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Holobionts: a new Paradigm to Understand the Role of Humankind in the Ecosystem

You are a holobiont, I am a holobiont, we are all holobionts. "Holobiont" means, literally, "whole living creature." It ...

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Memesphere as a Holobiont (the Mousetrap Experiment)


Ilaria Perissi with our mechanical model of a fully connected network. You may have seen this set-up as a way to demonstrate the chain reaction that takes place in nuclear explosions. It is simulated here with 50 mousetraps and 100 wooden balls. When you trigger one mousetrap, it releases two balls that may go trigger two more mousetraps, and the reaction rapidly flares up and then subdues when it runs out of mousetraps.  And here is what happens

This experiment is a lot of fun (apart from the pain when one trap snaps as you are loading it). But it is not just about nuclear reactions: we engaged in this demonstration because we wanted to show that what happens with the mousetraps is much more general than that. What you have here, is a kind of network that's called "fully connected." The traps are nodes of the network, the balls are elements that trigger the connection between nodes. It is a kind of communication based on "enhanced" or "positive" feedback.

Imagine that the traps oil wells. Then, the balls are the energy created by extracting the oil. And you can use that energy to dig and exploit more wells. The result is the Hubbert curve, nothing less! We found this kind of curve for a variety of socioeconomic system, from mineral extraction to fisheries (for the latter, you can see our (mine and Ilaria's) book "The Empty Sea.

But there is more: imagine that traps are people while the balls are memes. Then what you are seeing is a model of a meme going viral in the Web. It works exactly like that: ideas (also called memes) flare up in the Web when they are stimulated it is the power of propaganda that affects everybody.

It is an intelligence because it can amplify a signal -- that's the way it reacts to an external perturbation. You could see the mousetraps as an elaborate detection system for stray balls. But it can only flare up and then decline. It can't be controlled. That's the problem with our modern propaganda system that exists in the memesphere. It is dominated by memes flaring up out of control.  The main actors in this flaring are those "supernodes" (the Media) that have a huge number of long-range connections. That can do a lot of damage: if the meme that goes out of control is an evil meme and it implies, say, going to war against someone, or exterminating someone. It happened and keeps happening again as long as the memesphere is organized the way it is, as a fully connected network.

Now, let's go to the holobiont part: you could call the mousetrap network a holobiont because holobionts are non-hierarchical networks of entities that communicate with each other. Yes, but this kind of holobiont is not a good holobiont. That is, it exists in nature. Think of a flock of birds foraging in a field. One bird sees something suspicious, it flies up, and in a moment all the birds are flying away.

It is a chain reaction. In a sense, the flock is endowed with a certain degree of intelligence. It can process a signal and act on it. You can see in the figure the measurement of the number of flying birds. It is a logistic function, the integral of the bell-shaped curve that describes the flying balls in the mousetrap experiments

But holobionts in Nature are not normally fully connected. Their connections are short-range, and signals travel more slowly through the network. It is often called "swarm intelligence" and it can be used to optimize systems. Swarm intelligence does transmit a signal, but it doesn't amplify it out of control, as a fully connected network does, at least normally. It is a good control system: bacterial colonies and ant colonies use it. Our brains much more complicated: they have short range connections but also long range ones and probably also collective electromagnetic connections. 

All that means we are stuck with a memesphere that's completely unable to manage complex systems. And yet, that's the way the system works. It depends on these waves of out-of-control signals that sweep the web and then become accepted truths. Those who manage the propaganda system are very good at pushing the system to develop this kind of memetic waves, usually for the benefit of their employers. 

Can the memesphere be re-arranged in a more effective way -- turning it into a good holobiont? Probably yes. Holobionts are evolutionary entities that nobody ever designed. They have been designed by trial and error as a result of the disappearance of the unfit. Holobionts do not strive for the best, they strive for the less bad. It may happen that the same evolutionary pressure will act on the human memesphere. 

The trick should consist in isolating the supernodes (the media) in such a way to reduce their evil influence on the Web. And, lo and behold! Haven't you heard of how many people say that they don't watch TV anymore, they don't connect to CNN, and the like? That's exactly the idea. Do that, and things will be better for everyone. 

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