Saturday, November 27, 2010

Time for my latest screwball theory. May be ... just may be ... Greed is not as avoidable as you think ... may be it's built-in to the design of the economic system ... read how ants might help learn a little about ourselves ...

Like all great theories, this one starts with ants. Ever observe an ant-colony? These goddamn creatures are always restless - busier than even the President of United Nations - relentlessly carrying food, or taking trash out, and yet making time for a brief greeting with every ant along it's way !!! Aesop even famously joked that "They are definitely better than grasshoppers". Looking at an ant-hill, one feels like it's a miniature New York City : full of buzz; everyone is going places and clearly knows what he's doing.

"Actually NO" says Dr. Deborah Gordon of Stanford University in this eye-widening TED talk. Having studied ants with their teeny-weeny brains and their colonies for over 20 years, Dr. Gordon argues that with a few simple and unintelligent rules, the entire ant-colony manages to feed itself and brave all sorts of weather for almost 10 years. And the best part: NO ONE … no one with a gift of gab or an MBA degree claims to be running the damn show. Let's see how's it possible. The entire economy of an ant-colony involves primarily 4 functions done by 4 kinds of ants:



So, how does an ant decide what to do like "Ok! Today let me go and search for some food" or "let me take trash out"? First of all, an ant can't see very well. Next time you want to help an ant with some food, just do it - no need to move any of your hind muscles. But, what they have is a pair of awesome antennae implying a superhuman strength of smell. Every ant in the colony has a trademark smell and every ant engaged in each of the above activities develops an additional signature smell i.e. an ant doing the trash work develops a certain kind of distinguished smell and so on. So, our ant just starts randomly walking and it touches every ant that it comes across in that mysterious antenna-rubbing sequence which is not at all what perverted humans think it is. They are, in fact, figuring out, through smell,what is the other ant doing - foraging or patrolling or midden work etc. Then, our ant 'decides' what to do by crudely remembering the rate at which it meets other ants - if our ant runs into too many ants that are carrying food, it is likely to start foraging as well. So, the ant rules can be summarized something as:
    1. If you meet too many of food-gatherers, follow the trail - gather food  and get back to the hill.
    2. If you are meeting too much of sweepers, just find something to sweep and when you run into a heap of trash, dump it.
    3. If you don't meet as many folks as expected - OOPS! You are lost .. Go back.
It must be noted that the same ants adjust in "special circumstances" - like if there is too much trash on the food superhighway, more ants are mobilized to start the clean-up job. Every ant keeps changing it's activity based on what it's neighboring friends are doing. Plus credit must go to the lack of self-help books and idealistic schools of thought in helping them switch smoothly from one task to another without pausing to contemplate "Hey! Is this really my passion? Am I doing what God intended me to do?".

The ant-colony is a fascinating example of how simple rules can manifest seemingly complex behavior at larger scales. Complex functions can arise from a large number of real-time executions of these simple rules. It is , as though, complexity is intrinsically designed to be manifested at higher scales of abstraction. Similar structural behavior has been observed in a variety of other organisms. Ever wondered how a huge flock of birds execute a right turn resulting in zero auto-insurance claims or how a large school of fish delightfully dance to the background scores in "Finding Nemo" with no confusion?  It is also conjectured that even the neurons in our brains engage in a similar simplistic behavior. Systems like a flock of birds and the ant-colony has been simulated by computer scientists and they even use the algorithms (called "Boid") for applications like Data-Mining, for animated bird sequences in the "Lion King" movie etc. Absolutely simple rules and it seems like a well-rehearsed ballet dance. The ant or bird isn't a super-intelligent animal. Just like humans, if you observe closely enough, a lot of them actually might be committing goofy mistakes but statistically speaking, they overall make it work and the show is going on for millions of years.

Now to my main point. If you are reading this line, let me first congratulate your patience thus far. When fellow humans of my species complain about these greedy vampire squids called corporations, I am bemused to think that may be "Greed" is a natural property at the systemic levels inherent to the rules of business we have framed. I think, many companies are not planning greed on a daily basis - but they are merely following simple rules of business. Let's say all of us in every company goes to work with a simple attitude like
"I will work to maximize my yearly productivity and keep my boss happy"
I emphasize the word "yearly" because most organizations in the world decide professional performance based on something called an "Annual Appraisal Form". Let's say you, your boss, his boss, his boss's boss … and so on up to CEO and the board of directors follow the same rule - all of us trying to locally maximize our monetary contribution for the current financial year and keep the boss happy.  Of course, not you. You are a smart, intelligent and knows exactly what you are doing. But every cross-eyed guy in the next cubicle acts as if he can patent "servile submission to the superiors". Isn't it?

There will be exceptions but if statistically large number of people follow this attitude at work,  may be "greed" is inevitable. May be, we are all innocently complicit in the thing we so often complain about. Imagine this, folks. Every company out there has it's mission statement to increase the share price. Remember that any investor of the company's stock has no emotional or moral obligation except making money in the next year. If you take thousands of corporations with millions of employees in an economy all trying to locally maximize their monetary productivity  - we are all 'locked' into a system of greed if we decide to give promotions this year based on last year's monetary productivity. Apparently, this seems to be the attitude of the Investment bankers that has brought about the stock-market crash of 2008. May be, this is how that once nice kids-on-the-block like Google and Facebook get fancy ideas that they soon find themselves facing the heat on "net neutrality" and "privacy issues". May be this could be the reason, many industries incite liberals for hiring swarms of lobbyists and lawyers. It's all built into the design. Some planning might be going on but no one need not plan as elaborately as you think.

In all humility, I know I have trivialized certain arguments but I hope you get the idea.  This theory no way explains the vast diverse dynamics of human society, but it does seem like simple rules like above in addition with some more can explain capture the complexity of our economy at higher scales to some extent. I don't know any other alternative remunerative strategy at this stage because that's the best our math can do - money is the only objective value we can conclusively count and compare.  And  I leave with a passing thought that may be, may be  if we change the way we evaluate a company's stock based on not just monetary, but also taking into account it's ecological (like carbon foot- print) and social contributions, may be we can create a less greedy world - then may be, we can run after the real greedy people !!! I know it's not at all easy. Even if we gather a thousand Nobel-laureates to finally agree on a model that fairly evaluates such a thing, something like this will surely happen :



In addition to simple rules bringing out complex behavior, it is not surprising that complex rules can  surely bring complex behavior. Anyway, did you feel you nailed the whole report today? Congratulations, you have successfully been used by the system. See you tomorrow.

Thanks for reading. What do you think?

10 comments :

g2 said...

hmm... very thought provoking...

I think greed is what makes us human! Also our entire economy is based on the perceived value of a shiny yellow metal!

Sash! said...

well ... there is human greed ... and there is a more (???) prevalent greed that is being brought about by the sheer dynamics of the rules of the system we 'designed' (whether we can own up the design or we are helpless is another question) ...

I am talking about the second one. The first kind of greed - well ... i don't know what to do ... spray oxytocin and cloud their judgment in life, perhaps :)

Purba said...

Ant-i-thesis?

Sash! said...

ha ha .. nice pun !!!

vineet said...

indeed forces me to hv n ltogether diffrnt thnkin, i agree with g2, very very thought inducing..good 1

Sash! said...

@Vineet : Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts ...

research in science like this forces us to look at our commonly held assumptions about equality, individual freedom etc. and what do they imply on planetary and global scales : "we can't have a straight-forward attitude at job and complain about greed" ... (although, it's still a theory ... ) :)

kiran said...

good one Sashi, Intresting and thought provoking as well.

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