dynamical systems online
In a previous article, I framed human life as partly a process of navigating the space of all possible ideologies. The aim of this article is to iterate on this perspective and enrich it with another elegant formalism: dynamical systems. In doing this, I hope to paint a slightly clearer picture of the mental models which shape my conception of ideology.
Dynamical systems are everywhere. The EU’s economy, a pine tree, and the device you’re reading this on can all be seen and modeled as dynamical systems. Anything that is constantly changing over time as a function of their previous state and external influences – that is, most things – can be seen and modeled as such a system.
Going back to ideology, seeing yourself as a dynamical system can unlock new ways of strategizing about your foraging process. Just like the systems mentioned above, you experience state change due to both internal and external reasons. Your external influences are the people you interact with, the content you consume, and the products you use, among many others. Your internal influences are your own ideas, insights, and current perspective on the world. Your ideology is constantly shaped by these factors.
One affordance made visible by this model is the control over the relative magnitudes of internal and external influences. If you’re constantly consuming content without pausing to reflect on it, your ideology is then mostly a function of the people you surround yourself with. This will likely constrain your accessible state space and lead to a lack of intellectual autonomy, as you’d essentially be entrained by your input. In contrast, if you’re living a monastic lifestyle and disproportionately relying on internal influences, you might miss out on making productive use of the ideological attractors which surround us, such as through an ideological equivalent of a slingshot. It seems like a balance is required.
Glimpses into different configurations of a dynamical system which evolves over 80 time steps. Top plot: the external signal which drives the system (analogous to peers or consumed content). The other plots offer windows into the dynamics of the system with different weights (small, medium, large) prescribed for internal (W) and external (W^in for input) influences. For instance, plot B shows that if the magnitude of external influence is much larger than the internal one (i.e. l » s), then the system is closely following the dynamics of the external signal. In contrast, plot E shows that if the internal influence is much larger than the external one, then the system behaves quite chaotically. Plot A shows a balance. (figure credits: Herbert Jaeger)
In today’s hyperconnected world, calls for doing your own thinking are noticeably more frequent than calls for letting others do more of your thinking. The conceptarium is a tool designed to amplify your internal influence by providing a safe space for your thoughts to proliferate and mature. When using it as a private-first medium for ideas whose genomes are predominantly domestic, you’re exposing yourself more to your own thinking, tipping the scales of influence.
Another affordance made visible by the dynamical system view is the control over the choice of external influences. The old adage says that you’re the average of the five people you spend most time with. If others have their own ideologies scattered around the state space, you can chart a course across it by choosing the right peers as attractors. Interestingly enough, exposing yourself to external influences which are evenly distributed around you can cause them to cancel each other out in important ways. Reading both US and Chinese accounts of US-China tensions might neutralize the sways towards either attractor, leaving you more at the mercy of internal influences. See it as active noise cancellation for ideology, helping you tune in to your mind’s sounds in spite of the opinionated surroundings.
Like all models, this view is most likely a radical oversimplification of what causes shifts in ideology. However, the actionable affordances mentioned above appear to deserve further investigation through thoughtware development. Or to borrow some motifs from the solarpunk attractor I’ve embraced lately, we might also learn a thing or two from the dynamical systems of nature: organisms, populations, and cells, among others.