What governments could learn from brains

When the PM of India started his talk with “the effects of digitization…” at the World Government Summit I was preparing to activate my stare-daydream-nod-clap conference mode. Having been in the Tech scene for the last 10 years, I thought there is nothing new I can hear about the effects of digitization. I was wrong. Mr. Modi along with several other thought-leaders in governments were talking about challenges I have never heard of in the industrial world before. However, I have seen similar challenges and solutions in neuroscience. Governments today seem to face problems that nature solved by evolving brains.

This article introduces two challenges, playfully compares them to the evolution and functionality of the brain and finally extracts several lessons — on a high level.

Challenge 1: We used to have shortage of data, now we have a confusing abundance of it.

Governments, as we know them, were conceived in times when data was scarce. Most of the functions of governments were designed around the need of gathering data. That is not the main challenge anymore; data is available in abundance, and that poses a fundamentally different challenge. Rather than gathering and storing data, governments are in need of the skill of making sense of a huge amount of data in real-time. Not being able to do so could have, and has had, catastrophic consequences.

9/11 vs. The Cuban Missile Crisis

Malcolm Gladwell makes this point by comparing two of the biggest national security crises for the US in the last century: the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and September 11th in 2001. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA tackled the situation by going out and gathering information about the situation in Cuba: pictures from spy planes, on-the-ground spies, interception of diplomatic cables, etc. Only thereafter were they able to assess the situation and generate a reaction.

9/11 was completely different. On the day of September 11th, the CIA and the FBI were already in possession of all the information they needed to avoid the attack. That is what the “9/11 Commission Report” concluded. The problem wasn’t negligence, the problem was that they also had a lot of other data. There is no reasonable amount of resources that would allow the analysis of all the available data in a time-scale that would still allow them to react. In fact, the CIA was able to piece together what happened in 9/11 out of information it already had: interrogation scripts of capture Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen months before, reports and memos about suspicions of rising flying trainees, money trails, etc. The data acquired after 9/11 were used to direct the interrogators on where to look in the information they already had.

Brains evolved to make sense out of huge amounts of data

According to a prominent theory, the trigger for the evolution of a sophisticated brain was the ability to move. Beyond the obvious consequences on the function of the brain, movement resulted in a massive increase of the flow of data into the brain. Information had existed everywhere, but with the ability to move, organisms collected more of it. Moreover, because movement enabled hunting, escaping, socializing and other crucial functions, information became more important. Knowledge became the difference between surviving and dying, between mating and not (try using a scientific citation next time you flirt with someone). That is a situation similar to the one governments started facing in the last two decades. Digitization did for governments what movement did for brains; It massively increased the influx of data and on top that made data more important.

Pattern recognition and attention: Growling bears and mating calls

After movement, the organism came into an environment where survival and reproduction heavily depended on the ability to recognize dangers and opportunities using constant flow of information from the sensory organs. Without going into much detail here, the brain did so by combining data from different sources at an early stage of information processing and decentral decision-making. For early humans, a sound of growling, combined with a certain pattern of steps in the woods at night was a sign of trouble that required escaping. A sight of a human of an opposite gender with a pattern of inviting behaviour combined with the lack of threat of other humans around meant a chance to mate. If you take away one aspect of either picture, the information isn’t as valuable anymore.

Digitization did for governments what movement did for brains; It massively increased the influx of data and on top that made data more important.

No matter how inviting the mating signs are, the growling sound would end the process immediately. That is, because not only does the brain make sense out of the flow of information, it can also redirect its information-gathering devices according to its internal state and goals, in real-time. That is a resource-effective way to handle huge amounts of data. As an organ, the brain is already scratching the level of maximum resources it could ask from the organism: calories, oxygen, development time (childhood), size, etc. Also, being slow in the processing is also and there is no use to make sense of the data late. Attention systems are the way the brain manages its resources efficiently to still be able to do its job.

Governments, just like the brain, are faced with a maximum limit of resources and authority (e.g. privacy) and at the same time tougher requirements. Attention is to the brain what hindsight is for governments.

Challenge 2: Digitization devalued physical space

Arguably the biggest long-term impact of digitization is going to be that it makes the physical space less important. Digitization and its derivates have created a second space: the cyberspace. The physical space is where governments were conceived. Their purpose, functions and structures were inspired by physical things that don’t necessarily apply to the cyberspace and therefore aren’t compatible with the digital era.

The social contract behind governments needs an update

According to the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, governments originated when individuals, who had been in absolute freedom before, came together and established a social contract to minimize their dangers by collectively sacrificing some of their freedoms/opportunities. Before that, they had been in the so-called state of nature where everyone had absolute freedom but also big dangers. The shift to a political order was about a dynamic in the balance of opportunities and dangers. Getting into the social contract, i.e. founding a government, meant reducing the probabilities of the dangers by sacrificing some of the opportunities. (for mathematics fans, I could share a mathematical analysis of this dynamic with you 😊).

Crucially, the dangers, opportunities and their probabilities were all directly linked to the physical space. Two individuals could only present dangers and opportunities to each other if they were physically close to each other. That is why the concept, structures and functions of governments revolved around the physical space. But nowadays the situation is different: individuals can present dangers and opportunities to each other regardless of their position in the physical world. That changes a lot for governments.

Digitization created the necessity and possibility for a social contract independent of physical space

Nowadays, individuals could have interdependencies regardless of their physical position. Henry Kissinger goes as far as saying that this even created a new “state of nature” as described by Hobbes, where everyone is quasi-absolutely free again: “[technology] has, in some respects created the state of nature […], which provided the motivating force for creating a political order”. That implies both the possibility and the necessity to have a social contract independent of the physical world that regulates the dynamic of dangers and opportunities in this new cyberspace. E-commerce, cybercrime, international virtual outsourcing and fake news are just some of the obvious digital opportunities and dangers.

This is completely contrary and disruptive to the way governments are set-up today. First, governments are predetermined by a physical space that contains individuals with significant existence in a cyberspace. Second, governments are now supposed to manage a network of elements more numerous, more interconnected and faster than ever before. Although we know how to create such networks, we still aren’t equipped to engineer and control them decentrally. Just think of the financial crisis in 2008 -or any other global economic crisis- as an example of such failure.

There is another source of new dangers and opportunities: the mystic space

Interconnectivity turned the world into a type of dynamic networks mathematicians call adaptive networks. Such networks are characterized by the cliché “The whole is more than the sum of the parts.” Networks have some properties on the “macro” level that are not existent on the “micro” level (emergent properties). This means we now have a new mystic space that exists in the difference between “the whole” and “the sum of the parts”.

Having a social contract in such a network requires being able to understand and therefore govern the space between “whole” and the “sum of the parts”. That is something we don’t know how to do and are badly equipped to learn. Ironically, the same conditions that created such a world created a generation least skilled to handle it (pages 341–361 of Henry Kissinger’s “World Order). Moreover, the dynamics of that mystic space are still active fields in mathematics, physics and biology research.

The brain is a very good example of how to manage the mystic place

The brain on the other hand masters the art of dealing with that mystic space. Almost all the cognitive phenomena attributed to intelligence are considered to be emergent properties. Problem-solving, attention, creativity, decision-making, memory etc. are all properties that do not exist on the “micro” level. What is interesting is the way the brain manages such phenomena without having a central structure. Consider memory: the function itself is distributed over many areas of the brain; nevertheless, there are structures (e.g. hippocampus) that enable the function and “nudge” it. Problem-solving and decision-making is a similar case: it happens in different parts of the prefrontal cortex as well as motoric cortex. However, structures like the amygdala regulate such a process through emotion and reward systems. If we learn how the brain does that, we could learn how to observe, analyse and engineer phenomena in adaptive networks and the “mystic place” to produce a certain output. Only with that skill could we design social contracts/governments that are independent of the physical space.

So, what could governments learn from the brain?

That should be the subject of a deeper investigation, but a few ideas come to mind. Governments could learn the following skills from brains:

  • Real-time data gathering (perception) and pattern recognition
  • Early holistic perception: combining different types of data early in the structure
  • Attention: real-time ability to focus on certain aspects and switch that focus according to internal parameters (attention).
  • Fast and decentral decision making

New technologies would enable the governments to achieve the first point. “Internet of Things” (IoT) offers an array of sensors, CPUs and the connectivity modules to be able to constantly gather information from the “physical world” and stream it to do the job of sensory organs. Web crawling techniques could do the same for the cyberspace. In addition to that, different artificial intelligence and data science techniques combined with the ones above could perform real-time pattern recognition and prediction activities that would mirror what happens at the lower sensory cortexes in the brain. The moral question of whether a government should do this or not is ignored in this article.

The structure and human resources of the government would play an important role in recreating the holistic perception and attention systems. Combining different types of “sensory” data requires a structure that allows communication between departments at low levels of hierarchy. Information should be exchanged and combined at early stages of processing across the different departments creating an early multifaceted perception of the situation. That would allow decisions to be made earlier, more decentrally and possibly more effectively. It would also enable an “attention” function. Remember that attention in this context is equivalent to redirecting the data-gathering systems/teams according to the internal state of the system in real-time. This could only work if different departments were communicating early in the data-gathering process and if they are authorized to direct each other’s priorities.

Decentral decision-making processes are also crucial to accomplish this task. Just as different parts of the brain are able to make decisions but still be in sync with a more general goal, governments could get rid of traditional chains of command and move into a more decentralized approach. That is about both empowerments, ability to draw a clear strategy and an inclusive culture. The business world has already adopted such methods in the last few years.

Governments cannot afford to have a “Facebook moment”

Finally, if the nature of governments and the social contract behind them does indeed change and they shift into having to manage adaptive networks, then it becomes imperative for us to understand how to engineer and manage such networks. That is a very interesting mathematical, technological and structural challenge. We have become very good at using technology to create such networks. But, if we don’t have them under control (without having to adhere to centralization), the consequences could be huge. Mark Zuckerberg has been apologizing lately for this. Governments can’t “do a Facebook”.


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