Philosophy

How Do We Best Enable?

Sometimes, early in a new arena of thought, questions are more important than answers.

In the past several posts, some with the mathematician Giuseppe Longo, I have argued that no law entails the evolution of the biosphere or human life. Rather, we sometimes confront what I am calling enablement and radical emergence.

Briefly again, when the Darwinian pre-adaptation of the swim bladder evolved from the lungs of lung fish, the new swim bladder constituted a new "adjacent possible empty niche" for a worm to occupy. So the swim bladder opened a new possible direction for evolution. But, while selection may have acted to perfect a functioning swim bladder in an evolving population of fish, selection did not work to "achieve" that swim bladder as a new niche. Thus, and stunning to me, evolution is creating its own future directions of becoming, in a radical emergence, where the niche enables that new possibility.

The same is true in the economy, from the Turing machine, to the main frame, to the personal computer, to word processing to the Internet, to browsers, to sales on the Web. All are enablement and radical emergence no one foresaw or planned.

This raises entirely new issues about which we seem to know virtually nothing. What enables enablement? Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of innovation, but hard to copy. Why?

In past work, reported in my book At Home in the Universe, and using my NK fitness landscape model, I showed the first cases where breaking a hard optimization problem into small "patches," each acting on its own behalf, but thereby making other patches worse some of the time, could outperform optimizing the entire problem at once. This may be a first, if limited, hint that distributed problem solving can outperform centralized problem solving.

But in the NK model, the space of possibilities is entirely pre-stated, the state space is "known," if vast. In real life, no one knew about Facebook 40 years ago, so could not optimize with respect to what was entirely unknown — an ever-changing state space in the evolution of life and the economy and policy and culture.

Beyond this we confront enablement and radical emergence.

How does this happen? What abets it? How should it be wisely governed? What moral, legal, practical issues arise? Is the evolved biosphere, or our First World, supracritical economy — with the power law distribution of firm sizes — a clue that these systems have, willy nilly, evolved to function well in enabling radical emergence? How do we enable this good, but limit distortion by money power of governance?

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