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?