Life can be full of surprises, like really. When I was writing my last update, on March 7th and 8th, the one entitled ‘Lettres de la zone rouge’, I was already writing about the effects of coronavirus in the stock market. Yet, it was just sort of an external panic, back then. External to me, I mean. Now, I am in, as we all are in Europe. Now, more than ever before, I use blogging, i.e. writing and publishing content, as a device for putting order in my own thoughts.
At the university, I had to switch to online teaching, and I am putting a lot of myself into preparing good stuff for students. By the way, you can assess the quality of my material by yourself. I have two lectures on Vimeo, in a course entitled ‘Fundamentals of Finance’. Both are password-locked and the password is ‘akademia’. Pay attention to the ‘k’. Not ‘academia’, but ‘akademia’. Lecture 1 is available at https://vimeo.com/398464552 and Lecture 2 fires on
I can’t help philosophizing. I should be focusing, in my blogging, on melting, hammering, and hardening my investment strategy in the stock market. Yet, financial markets are like an endocrine system, and given the way those hormones just fountain, right now, I am truly interested in studying the way the whole organism works. According to the personal strategy of writing and publishing, which I laid out in the update entitled ‘Back in the game’, as well as those which followed, since February 10th, 2020, I should be using my blog mostly for writing about strategies to apply for investment in the stock market. Still, life can be surprising, and it is being bloody surprising right now. There is a thin line between consistency and obstinacy, and I want to keep walking on its consistency side. In order to coin up a sensible strategy for investment, I need to understand the socio-economic environment: this is elementary stuff which I teach my students in the first year. Besides, as I observe myself right now, I think I have some affinities with some squids and octopuses: when I sense serious cognitive dissonance coming my way, I release a cloud of ink. Just in case.
When I go deep into thinking, I like starting from what I perceive as my most immediate experience. Now, my most immediate experience consists in observing my own behaviour and the behaviour of other people. On Tuesday the 17th, I recorded those two video lectures, and I had to go to the campus of my university, where we have a state-of-the-art recording facility. I was cycling through the nearly empty city, and memories popped up. I remember the late 1970ies, when I was a little kid, and lived in the communist Poland. When I would walk the streets, back then, they were similarly empty. It is only now, when human traffic in the streets has gone down to like 5% of what it used to be until recently, that I realized how much more mobile and interactive a society we have become, in Poland, since that communist past.
I am thinking about the way we, humans, adapt to new circumstances. How is social mobility, even that most immediately observable daily traffic, connected to the structure of our social life. How is my GDP per capita – I mean, it is per capita, and thus I can say it is my per capita – related to the number of pedestrians per hour per square kilometre out there, in the streets? My most immediate experience of street traffic is that of human energy, and the intensity of its occurrence. It looks as if the number of human steps on the pavement, together with the stream of vehicles, manifested an underlying flow of some raw, hardly individuated at all, social force. What is the link between this raw social energy, and social change, such as what we have experienced, all over Central Europe, since the collapse of the Berlin wall? Well, this is precisely what I am trying to figure out.
Now, I go deeper, as deep as William James used to go in his ‘Essays in Radical Empiricism’, published, for the first time, in 1912. Human energy, out there, manifests itself both in the streets as such, and in me, in my perception. Phenomenologically, the flow of human traffic is both outside of me, and inside my mind. The collective experience is that of roaming the city, and, in the same time, that of seeing other people doing it (or even knowing they keep doing it). Same for the stock market, real business, teaching etc. All those streams of human activity are both out there, as intersubjectively observable stuff, and inside my mind, as part of my consciousness.
What we do is both in us, and out there. Social life is a collection of observable events, and a collection of corresponding, individual experiences. My experience right now is that of reorganizing my activity, starting with my priorities as for what to work on. It is fully official, the Minister of Science and Higher Education has just signed the emergency ordinance that all classes in universities are suspended until April 10th and that we are all encouraged to take on any form of distance learning we can use, even if it isn’t officially included in syllabuses. Given that right after April 10th it will be the Easter break, and that, realistically, classes are highly unlikely to restart afterwards, I have a lot of free time and a lot of things to stream smoothly inside of that sudden freedom.
I start with making a list. I structure my activity into 3 realms: pure science, applied science, and professional occupation.
As for the strictly speaking scientific work, i.e. the action of discovering something, I am working on using artificial intelligence as a tool for simulating collective intelligence in human societies. I have come up with some interesting stuff, but the first exchange I had about it with publishers of scientific journals is like ‘Look, man, it sounds interesting, but it is really foggy, and you are really breaking away from established theory of social sciences. You need to break it down so as to attach the theory you have in mind to the existing theory and to sort. In other words: your theory is not marketable yet’. I humbly accept those criticisms, I know that good science is to be forged in such fire, and I know that science is generally about figuring out something intelligible and workable.
The concept of collective intelligence is even more interesting right now. Honestly, that COVID-19 looks to me as something collectively intelligent. I know, I know: viruses don’t even have anything to be intelligent with, them having no nervous system whatsoever. Still, juts look. COVID-19 is different from his cousins by its very progressive way of invading its host’s body. The COVID-19’s granddad, the SARS virus from 2003, was like Dalton brothers. It would jump on its prey, all guns out, and there was no way to be asymptomatic with this f**ker. Once contaminated, you were lucky if you stayed alive. SARS 2003 was sort of self-limiting its range. COVID-19 is like a jihadist movement: it sort of hangs around, masking its pathogenic identity, and starts reproducing very slowly, sort of testing the immune defences of the organism, and each consecutive step of that testing can lead to ramping up the pace of reproduction.
All this virus has, as a species, is a chain of RNA (ribonucleic acid), which is essentially information about reproducing itself, without any information about any vital function whatsoever. This chain is apparently quite long, as compared to other viruses, so it takes some time to multiply itself. That time, unusually long, allows the host’s body to develop an immune response. The mutual pacing of reproduction in the virus, and of immune kickback in the host creates that strange phase, when the majority of hosts act like postmen for the virus. Their bodies allow the COVID-19 to proliferate just a little, but just enough to become transmissible. Allowing some colonies of itself to be killed, the virus brings a new trait: it is more pervasive than deadly, and it is both in the same time. At the end of the day, COVID-19 achieves an impressive reach across the human species. I think it will turn out, by the end of this year, that COVID-19 is a record holder, among viruses, as for the total human biomass infected per unit of time.
Functionally, COVID-19 looks almost like a civilisation: it is able to expand by adaptation. As I read scientific articles on the topic of epidemics, many biologists anthropomorphise pathogens: they write about those little monsters ‘wanting’ something, or ‘aiming’ for some purpose. Still, there is nothing in a virus that could be wanting anything. There is no personality or culture. There is just a chain of RNA, long enough to produce additional time in proliferation.
Let’s compare it to human civilisation. Any human social structure started, long ago, as a small group of hominids trying to survive in an ecosystem which allows no mistakes. One of the first mistakes that our distant ancestors would make consisted in killing and gathering the shit out of their immediate surroundings, and then starving to death. Hence, they invented the nomadic pattern, i.e. moving from one spot to another before exhausting completely the local resources. Our apish great-grandparents were not nomadic by nature: they probably picked it from other species they observed. Much later, more evolved hominids discovered that nomadism could be replaced by proper management of local resources. If you domesticate a cow, and that cow shits in the fields, it contributes to regenerating the productive capacity of that soil, and so we can stay in one place for longer.
Many generations later, we had figured out still another pattern. Instead of having a dozen children per woman and letting most of them die before the age of 10, we came to having less offspring but taking care to bring that smaller number up, nicely and gently, all the way to adulthood. That allows more learning within one individual lifetime, and thus we can create a much more complex culture, and more complex technologies. In our human evolution, we have been doing very much what the COVID-19 virus does: we increase our own complexity, and, by the same means, we slow down our pace of reproduction. At the end of the day, slowing down pays off through increased range, flexibility and biomass.
My theoretical point is that collective intelligence is something very different from the individual one. The latter requires a brain, the former not at all. All a species needs at the level of collective intelligence is to make an important sequence of actions (such as the action of reproducing a long chain of nucleotides) complex and slow enough for allowing adaptation to environmental response, in that very sequence.
I assume I am a virus. I slow down my action so as to allow some response from outside, and to adapt to that response. It has a name: it is a game. An action involving two or more distinct agents, where each agent pends their action on the action of the other(s) is a game. Let’s take a game of chess. Two players: the collective intelligence of humans vs. the collective intelligence of COVID-19. Someone could say it is a wrong representation, as the human civilisation has a much more complex set of pieces than the virus has, and we can make more different moves. Really? Let’s look. How much complexity and finesse have we demonstrated so far in response to the COVID-19 pandemic? It turns out we are quite cornered: if we don’t temporarily shut down our economy, we will expose ourselves to seeing the same economy imploding when the reasonably predictable 7% of the population develops acute symptoms, i.e. respiratory impairment. What we do is essentially what the virus does: we play on time, and delay the upcoming events, so as to gain some breathing space.
We can change the rules of the game. We can introduce new technologies (e.g. vaccines), which will give is more possible moves. Still, the virus can respond by mutating. The most general rules of the game we play with the virus is given by the epidemic model. I tap into the science published in 2019 by Olusegun Michael Otunuga, in the article entitled ‘Closed-form probability distribution of number of infections at a given time in a stochastic SIS epidemic model’ (Heliyon, 5(9), e02499, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2019.e02499 ).
A crazy scientific idea comes to my mind: as we are facing a pandemic, and that pandemic deeply affects social life, I can study all of social life as concurrent pandemics: a pandemic of going to restaurant, a pandemic of making vehicles and driving them around, a pandemic of making and consuming electricity etc. COVID-19 is just one among those pandemics, and proves being competitive against them, i.e. COVID-19 prevents those other pandemics from carrying on at their normal pace.
What is the cognitive value of such an approach, besides pure intellectual entertainment? Firstly, I can use the same family of theoretical models, i.e. epidemic models, to study all those phenomena in the same time. Epidemic models have been in use, in social sciences, for quite some time, particularly in marketing. The diffusion of a new product or that of a new technology can be studied as the spreading of a new lifeform in an ecosystem. That new lifeform can be considered as candidate for being a pathogen, or a symbiont, depending on the adaptive reaction of other lifeforms involved. A new technology can both destroy older technologies and enter with them in all sorts of alliances.
A pathogen able to kill circa 3% of the population, and temporarily disable around 10%, can take down entire economic systems. In the same time, it stimulates the development of entire industries: 3D printing, biotech, pharmacy, and even basic medical supplies. One year ago, would anyone believe that manufacturing latex gloves could be more strategic than manufacturing guns?