Propaganda, Narrative and Geometry

We often hear the word propaganda in the press and in the media. I wonder what kind of force this represents. The competitive force is always the one that comes first to mind. This is because I think of economics and social behavior. Yet propaganda is the ability to set the narrative, it is the ability to change a person’s mind. How does one include such a force in a detailed theory of behavior? Is the narrative a gravitational field that draws all under its sway to move in the same direction, friend and foe alike? Does this field owe its strength to some type of concentration of mass or energy at some strategic location? Might we call it strategic capital? How do I see that such a narrative effectively describes the process? Is this narrative distinct from other cooperative forces as well as any competitive forces? How would I tell?

To approach an answer to these questions that might be acceptable to most reasonable audiences, I anticipate that I must overcome a general fear such audiences have of numbers being used to describe human behaviors. Perhaps it is more general. In many cases we don’t like using numbers even when describing physical events. Take our conversation of weather. Are we more comfortable in reducing weather to a yes/no prediction of rain tomorrow than in understanding the complexities of airflow, humidity and pressure as a function of time? The former is like a person deciding, albeit an unknown weather god. The latter involves taking a stand on understanding. I think we are most comfortable with a yes/no prediction.

What is involved in the more complex understanding? Weather phenomena are not the acts of a capricious god but are the result of a process involving interacting parts spread out in both space and time. This process occurs in a continuum over space and time. What is happening here and now is dictated by what has happened elsewhere in the past. This is true at every level of scale, not only from a macroscopic but a microscopic perspective. A process view is based not just on a qualitative and discrete yes/no understanding but a quantitative description. The quantitative description provides the geometry; without this geometry the process is hidden.

But, you raise the valid objection that social phenomena are inherently uncertain and intrinsically about decisions which are discrete yes/no type outcomes. How can such events possibly be described as part of a continuum? My choice at this instant does not continuously flow from choices made in the past. It is a gamble and I might in fact, if given the chance, make exactly the opposite choice. Yet even in physics we have phenomena at the quantum level that from a certain point of view are uncertain and if viewed in a certain way, appear to be discontinuous. That fact has not prevented us from looking at them from another point of view as being described by a differential geometry in both time and space. Indeed, we suggest that game theory has provided us a perspective that social interactions in fact can be viewed geometrically if we focus on the mixed strategies and how they evolve in time as opposed to the pure strategies that focus on the uncertainties. We don’t focus on the actual decision, but on the mixture of decisions that are possible at any point in time.

As an example, consider that over the last decade, wealth has redistributed itself dramatically (Piketty, 2014). It has not happened discontinuously. It has evolved over time and appears to change continuously across social strata. Some members of the middle class have become wealthy whereas others have become poor. The changes reflect a process, not a capricious set of changes. The process is even more in evidence over long time scales of centuries. These then might be examples that we can focus our attention.

Suppose we analyze the flow of wealth and assume for simplicity it is distributed to two distinct populations. If the populations are valued similarly and if the interaction is zero-sum, we expect each to receive the same payoffs in the sense that what one wins, the other loses. But what if one population believes their payoff, if they win, is much higher than the other population?  We still achieve a zero sum type game if we balance the product of the population and value for each side. If it is agreed that one side is 10 times more valuable, then this works if the other side has 10 times the population. What matters here is the interplay between competition and propaganda, since there may in fact be no objective reason for the valuation other than a possibly enforced agreement. This then is an example from the data supporting the geometric geometry view, since we can see how the flows change as a function of wealth distribution.

So we return to the question of propaganda and narrative, which we view as a question of process. In the above example, the valuation of wealth is felt equally by both populations, yet it may not be factually based. From a theoretical point of view that is really fine. We are not establishing the “truth” of the valuation, but the outcome given that both sides adopt this “truth”. Whether this is a useful exercise is ultimately a question of measurement and quantitative analysis. In a differential geometry theory of decision processes, we look for confirmation in data (behaviors) that highlight the existence of the process. For example, for weather predictions, it is not enough to predict rain versus not rain; rather we must predict in addition behaviors that change continuously with space and time like air flow. Therefore, for social behaviors we must look for flows, as an example, which change continuously with strategic position and time.

We seek to gain understanding from two distinct directions. We look at data to be convinced social behaviors are in fact geometric processes and we look at results of theoretical simulations to be convinced that geometrical processes might explain such data. At some point we hope that these two approaches meet, even though we are not there yet.

How do we value the future?

I am struck by the difficulty of getting people to value decisions whose worth only comes to fruition in the distant future. I am one of those people, as probably are all of us. In making business decisions, we argue that results must be seen in 12 to 18 months in order for our decisions to be believable. The best decisions are probably those whose impacts are seen immediately or at least in the current quarter. In many ways such  beliefs are solidly based. It is fair to assume that we have all wasted our time on decisions that have yielded no value, or at least much less value than the effort justified. A good friend of mine, H. Kessler, pointed out the following article that addresses some of the issues associated with a common economic approach to valuing the future as it relates to sustainability:

Several things strike me as regards this approach called discounting the future. On the one hand, I think that there is a flaw in thinking about the future in this way, which is also hinted at in the above article. It is true that the net present value of a dollar 20 years from now is less than a dollar today. We use the concept of net present value to compare economic tradeoffs today with costs from the future. As the author points out however, we don’t really know the appropriate discount rate. For sustainability issues, we may be talking about less food or resources in the future based on present actions, which means we are talking about the loss of life in the future. How do we value that loss? The value to be well fed and the value to expect a reasonable life don’t change, even though the dollars assigned might.

On the other hand, I believe decision process theory suggests a different way of approaching the question of value, an approach more along the lines of the Art of War by Sun Tzu. I don’t have the details but my recollection is that the concepts arose out of observing local war lords fighting innumerable small battles. Battles were between villagers and bandits, with much harm and instability resulting for the common people. A mindset change came about by taking a step back and formulating general principles that were adopted by the very people doing the bulk of the fighting.  One such principle was that the best way to fight was not to enter into battle and thus not to fight at all. Such principles I would call components of a code of conduct, an ethical set of rules to be adopted by all, warriors and villagers alike.

I am becoming convinced that solutions for our modern problems that require valuing future costs must be based on a close observation of past behaviors of a similar nature. Like Tzu, we must then identify the new ethical rules that must become part of our Code of Conduct.  The ethical rules must be so well founded that the consequence of not following them should, like in the Art of War, be obvious and immediate. Such rules need to be self validating. This is essential since we all forget from time to time why we adopt even the most obvious ethical behaviors. We must be reminded to do no harm, and to not steal.

The myth of a level playing field

I unconsciously subscribe to the view that each day starts anew with new possibilities; I start fresh with no residue from the past. I call this a level playing field. Whatever happened yesterday is of no consequence to today. Decisions that were made yesterday have no ripple into today. This does not agree with reality and is a new feature captured in the theoretical treatment I give to decisions, see Geometry, Language and Strategy, Thomas, 2006, World Scientific (New York).  Some actions carry through while others die out. There are consequences to our actions that sometimes extend into days, weeks or years.

So why do I subscribe to this short-term view knowing full well that there are significant exceptions? I think it is related to similar ideas in mathematics and physics that it is easier to visualize events as local occurrences. For example, we see the earth as flat and stationary. That is our local frame of reference. The earth’s curvature is not easy to grasp. The effects of its rotation about its axis and around the sun are equally hard to grasp.

We make a similar simplification in business when we focus too closely on local effects. We totally understand the consequences of hiring an experienced person versus an inexperienced person in terms of their quality of work. It is less clear how such differences are expected to show up in terms of project schedules.  It is hard to see how such simple mechanisms work together to create system behaviors. In this case as in physics, it is easy to grasp local effects but hard to grasp global effects.

The idea of a level playing field is analogous to the idea that the earth is flat. This assumption is often useful  even though it may ignore important (global) effects that are not important unless you look at large “behavioral distances” or long “behavioral times”. For example if you deny a portion of the population education, adequate nourishment and shelter, this may contribute to the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We say such behavior is not just either because of our ethical position or because logically, we understand that over a long period of time, you have created an unstable society, one that may reverse the roles of the populations.

The problem in economics and in society is that our current theories are local, not global. They highlight the obvious advantages of a flat earth but fail to take into account its curvature when looking beyond the local. it is hard to translate these differences into our expectations of what should happen. And yet we know that a long-term view is essential to understanding. I conclude that however useful, the concept of a level playing field is a myth.

I have argued for the importance of considering both short-term cycles and long-term cycles. That concept I think is particularly helpful in moving beyond the myth of a level playing field. We can still wake up each day and start fresh as long as we understand that we are missing some of the long-term cycle effects. We must be prepared to predict the consequences of the composite behaviors: there will be some situations in which one or the other dominates, and other situations where both are comparable.

I believe that the goal of a theory in physics or in society should be to help provide a mechanism for discussion. The theory must be able to take into account all relevant and significant mechanisms. I argue here that one of those mechanisms is the degree to which the field is not level.

Sustainability–short and long cycles

In many discussions of sustainability, the assumption is made that the distant past and the distant future have no direct relevance to the immediate present. This assumption is not unreasonable since ripples from the past often do die out by the time they reach the present; similarly events in the present generate ripples that often die out if we wait a sufficiently long time. There must be some basis for our belief that events can be considered unconnected. We capture that belief in the use of probability as a means to predict the future: Bayesian probability.

I argue that this assumption is incorrect. See Geometry, Language and Strategy, Thomas, 2006, World Scientific (New York).  There are longterm cyclic effects that originate in the past, whose effects don’t die out. Some events from the present will continue on into the future without appreciable damping. The justification for this argument is as common sense as the above assumption. We see boom and bust cycles in market behaviors; we see the longterm consequences of global wars. The appeal of the above assumption is its simplicity, not its accuracy. I argue that if we had a theory that took into account such longterm cycles, we would consider that theory superior. We would see choices fluctuate according to both the short-term and long-term cycles (e.g. the following CDF figure based on an attack-defense model, chapter 9 of the dynamics of decision processes illustrates choice behavior with two cycles; the CDF format is not yet supported on smart phones, sorry).

[WolframCDF source=”” width=”328″ height=”334″ altimage=””]

An attribute we would look for in a more complete explanation of events would be that longterm cycles, though hard to see (weakly coupled to our observations), can have very strong effects (payoffs). This would contrast with our experiences of the day-to-day short cycle time events that are easy to see (strongly coupled to our observations), but with relatively weak effects (payoffs).

How would this view change our understanding of sustainability? We might then understand that as human beings we make small changes (weak coupling) to our environment that over a long time cycle time can have strong effects (payoffs). Because we have been successful in the past to accommodate environmental changes is no guarantee that we will be as successful in the future.