Networks, Politics, and Fitness Landscapes
by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)
A few days ago, the Supreme Court issues a bombshell decision. Corporations, interpreted as ‘persons,’ will now be allowed to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns, due to an interpretation of the protections of free-speech under the First Amendment as applying to corporate political speech. The implications for our country are profound. We do not live in a democracy by any means – we live in a corporatocracy. And that is BEFORE this ruling. Once this ruling goes into effect, there will be no limit to the extent to which politicians can literally be bought and sold legally. Whatever meagre protections we currently have will soon be swept off the books. The New York Times described the situation in the following terms:
With a single, disastrous 5-to-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century. Disingenuously waving the flag of the First Amendment, the court’s conservative majority has paved the way for corporations to use their vast treasuries to overwhelm elections and intimidate elected officials into doing their bidding.
Congress must act immediately to limit the damage of this radical decision, which strikes at the heart of democracy.
The conservative majority were in fact ingenious in their intervention, the implications of which will take quite a while to tell. They also conceal a potential for real change. For so many political debates in our country get mired in the surface details. But the debate that will now occur over the relation between corporations and politics will redefine precisely what gets to count as politics in this country.
Networks and Politics
A networkological approach to politics makes enormous use of the manner in which complexity studies have analyzed the behavior of networks in the wider world. Food networks, power grids, supply networks – the world is full of data on how networks behave in the real world. When a network is able to weather crises and adapt to changing circumstances, we say that the network is ‘robust.’ And when a network gives rise to new and innovative forms in and of its own, we say this network is ‘complex’ and gives rise to ’emergent properties.’ The classic example of an emergent property is when you ‘do the wave’ at a sports stadium. No-one can quite say who starts the wave, and if you try to start it yourself or with a few friends, odds are, it will die out shortly. Only when the conditions are right, when people are watching their neighbors in just the right state of selective innattention, will the wave be able to go from a small event to one which takes on a life of its own. In such a case, micro-rules (ie: see what your neighbor does, even as you watch your own behavior) lead to new developments at the macro level. But what would keep the wave going? This is a question of the robustness of the wave. Robustness and complexity are gauges whereby we can monitor the long-term health and creativity of networks.
And from what we can tell from the science of networks, there are some clues as to what sort of ‘topology,’ or shape, of network produces the greatest benefits for either of these factors. As it turns out, there is justification for democracy in nature. For in fact, it is the so-called ‘distributed’ network which seems to generally maximize both robustness and creativity. A distributed network is one with many small hubs, one which is relatively decentralized. One particular type of decentralized network, often referred to as a ‘small-worlds’ or ‘self-similar’ network, one which indicates many fractal properties, such that it possesses relatively the same number of hubs at multiple levels of scale, seems to be particularly special in the natural world, and one of the most consistently productive of complexity and robustness. But why are complex networks so stable and robust?
This is because they balance control and centralization with diversity and flexibility. If you centralize a network too much, you create logjams and rigidity. Whether in power-grids in which the downing of a single central transistor can bring down a whole network, or an organization like a corporation, in which all information needs to go through the same person, centralized networks are easy to throw off balance, and they stifle creativity. In a time of crisis, however, they may be necessary simply to get things done. But such ‘star’ networks are ultimately destructive in the long-term. Fully decentralized networks are often no better, however, in that they often cannot organize the chaos they produce. Distributed networks, however, do a good job of nurturing creativity, managing crisis, and adapting to changing environments.
Many scientists have demonstrated the manner in which colonies of bacteria will often shift back and forth between star and distributed network formations, based upon the amount of resources in a given area. What produces the need for centralization is thus scarcity, or in terms of populations of humans, ‘fear.’ Fear creates star networks, while greater relaxation produces distributed networks.
Much of this has to do with the fact that complex adaptive networks, such as organisms, adapt to their environment, often described by evolutionary biologists as the organism’s ‘fitness landscape.’ Such a landscape indicates a mapping of a ‘fitness function,’ a mathematical consolidation of the qualities needed to be considered ‘fit’ in a given environment, and hence, to be more likely to survive.
In a multi-agent system, such as a population of organisms, evolution progresses when organisms try out different strategies in a environment which can be understood as giving shape to a landscape which maps the various combinations of traits which give rise to fitness amongst the organisms. Evolution can be therefore thought of as a large search algorithm (or program) within fitness space, and mapped by a fitness landscape.
What makes evolution such a tricky game, however, is that fitness landscapes often shift dramatically when the environment changes. The most robust network of organisms (each themselves a network) is the one which can adapt to changes in the environment. Rigid organisms often die off when their environment changes around them.
The recent Supreme Court decision is perhaps the most powerful type of intervention in politics – it alters the shape of the fitness landscape, of the series of qualities that make a political figure, idea, or organism (party, organization, website, etc.) ‘fit’ in our political climate. Fit in this case could correlate relatively well to what we commonly call ‘powerful.’ And to be powerful in this new landscape, one will need to have massive corporations on your side, otherwise, your ability to be heard will become relatively nill. We will soon have the Senator from Pepsi and Nike – as if we didn’t already. But the extent will be infinitely more extreme.
But there is a hope. If Congress acts to restrict the implications of this decision, we might get a real counter-intervention within the landscape of what determines the conditions of viability of politics in this country. Of course, I trust Congress basically nil and none. But if the public puts enough pressure on Congress, there just may be hope.
Intervention at the level of the landscape is perhaps the most groundbreaking there is. And yet, issues like campaign finance reform rarely get any interest from the American public. Can we convince people that their democracy is at stake? Better yet, that it can actually be truly created, perhaps for the first time?
Theorists of both reform and revolution need to take heed of the fact that what gets considered as feasible within a given political climate gets determined by the structure of the landscape underlying a given political domain. Alter the landscape, and the agents operating within the landscape will react accordingly.
The Supreme Court has just radically shifted the landscape. And in doing so, perhaps they will focus this country as it rarely has before on addressing the issue of the relation between money and politics. Currently little can get done in this country because of this link. And of course, you can hardly trust those put in power by the system to want to change it. But this is where we must put pressure on our officials, and let them know their jobs are on the line.
In Europe political elections are often publicly funded. And it seems to me that the only way to take back our democracy, or actually give birth to it from our current morass, is to institute publicly funded elections. Our elected official have to spend so much time raising money right now – why not make that illegal? And make it so that when in elected office, you can’t get so much as a new t-shirt from your Grandma without breaking the law. We need to pay lawmakers enough that they don’t search for favors, and make these favors illegal. And when someone wants to run for office, all one should need is enough signatures to qualify for funding from the government to get to the next level of the election, be this debates, editorials in newspapers, etc. And then higher up the chain.
But the meme that we ‘speak through our donations’ is horrifically unfair, because some people have more dollars than others, and the persons which under law ‘corporations’ can claim to be, have more dollars than any of us, despite being run by a tiny select few.
The Supreme Court has just shifted what will determine the entire future of our political landscape. We have a rare opportunity, due to the size of this change, to focus the national debate on the landscape itself. If we miss this opportunity, or get it wrong, our political discourse may be even more severely compromised than it already is, and for decades to come.
We must find a way to intervene in this. For more than just politics, but the potential for politics, is at stake.