Belmont Club

Ripping it all up

Broken. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

Sometimes it takes time for an idea to come into its own.  One such is the idea is that reality largely consists of connections. In 2016 Scientific American described the emerging cosmological theory that “spacetime—is actually composed of tiny chunks of information”.

According to the new view, spacetime, rather than being fundamental, might “emerge” via the interactions of such bits. What, exactly, are these bits made of and what kind of information do they contain? Scientists do not know. Yet intriguingly, “what matters are the relationships” between the bits more than the bits themselves, says … Brian Swingle, a postdoc at Stanford University. “These collective relationships are the source of the richness. Here the crucial thing is not the constituents but the way they organize together.”

The key to this organization may be the strange phenomenon known as quantum entanglement—a weird kind of correlation that can exist between particles, wherein actions performed on one particle can affect the other even when a great distance separates them.

The obvious difficulty with this theory is the astronomical amount of information required to centrally coordinate an entangled system.  Describing the connections within a mere 100 atoms of gold would quickly fill the storage capacity of a hard drive the size of the whole visible universe. As a Wired article quoting Swingle said “if you take the entire visible universe and fill it up with our best storage material, the best hard drive money can buy, you could only store the state of about 300 spins.” Fortunately nature may have solved the problem by building reality from the bottom up.

The key to achieving this simplification is a principle called “locality.” Any given electron only interacts with its nearest neighboring electrons. Entangling each of many electrons with its neighbors produces a series of “nodes” in the network. Those nodes are the tensors, and entanglement links them together. All those interconnected nodes make up the network. A complex calculation thus becomes easier to visualize. Sometimes it even reduces to a much simpler counting problem.

By assembling components into progressively bigger assemblies an entire universe can eventually be built.  Mark Van Raamsdonk, a string theorist at the University of British Columbia “imagines entanglement creating space-time gradually … individual particles …  become entangled with each other. These entangled pairs then become entangled with other pairs. As more particles become entangled, the three-dimensional structure of space-time emerges.”

Perhaps the change in zeitgeist led David Brooks to see in bottom-up creation a revolutiionary new sociological model.  In his recent NYT article The Localist Revolution Brooks says “we’ve tried liberalism and conservatism and now we’re trying populism. Maybe the next era of public life will be defined by a resurgence of localism.”

Localism is the belief that power should be wielded as much as possible at the neighborhood, city and state levels. …  Politicians in Washington are miserable, hurling ideological abstractions at one another, but mayors and governors are fulfilled, producing tangible results … many cities have more coherent identities than the nation as a whole. … People really have faith only in the relationships right around them, the change agents who are right on the ground. …

Localism is not federal power wielded on a smaller scale. It’s a different kind of power. … The federal person sees things that can be reduced to data. The local person sees things that can be reduced to data but also things that cannot. …

Federal change often means big shifts quickly … Local change happens more gradually, more iteratively. …  As Leo Linbeck of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism describes, the new innovators “announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch.”

What links the cosmological and localist human models is the way they handle information. Linbeck notes in his paper Localism in America that its advantages, much like our quantum entanglement example, are due largely to the greater information efficiency of managing complexity through components. First, it allows society to limit the amount of information that must be moved between levels instead of repeating it, as a centralized system trying to manage everything would.

It is safe to say that no human being has read every page of the Federal Register or every line of Linux code. Both of these systems are way beyond the scale of a single person. And this simple and indisputable fact means that no one can deal directly with these systems. Instead, this complexity must be managed by employing a number of strategies. The first strategy is to break a big, complex system into smaller, simpler subsystems and carefully define the way those subsystems interact. Even after such a breakdown, if a system continues to grow, the subsystems themselves will become too large and must be broken down further into smaller sub-subsystems. Through this subdivision process, we not only reduce the complexity of the subsystems but also increase the number of people who can deal with the problem.”

Secondly, a system built from components can be constantly refactored without breaking it. We are all familiar with how “software companies rarely if ever force users to upgrade their system. Instead, they announce the availability of the upgrade and then allow users to choose when to make the switch and allow application developers to update and upgrade their systems to adapt to the new code base.” Eventually users upgrade to maintain compatibility with the leading edge but do so at their own pace.

That is how software but not Washington works. Brooks’ observation “that there is no one set of solutions to diverse national problems” is disturbing because it suggests that many actually believed the contrary. Only now is it becoming clear that the long progressive campaign to deconstruct traditional institutions and replace subsidiarity with big government centralism may by destroying connections effected the very opposite of what it intended to achieve. “Expertise is not in the think tanks but among those who have local knowledge, those with a feel for how things work in a specific place and an awareness of who gets stuff done. Success is not measured by how big you can scale, but by how deeply you can connect,” Brooks says.  The “politicians in Washington” he decries as “miserable, hurling ideological abstractions at one another” may be unintended outcomes of a polarizing, reductionist narrative that tore up the fabric that actually made things work.

in 2010 Van Raamsdonk proposed a thought experiment to demonstrate the critical role of entanglement in the formation of space-time, pondering what would happen if one … removed the entanglement … He found that space-time begins to tear itself apart …  Continuing to split that memory chip into smaller and smaller pieces unravels space-time until only tiny individual fragments remain that have no connection to one another. “If you take away the entanglement, your space-time just falls apart,” said Van Raamsdonk.

Maybe that’s true of society too.

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Support the Belmont Club by purchasing from Amazon through the links below.


Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person — capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or “tribes,” a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today’s divided world.

For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.

Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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