Paper 1: Competitive Information and Equality
This paper deals with the definition and role of information in living systems, especially as contrasted with other forms of knowledge. This is a summary; the full text can be found at my website www.talkingoctopus.com.
Let’s look first at first Claude Shannon’s definition of information: a message selected from among a set of possible messages. This insight cleanly separates the sort of knowledge that can accumulate in an ecological niche to be improved through variation and selective retention from the sort of knowledge that must inevitably be destroyed when organisms die.
A message requires at the least a sender and a receiver, a process of encoding and decoding, and a discrete set of alphabetical characters. The base pairs of the genome, an alphabet, and a set of digital bits are all examples of information. The knowledge achieved from learning to hunt for prey, hide from predators, ride a bike, or experience a piece of music are not comprised of Shannonist information, unless they are later translated somehow into informational characters and transmitted to others.
Because knowledge in the alphabetical form of information can be corrected for errors and transmitted faithfully, it can accumulate in a niche. This means organisms can select pieces of information to use to solve their problems. Some pieces of information work better than other pieces, which means that all information must be subject to variation and selective retention, or evolutionary epistemology.
If we separate the informational element of life from its other aspects, we can see that the other elements all aim at homeostasis rather than competition. So we can suppose that information is the only source of competition in living systems.
Since all living systems have boundaries, the competitive spread of information is also halted at boundaries. The most important boundaries for information occur at levels of organization that comprise homeostatic problem-solving units, such as organisms.
Information accumulates within homeostatic problem-solving units in living systems, and spreads between those units. DNA operates within cells as a library of templated information, while it spreads between organisms through reproduction and other means. Likewise, external alphabetical and digital information in the human niche also operates as libraries within social homeostatic problem-solving units, alliances, and spreads between alliances through war, commerce, science, and entertainment.
The two necessary conditions for competition are that the winners prevail, and that in the future, the information that led to the wins spreads among the losers as well. In the long run, this drives equality among homeostatic units wherever boundaries are fixed for long periods of time.
In multicellular species with fixed genetic boundaries and sexual reproduction, genetic competition drives genetic equality, the physical compatibility of individuals within a species. In humans, memetic competition drives political equality across alliances (such as dueling parties within two-party systems,) and among individuals within all alliances worldwide (human rights). In commercial organizations in markets with fixed boundaries, equality among firms arises from the same sources. It’s important to notice that many living systems have not fixed but expanding or contracting boundaries. In these cases equality is deferred or disrupted.
Many people have the opposite concern about the information age; many are concerned about the rise of financial inequality. The human niche, the outer boundary of our living system, is rapidly expanding, which defers equality even as it increases opportunity. Financial inequality is a backward-looking measure. The forms of equality driven by competitive information are forward-looking; they are equalities of opportunity. Money does not create opportunities directly, but follows those that are created. Opportunities are not often realized, but their presence makes for a better world for life.
The dynamics of information-driven equality are empirically knowable, once the boundaries of the system, the density of information times the speed of exchange, and the size of the homeostatic units are taken into account. The best example of this, from genetic competition, is called the species-area curve. An ecological system (an island, for example) of a given size can support a predictable number of species of each type. This dynamic, and its measurable consequences, will be observed in all living systems. It will be describable in mathematical terms.
All living systems have boundaries. The border of an island has a boundary, the species has a boundary, the organism has a boundary, and the cell has a boundary. Each of these systems is a living unit with a self-contained logic of a certain sort, as the Santiago theorists would say, a “circular form of organization.” The species-area curve describes the number of similar competitive systems that can exist within a larger system. It may not seem apparent immediately, but this is describing a dynamic of information exchange. All biological species use information to compete; they use their genes, which is the only information they have. Everything else they learn and know is knowledge, not alphabetical information.
The only living systems with external information, right now, are human systems. So we have to look at human systems to see how information competes in a more vigorous, rapid exchange. When we look at human systems with fixed boundaries, boundaries that prevent the spread of information or clearly define the domain where certain information may be used, we see patterns similar to the species-area curve. In the bounded system of American politics, for example, this competitive increase driven by Moore’s Law has resulted in increasing equality between the Right and the Left, and ever-diminishing electoral margins. This astonishing fact shows that there is an underlying mathematical logic to the behavior of information in a living system per se. This logic has yet to be fully described, or even noticed.
In order to see an equality develop, usually a living system must have fixed boundaries and fixed “rules of the game.” In economic markets, in competition between firms and nations, usually both are in flux. Moore’s Law technically describes the density of information in the human niche, as it predicts the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, but since the speed of information transmission has been at a physical maximum, the speed of light, for some time, Moore’s law also describes the changing intensity of competition of information in the human niche. As economic opportunities expand, equality erodes in direct proportion. But the speed and volume of information transfer increasing according to Moore’s Law cuts the other way, tending to encourage equality between units.
As the competition of information in the human world intensifies, we are beginning to see patterns develop of an even more interesting sort. Politics as a whole is beginning to divide globally into two competitive units, the Sinosphere and the Anglosphere, even though there are no fixed rules of the nature of competition between the two units other than the moral development of the human species as a whole. This is an even more fascinating development because it shows that the behavior of information in a living system as a whole, no matter how large and chaotic is, at least in principle, predictable.
Copyright 2021 by Charlie Munford