Saturday, April 17, 2010

Theories of history

A little over a year ago I attended a session of UC Berkeley's weekly Information Access Seminar featuring a presentation by Paul Duguid, a professor in the university's School of Information. The session's title was "The World According to grep: What Have We Been Searching For?" [1] At the heart of Prof. Duguid's talk was consideration of how periods of "openness" or "closedness" of information -- whether information is held closely or shared freely in social and political contexts -- affects the ways people navigate through or around it.

(For those who aren't Unix geeks, "grep" is an in-joke, a Unix search utility that nicely twists the name of the protagonist in a well known John Irving novel, later made into a movie. The I-School faculty are like that; this is a good thing.)

Prof. Duguid's ideas were wide-ranging and deeply informed, but the thing that stuck with me was a part of the discussion that followed his formal presentation. This is often the most interesting thing about the Friday Afternoon Seminars, as the sessions are colloquially known. One of those present asked whether the speaker subscribed to a theory of history -- whether history is linear, cyclical, or something else -- and how he thought historical patterns related to trends of "closedness" or "openness" of information he'd been describing. Duguid demurred, claiming uncertainty regarding the shape of such changes. In his tentative view, trends in information management are not quite recurring, but not quite progressing in a linear fashion either.

This exchange got me thinking about the question of patterns in history, whether it makes sense to characterize them as "linear" or "cyclical" -- or something else entirely. It's hard to draw a mental map of behaviors as complex as a world, made up of webs of culture and nations, each comprised of scores to hundreds of millions of humans; not to mention the stew of physical environments that nourish and constrain us. I tried nonetheless. Without any formal education in the topic, my hunch is that "linear" and "cyclical" are trajectories that are too simply drawn to meaningfully describe human history, even in the many variants of such theories.

What, then?

My thoughts coalesced first around ideas in the vein of high school chemistry. In a follow-up e-mail to Prof. Duguid, I suggested that the human and social chaos out of which coordinated behavior and organized historical narratives emerge might be conceived as solutions to which a reagent or catalyst is added that causes precipitation of a salt of some kind. That is, from time to time a reagent or catalyst may enter the solution [of fluid humanity] and change some part of it to something more stable and less fluid -- a solid precipitate. Over time, conditions may become chaotic again, and what was precipitated is redissolved. At this point the cycle may occur again, with a different reagent or catalyst causing a different sort of precipitation to occur. The ingredients [people suspended in place, time, and culture] are more or less the same over time, yet shifts in conditions or slight shifts in the nature of ingredients cause different outcomes (precipitates).

In a similar vein, I suggested that organizing agents in vast, loosely-coupled groups of humans might be analogized as small impurities in gemstones that cause different samples of a mineral to appear quite differently. The examples that come to mind are rubies and sapphires, both corundum (aluminum oxide). Rubies contain chromium; while sapphires contain iron, titanium, or chromium. Again, the same metaphoric concept: the chaotic human milieu is more-or-less the same as history unspools (as a corundum crystal is more-or-less uniformly made of aluminum oxide), yet some (relatively) small change in its constitution, such as a religious docterine or a new technology, may cause it to behave differently on a macro scale.

In Turbulent Mirror, John Briggs and F. David Peat describe how the laws of chaos govern most of what occurs in the physical world, and may constitute a means of describing how "everything in the universe is interconnected" (that's from book's back cover). "Self-similarity" -- a set of ideas developed by Benoit Mandelbrot that many are aware of under the rubric of "fractal geometry" -- is an interesting way to think of this interconnection. From the Briggs & Peat book, where the quotation is of Mandelbrot himself:
"I became very aware that self-similarity, far from being a mild and uninteresting property, was a very powerful way of generating shape." By 'self-similarity' Mandelbrot means a repetition of detail at descending scales [...] it is now clear that fractals embrace not only the realms of chaos and noise but a wide variety of natural forms which the geometry that has been studied for the last two and a half thousand years has been powerless to describe -- forms such as coastlines, trees, mountains, galaxies, clouds, polymers, rivers, weather patterns, brains, lungs, and blood supplies [...] Take, for example, [...] a mountain. Seen from forty miles away the mountain's outline is quite recognizable, yet at the same time it's iregular. The closer we drive, the more detail is present and even when we begin to climb the mountain we notice the same pattern of irregularity and detail in the individual rocks. The complex systems of nature seem to preserve the look of their detail at finer and finer scales. [...] Images from vastly different scales evoke a feeling of similarity and recognition.

Might historical patterns also be fractal? Do we replicate in our large scale social structures the relations between individuals, families, and villages? Do we behave collectively in ways that echo our interactions within small groups? (History as fractal is an attractive and powerful trope for novelists, who aim to tell larger and deeper stories by bringing a few characters to vivid life.)

Robert B. Laughlin, the Nobel prize-winning physicist from Stanford University, makes a strong case against reductionism in favor of an emergent view of how the physical world is realized in his 2006 volume, A Different Universe. Leading into his own description of mountain range fractals, Laughlin writes that:
"it makes no sense" to call any given shape "complex." Only the selection of one shape out of many, a physical process, can be complex. When we say a shape is complex we really mean that the physical process by which it formed is unstable and with a slight nudge could have generated one of many different shapes. Similarly, we say a shape is simple if it is guaranteed to be formed by a physical process the same way every time, even when nudged fairly violently.

Applied to historical patterns, this idea is not so different from the gemstone analogy I suggested to Prof. Duguid. An impurity in the crystal that makes corundum into a ruby or a saphire is Laughlin's "nudge."

Members of an on-line writer's group I recently joined exchanged some ideas last month about character arc (like narrative arc, only concerning characters rather than plot). One of our number, Steven Long, wrote:
"I believe we mythologize our lives all the time, story-tell to ourselves. That story-telling we do to ourselves is about understanding our lives, and it takes a certain form, which parallels fiction. Fiction is not life, any more than the stories we tell ourselves or way we see our own lives is actually life. What we perceive to be our lives is a representation, sifted through many filters. The form fiction takes is of a similar filter, one that we understand, written in a way that we can comprehend, that resonates with us because we recognize both ourselves, and the structure of our own memories in it."

Nicely put. In a later exchange Steven agreed that his ideas apply not only to fiction, but also to the way we tell stories about collective lives, that is, to history.

What do you think? By what patterns does history unfold?

[1] The material from which Paul Duguid's presentation was drawn has since been published as "Search before grep: A Progress from Open to Closed?" in Konrad Becker & Felix Stalder, eds., Deep Search Vienna: Studienverlag, 2009, available in manuscript as a PDF from Professor Duguid's website.

1 comment:

  1. I like your catalyst theory, and the fractal theory, as well; I've always believed that history is a telling and retelling of our common, human story (a story that in the telling is itself flawed), limited on some basic level by our psyche. Even if history manifests differently, we're still replaying the same problems and solutions because they are innate to who we are. Hm. That seems pretty grim!