Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Maintenance Overheads of Human Systems

This was yet another interesting part of the very interesting discussion that I had with Shipra and Piyush this Saturday afternoon.

The discussion started at a slightly comic note. I was asked how my water painting was going on. I said fine. Piyush said something about water paintings. I thought telling him a word or two about other intricacies would impress him favourably. Looks like it didn't. His reaction was that when you hear some technical jargon whose realism, utility, and hence necessity you are not convinced of.

He gave quite a eloquent voice to that impression of his, amounting to that humans are in the habit of creating complicated structures which form ecosystems within themselves which are self sustaining and very energy consuming. In most cases such social systems spend most of their resources in maintaining themselves. Some examples that came up to backup this point were:
  • Infosys/TCS/Wipro etc. build software solutions for financial firms which earn money out of investments by individuals related to Infosys/TCS/Wipro etc.
  • Bell-Labs uses routers sold by Cisco to build solutions which are useful to Cisco.
  • Researchers spend enormous resources to write papers most of which are never read by anybody. The best of them get appreciated by a very limited number of people.
  • Artists create art that's understood by less and less number of people as they become bigger and more famous.
Piyush was particularly of the opinion that these are overheads. The value consumers of any such things could be modelled as a pyramid with very steep sides which start growing flat only very close to the feet of the pyramid. I asked him if he wanted a pyramid which remains flat throughout (which, by the way, shows that I am a Bong researcher from IISc, Bangalore). He said that he wants a very high pyramid, and a linearly steep one. In fact, he was talking of a structure like a column: Whatever is up there, comes down to everyone (which shows that he's a PG from IIML).

Well, the scenario is factual. But, there's another way of looking at everything. And that's what my key argument was in that discussion. Humans have created a very strict crediting system that prevent intellectual despots from hailing people with whatever junk they conjure. A fairly large portion of the population is the consumer of ideas created by a very small number of people. The whole population is composed of a continuum of everything in between. But it's experimentally proved that ideas which change the face of the earth are hard to get. They come once in decades or even centuries (e.g. Newton's laws, DaVinci's perspectives, the number 'zero', The Turing machine). Then there are subsequent intellectual efforts that build upon these epoch making ideas. If the parent-child relations between ideas are drawn in a treelike structure, the shape will resemble that pyramid we were talking about -- very steep in the top, very flat towards the bottom.

This pyramid must stand. Its power of sustainance and growth gets generated at the apex, and has to trickle down. Each idea generated tries to maximise its reach.

If every idea were allowed to reach a wide audience, it would have been a phenomenally flat pyramid. However, due to small height, it would have been easy for non-authentic candidates to reach the top, may be for a short while. Good ideas would have got mingled in the sea of bad ideas. There would not be any way to tell the good from the bad. A high structure is indeed needed so that the ideas generated are well-uthenticated before they tricle down to the grassroot.

If it had taken the shape of cuboidal column, the top would still be crowded. A fertile mind would always be generating ideas. If there isn't created a sharp enough heirarchy at the top, again there would be race between ideas to maximise their impact.

The steep at top and flat at bottom social pyramid is essentially some kind of equilibrium structure that has been created. One thing to note is that every idea down under is a child of of some seminal idea high up. Hence, it's the manisfestation of that seminal idea in some sense. The fact that esoteric ideas at the top make it to the bottom is an ultimate evidence of their authenticity. There comes a point when the society accepts this and allows that work of intellect to affect its grassroots.

Hence, in summary, a high intellectual structure is essential to create a credit system that saves the society from being impacted by not-so-good ideas. Elements that can contribute to the vertical part of the pyramid are numbered. Hence, the fact that elite circles are also inaccessible to most is the result of the limitedness of the number of people capable of making it there.

Some amount of fraud is involved in this. Unworthy people are heard making comments about art that they don't understand. Greedy industrial houses have a strong influence in determining most of the research that happens. These are essential evils. Well! They exist, though they should not!

But the essential aspect of the high maintenance cost of all allegedly elicist social systems is its attempt to be credible enough before it reaches, and hence impacts the lives of, the general populace.

PS: All that's fine. But it's fun-tastic to mentally change the shape of this pyramid into many things -- a tall column, a flat slab, a cubical box, a tall/short cone, a 3D Gaussian etc -- and see what happens. Each will represent a realistic/hypothetical social/intellectual/economic heirarchy. Each will have its sociological impacts! Nice time pass unless you are too well-read about economics and sociology! :D


Pritesh said...

Hmmm..........a nice read Sujit, though needs a lot of brains to understand this one!

I agree with the pyramid being the most optimized structure. It's true that the real breakthrough ideas are and should be far and in between........

Anonymous said...

Comment from Sutanu...

On "Maintenance Overheads of Human Systems" : The role of love (Mother
Teresa kinds in the extreme case, and family and friends in more restricted
scope) in stability is complementary to the role of intellectual prowess,
and infact I believe could be more fundamental to the inner reaches of our
mysterious selves. There seems to be a bottom-up self sustaining thrust
strongly fuelled by unrestrained love. The banyan tree grows tall, but when
it grows too big it needs to reach out again to the weeds below with its
prop roots, to keep sustaining. It's too finely balanced (and perhaps too
intricately self-warped) a world to fit into a simplistic pyramidal
structure, I reckon. Not that I have a better model, but speculating
nevertheless, just for the heck of it :-)

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