Friday 20 July 2007

We all smile in the same language (not!)

The above statement - minus the "not" - appears on the notice board of a school in West End, Brisbane.

It is quite wrong, in fact dangerously so. In the following short essay I will show why (and it is an essay; for more detail see the Otoom website with all its papers, confirmations from around the world, computer simulations, and references).

Let's take the literal meaning first. The sentence is meant to convey the common nature of us as humans, a feature underneath so many differences often emphasised and hence leading to conflict. A nice try if you will, but like other well-meaning but ultimately misguided views promising much but delivering little.

What is a smile? It is a type of body language representing the pleasure of feeling satisfaction. You don't need to be a profound philosopher to realise the prompts for smiling are as varied as life can make them. Even a child (and remember, that false proverb is there for mostly children to see) could smile for many a reason - to the face of a friend in agreement, to the face of an enemy out of Schadenfreude, because they got praised or because they got away with something.

But, you might say, aren't these the very things that bind us? Yes they are, but here we run into the first of several problems. Consider 'agreement'. Do we all agree on the same thing? Certainly not, but why?

Whether we agree on something depends on our disposition, on what we know, what we have experienced, on our surroundings, our culture. In other words, we interpret the world according to what our minds can make of any given situation. The thought associations we are capable of determine our response, and what we don't know won't get to play a role - end of story.

Yet even what we 'know' does not present the full picture. For an association to be made the right triggers need to be in place (think of mnemotechnics), but it also requires the brain to be sufficiently flexible. Certain psychological tests rely on that characteristic to evaluate a person's ability to process information.

Hence for some people a particular moment is enough to evoke an avalanche of ideas, others it passes by in silence. Being creative is a trait we sometimes admire (if it makes us smile!), and sometimes dread (if it takes us out of our comfort zone).

Going right back to the basic detail the associative capacity is a function of the connectivity of the brain's neurons and their processing ability. The more dendrites per neuron the greater the cognitive reach, the healthier the neurons the more efficacious they are. All this is no longer conjecture, and feeds into such aspects as goal setting and sense of responsibility.

Now shift the perspective to the recipient. If the source of a smile is difficult to ascertain, how much harder is it for the other to interpret? If I grow up among friends and only friends I will never know what it is like to smile with grim satisfaction - I never had the opportunity to learn. If higher abstractions are beyond me what do I know of wan wistfulness?

And so my mind will process the proffered gesture and respond accordingly. The other will do the same in turn. Where does that leave the "common language"?

If the response goes beyond mere conversation but involves acts of significance the diversion of our respective trains of thought can lead very quickly to radical measures.

Consider the fury generated by Salman Rushdie's knighthood. Consider also the attempts by the British government to hose down the flames. Neither side understands the other. Muslims don't relate to the often iconoclastic nature of our culture, and the government doesn't recognise how meaningless it is to point to Rushdie's authorship as an apology. In fact, an apology - like a smile - means different things to different people. For some it is a measure of manners, to others it represents weakness.

On a larger scale the contingencies have moved along. The idea has become the cultural meme, the individual has become the demographic. Just as in a person their mindset has to reconcile the differences somehow, so do the effects of varying cultures influence the status of a society. The mutual relationship between the greater whole and its parts requires a certain synchronicity, but enhance the differences and there comes a point at which the very definition of society becomes questionable.

Furthermore, although we all are capable of learning to some degree, what we allow ourselves to learn depends very much on our exposure to the wider world and how we perceive it. Increase the number of a demographic's constituents and the probability that any one of them will widen their frame of reference diminishes. From a certain size onwards there is no change and the culture will maintain itself regardless of their host.

In the era of globalisation the above applies not only within nations but across the entire world.

Tamil militants in Sri Lanka blackmail immigrants in Australia; radical Muslims associate in groups spread between tribal areas in Pakistan and the UK; newly arrived Africans evoke networks between Europe and their homelands to circumvent EU border controls.

The very laws we have created reflect our general mien. They can never define each and every act anyone is ever able to come up with, but are a collection of markers that rely greatly on social consensus. Introduce behaviour from outside that zone and the law becomes inadequate and needs to accommodate the new. Terrorism and the influx of religious intensity have shown how unsettling the shift can be.

For example, in Western jurisdictions guilt by association has been largely expunged, and for good reason. Yet an association based on family, tribe, and sect are most powerful drivers in Middle Eastern demographics. As I write this the law in Australia is forced to wrestle with the extent to which such alien concepts are to be aligned with our own definitions, in order to deal with suspects arrested here and connected with an act of terrorism that occurred in the UK. There are protests and misgivings, a fear of loosing the achievements gained through centuries of hard work. Those gains had sharpened themselves on the minds of Europe, and not on those of the Middle East.

We have moved beyond the land of rosy visions in which the downtrodden stand in awe before Western accomplishments eager to take part as we in our naiveté would like to assume. Some do, but more and more the darker side of wishful inclusivity in the face of irreconcilable difference emerges. The canvas so far is still the same, but increasingly what is painted there are not the comfortable idylls of yesteryear but the charring strokes of dissonance, anger even.

How long before the lines burst the frame?

Sunday 8 July 2007

The reasons against Otoom

A previous post presented a sweep of vistas open to someone who employed the conceptual tool set of the Otoom mind model.

Yet like any analysis that probes into hitherto hidden areas the findings can be decidedly uncomfortable. What could prevent a person from looking in this particular direction?

Otoom allows two general approaches, from the top down and from the bottom up. Let's take the latter first.

The subject under focus can be identified as a system, and its active constituents as elements that behave in a certain manner. As such these are functional elements, that is to say the things they do relate to their inherent properties, their potential for 'doing a certain thing'. For example, a particular collective of neurons processes visual information, and nothing else. It does so because its configuration allows it and the neurons do nothing else because they are exposed to one certain set of data and no more.

Yet clearly that bunch of neurons is also part of a larger system, similar in terms of functionality but different in scale and in terms of the information they receive and process, and therefore in terms of the result. That result, which higher cognitive processes represent in the form of meaning to us, transpose what is initially some bundle of light frequencies into an image that moves us.

Or take the activities of an organisation. Again there are sections dedicated to one particular type of work, but they also belong together and all those processes reflect the part as well as the greater whole. Since Otoom is scalable it makes sense to talk about a focus on neurons as 'from the bottom up' and it makes equally sense to refer to our view of an organisation along these lines.

The sheer relativity of this approach does not sit well with somebody's need to keep the world and its parts in neat little boxes. It prevents them from separating one phenomenon, one characteristic even, from its neighbours and so responding as if one element exists in isolation from any other. Reality of course teaches otherwise, but for the purpose of maintaining a perspective that prefers simplistic answers to complex situations - and acting accordingly - anything that opens unwanted windows would be anathema.

Now take the top-down approach. Since the act of labeling a particular contingent 'a system' is only ever a relative one, the result of an observation coming from the top and moving downwards could also have been achieved by having arrived there while proceeding from some lower focus to that higher one. What will have changed are the associations observed along the way, but the characteristics pertaining to that focus and now having become visible are no different.

Again, that can be problematic for someone who prefers to be selective. Suppose the idea is to reconfigure an organisation. A plan is developed that concentrates on the wider view but does not involve the sections, the subsystems. Without considering the functionalities of those sections the plan may prove unworkable. Add the personal agenda, surrounding politics plus the need to 'save face', and the iconoclast who points to discrepancies between the grand vision and the practicality on ground level may well be disposed of.

All this would seem straightforward to most, but how often are such considerations disregarded? How many times has a system intruded upon another to impose its ideal, with no thought given to the contingencies present at the target and proceeding blindly no matter what the cost - think of Iraq, of missionaries, of arrogant governments.

Otoom also addresses the processes themselves in terms of their situatedness within the conglomerate of functional elements. Just as in the brain a visual processing area (let's say, V1, V2, etc) deals with data according to such neurons' capacity, a different set of neurons produces other results depending on their situatedness within the brain overall. On a different scale a similar functional relationship holds, although the outcome will have changed.

A human activity system that is dedicated to creating and maintaining a database will behave functionally similar regardless where it is employed, only the content differs (let's say it works for a police department, or an employment agency, or for the biology section of a cancer research institute).

Not only that, but the result also reflects what the data have been subjected to along the way, in other words their history. The history is a function of whatever associations have been evoked and the processes they gave rise to.

To remain with our examples from above, an employment agency will be able to profile an individual according to their work history, but may not include any criminal convictions. The potential difference between the set of present associations and what will not be covered depends on the respective situatedness of the processing domains. While it is less difficult to enable a connection between a potential employee and court cases, when it comes to cell structures the research institute could well have pertinent information but how associative will that type of information be for the employment agency?

Therefore, under a certain focus (a relative exercise in itself) the representation of something that happens in a given situation can easily be omitted because the processing system does not contain the necessary associations to encompass such detail. There is a saying, "To a hammer everything looks like a nail".

The effects can be profound. A Christian will see the world - interpret the world, to be exact - in terms of what that mindset will allow to be covered; not more, not less. For Muslims the filter will be a different one. Adjust that lens to any set of contingencies our world offers and one gets some idea how variable our perceptions can be.

There was a time when we in the West categorised people by their 'obvious' differences. Because they were obvious they also were superficial, and over the years to come the presumptuous nature of that view was duly recognised. Unfortunately, today we fail on the other side of the spectrum: everyone is considered to be the same, with no thought given to their specific mindsets.

Not only can someone interpret a certain scenario differently from someone else, even what is quite literally seen and not seen can disagree with reality.

For someone - whether child or adult, male or female - the experience of joy and happiness, of pleasure and pain, of honour and dishonour, of what is desirable and objectionable, can differ to such an extent that for an observer the effect can be anything from consternation to horror. And yet, especially in today's climate, we act as if everyone has exactly the same mind.

Consider how we evaluate a display of emotion, or religious intensity, or sexual behaviour. Nor can we necessarily rely on the articulations from the individual concerned, since they are made on the basis of their own perspective.

Under Otoom the functionality of subjective assessment can be just as arrogant and overbearing whether we judge someone to be different based on skin colour and nothing more, or whether we presume them to be the same by dismissing the difference in cognitive processes. The former drives unwarranted exclusion, the other promotes blind inclusivity; both can be dangerous.

In a very real sense, our mind is at once a prison and our home. Otoom can be a friend who guides us out of our prison, but becomes the enemy if it dissolves the other.

... and society pays.