Monday, September 27, 2010

Don't rock the boat

The chapter on 'social informatics' in Vlatko Vedral's Decoding reality (OUP, 2010) is an odd mixture of jargon and platitude. The attempt to apply basic principles of physics and information theory to the social world is not very convincing (and in fact doesn't do justice to important work, by economists especially).

Here is part of his lame conclusion: "Some sociologists are optimistic that the information age will lead to a fairer society that will improve everyone's living conditions, as well as narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Others are rather pessimistic, claiming that the new age will bring an abrupt end, a kind of phase transition, to present society (through all sorts of mechanisms such as increased crime due to the breakdown of families, global terrorism, global warming, and so on)." (p.108)

The notion of phase transition is nonetheless of some interest. In physics, phase transitions - radical changes in the way elements of the system in question interact - occur only in certain circumstances. In one dimensional systems (where there is limited scope for interaction) phase transitions are impossible. There are no general phase transitions in two dimensional systems either, though there is a particular arrangement which does allow a phase transition to occur. Generally, however, phase transitions only occur in three dimensional systems which allow more complex interactions. The classic example involves interacting H2O molecules: ice becomes water, water becomes vapor.

In the distant past, human societies were very local in nature. "One tribe exists here, another over there, but with very little communication between them. Even towards the end of the nineteenth century, transfer of ideas and communication in general were still very slow. So for a long time humans have lived in societies where communication was very short range. And, in physics, this would mean that abrupt changes are impossible. Societies have other complexities, so I would say that 'fundamental change is unlikely' rather than 'impossible'." (p. 104)

New technologies have changed all this. Now " ... we can learn from and communicate with virtually anyone in the world ... Increasingly ... we are approaching the stage where everyone can and does interact with everyone else. And this is exactly when phase transitions become increasingly likely."

But, of course, the nature of any phase transition is unpredictable, So Vedral ends the chapter with the vague comments on optimistic and pessimistic scenarios quoted above, and the observation that "[i]n a more interconnected society we are more susceptible to sudden changes" and so "we had better improve the speed of our decision making." And maybe the quality?

I can't resist quoting the final lines of this chapter in which he previews the next section of the book. " ... In order to understand the ultimate origins of information we need to take an exciting voyage of discovery. And this will take us into the realms of quantum mechanics, the true nature of randomness, whether teleportation is possible, and the question of free will and determinism. It's going to be a rocky boat, so hold on tight!"

Rocky boat?


  1. It is commonly stated that the biggest change of all was the Industrial Revolution. So how does he account for that little "phase transition"?

    According to Hiram Caton, "By 1900, steam engines throughout the world delivered work equivalent to that of 5,000,000,000 men". That's a phase change, I'd say.

    Caton's book, "The Politics of Progress", should be better known.

  2. Rocky boat! Just a minute and let me stop laugh...

    Okay. I too have used the metaphor of a phase transition to describe what is going on around us right now. Probably because “revolution” is overused and Toffler already used “wave.” But it’s important to remember it’s just a figure of speech. Seems this author has gotten a little carried away and begun to reason with his metaphor:

    “we are approaching the stage where everyone can and does interact with everyone else. And this is exactly when phase transitions become increasingly likely.”

    Reasoning with a metaphor is not even as rigorous as reasoning by analogy. To apply a characteristic of real phase transitions (ice to water) to the changes going on in society is to let the tail wag the dog. It’s like (pardon me!) using verbal reasoning to make firm conclusions about quantum mechanics. So perhaps this author is just careless.

    On the other hand, if I define the terminology of an event I can almost always make my own predictions about that event dead right. That’s no trick at all, especially if I am a little loose in defining the term to begin with. This is the method of astrologers.

    Either way, are you sure the book is OUP? No, that’s unkind. We all get carried away with our imagery from time to time, me as well as anyone. Perhaps your gentle commentary will get back to the editors, who can help improve the second edition.

  3. Alan, I hadn't heard of Hiram Caton. I'll look him up. I'm undecided about the significance of the 'information revolution' - it certainly changes the way people communicate and learn and read, and so the way they think. But expecting some kind of a radical, global transformation sounds to me a bit like the sort of thing religions and political radicals have been predicting for millennia.

  4. CONSVLTVS, yes, the reasoning in the book is very loose. A pity, because the topics are interesting and important.

    I don't know that my commentary was all that gentle, by the way. (Had it been more so, perhaps Dr Vedral might have joined our discussion!) It would be nice to think that this sort of discussion might be picked up - but there is so much material out there these days...

    But I'm not complaining. I am honored to have comments from you and Alan, and maybe the attention also of a few other silent readers.

  5. Hiram Caton used to have an interesting website of his own. He's known as a sceptic on HIV/AIDS and on standard evolutionary theory. There's a website on the latter theme:

    But it is his historical works that I mostly value.

    I once, long ago, had a drink and a discussion with him at a pub in Perth.

  6. Dear Alan,
    My father, Hiram Caton, passed away on 13 December 2010. I am his daughter. I am working very hard to have my father's earlier work restored to the net. Much is (very) provisionally to be found at I am moved that you have read The Politics of Progress. I can be contacted at Meeting in a pub in Perth sounds perfect. When was that?

  7. Dear Sonia

    I'm very pleased to hear from you that your father's work is being cared for. I'll be in touch by email.

    It must have been the early 80s when he was in Perth.


  8. I am sorry to learn that Hiram Caton has passed. A wonderful original thinker. Perfect tonic for many standard pieties of the 20th century. In fact it would be fitting for us to revisit and discuss him more.

  9. BTW the link provided by Sonia above didn't connect ... perhaps you can update that at some point for us. =)