the behavior or the choices of other people, are the ones that usually don't permit any simple summation or extrapolation to the aggregates. To make that connection, we usually have to look at the system of interaction between individuals and their environment, that is, between individuals and other individuals or between individuals and the collectivity."

The point made by Schelling is sometimes arrived at intuitively by interactive designers, especially those working in multi-user gaming environments and artificial intelligence. Truly, the modes of thinking between "economic thinkers" and "design thinkers" are very similar indeed. The question I keep asking myself is why professionals in each field are so unlikely to be familiar with the work or mindset of professionals in the other field. How many designers are truly aware of the economist's mindset? Many would never be caught dead talking to "boring" economists. And, somehow, it seems many economists have an equal aversion to communicate with designers.

Those intrinsic properties of the individual cells (of persons, in other words) are the cornerstone of the nation, and it is through their interactions with the other cells (Friedrich Hayek might have called them "praxeological" or "catallactic" exchanges), that we bring about the meta-structure, the spontaneous emergent intelligence that is the nation.

The lesson for aspiring nation designers is clear: it is essential to have a deep understanding both of the rules that individual cells on the grid live by and communicate through, and of the odd and unintended consequences that changing interaction rules, or any of the variables, has on the system.

Indeed, nothing can be started without this understanding because, unlike the programmer in John Conway's Game of Life - who at least gets to control the rule that turns each square on or off - the nation designer doesn't actually get to "enforce" the rule that each individual cell, each human being in the system, lives by. Based on the coercive power of the state which has been exercised throughout history, we may feel that we can lay down the law and enforce the rules, but any such system will eventually implode through the sheer pressure of the superorganism's reaction to this misdirected force of coercion. Revolutions and economic collapses are quick to follow, until the nation designer realises that he must work with the grain, with the intrinsic properties of the individual cell. Coercion is not even bad nation design, it's the opposite of nation design.

The good news for designers is that we have started from the right place: it is the individual user's experience we design most of our work for anyway. Be it in product design or architecture, no designer has ever relied on individual user coercion to make a design work, or even to achieve a certain result from the user that would provide a better outcome for all users. Apple already designs its iPhone interface so that the individual user might experience what Csikszentmihalyi called 'flow' (more on this in another essay...). What this approach to interface design has in common with most economic incentive-based models is the fact that users' engagement is always 'voluntary'.

Both economic models and interface designs are essentially user-centric because they have to be so, the individual user never has to do anything that doesn't come naturally to him. Voluntary engagement is the starting point from which to apply our design skills in designing the system of interaction between the individual users and other individual users, and between the individual users and the nation's institutions, in order to arrive at a nation design that is both intelligent and essentially human.


  1. I like this article - it reflects the way I think about systems of social organization: how does an individual act within the system, can individuals break the system, what are the large-scale tendencies that overcome disruptions, etc. I think the key to a successful society is to make it self-enforcing, ie. have the set of rules itself provide incentives for people to maintain the set of rules.

    You might be interested in this paper ( ) which describes how private property first arose in a prehistoric environment (ie. anarchy).

    And here ( )'s an article that discusses the concept in a more game-theoretical sense with regard to the decentralized currency Bitcoin.

  2. Hi Selven,

    Thank you for the link to the Bitcoin / Nash equilibrium article. Fascinating stuff... Recommended for other readers here, too.