Tuesday, August 16, 2016

How is a great nation like a flagellar bacterium?

Consider the humble E. Coli. It is worth studying for several reasons: it has atomically-precise electric motors to turn its flagella, for example. The flagella themselves are corkscrew-like hairs that act as propellers when turned one way, and induce random motions when turned the other. But the point of interest is what the flagella are used for.
The E. Coli can also sense the density of dissolved nutrients in the water it is swimming in. It swims along and notices that the level is climbing; it is swimming into a region of higher concentration; it's happy. So it keeps swimming.
On the other hand, if it swims through the region, it notices the concentration declining. So it reverses its flagella and tumbles. It winds up facing in a random direction, and sets out again. This may or may not get it on a course that takes it back into the food, but at least it has a chance. The result of the whole algorithm is a biased random walk that tends to keep it in the higher-concentration areas.
It turns out that an ordinary housefly does much the same thing. Its maddening buzzing around is a biased random walk through the concentration of food-like smells in the air. This causes a concentration of flies in the vicinity of things like garbage cans.

Like the bacterium or the fly, the population of a great nation cannot really see where it is going. (Needless to say, neither can the government.) All they can do, in general, is to tell if things are getting better or worse. And if things are getting worse, the people will call for Change. In a democracy, they have a mechanism to do this more or less peacefully, but they will do it the hard way if they must. Think of Romania; think of the Soviet Union.
And when the people call for Change, what they get is a tumble in the highly multidimensional space of policy options.
This makes it a bit hard for a futurist.

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