We suck our knowledge about happening into some kind of patterned structure


It’s done. I am caught in the here and now with my writing. As I am writing these words, on June 10th 2020, George Floyd’s funeral in Minneapolis, U.S., is just over. I am Polish, I live in Poland, and I am essentially a bystander as regards the events taking place in United States. Yet, those events resonate in my country, and I think I can express an opinion.

I have a few words to say about the idea of defunding the police force. We had the same idea in Poland, when we were transitioning from communism to democracy, from 1989 on. As communism collapsed, we would intuitively associate police force in general with an oppressive regime. It was a pattern inherited from the communist system: the police force was a tool of oppression in the hands of a totalitarian state. In parallel, the new democratic Poland had to rebuild its fiscal base almost from scratch, and for quite a few years, the government went very largely bankrupt. Defunding the police force came as sort of handy, both economically and politically, and so we did.

We expected more freedom with less cops in the streets. Still, instead of freedom, gangs crept in. Gangsters took control of entire cities, within months. One year after the fall of communism, in summer 1990, it was already impossible to run any substantial business without being racketed, pardon, without paying for “protection services”, and you were lucky if just one gang claimed that tribute from you. Sometimes, you would find yourself in disputed terrain between rivalling gangs, and then you were really f**ked. In 1995, a friend of mine died of a horrible death, in a cartel-style execution, because he was unlucky enough to be a bouncer in a club which two rivalling gangs tried to take over and control. It took us like a decade to re-establish a relatively normal social order, around 2001 – 2002.

Thus, guys, a message to those of you who think that the police force is your worst enemy. With all the due respect, you’re wrong. The police force is like a shield between us, normal folks, and a social fringe of truly evil sociopaths. Once again, believe me, you have no idea what true evil is until you look it straight in the face. You remove the shield, and you get exposed to real monsters, and those monsters are surprisingly well organized. I am tempted to quote Jean – Jacques Rousseau, the French thinker commonly associated with the theory of social contract. Rousseau stated very clearly that what we see as civil rights and freedoms really works only to the extent that we have a government strong enough to guarantee them.

The world is changing. I am doing my best to wrap my mind around those changes. As social media swell with contrary tides of ideas, I try to keep my mind open to all kinds of opinions. A strange memory floats up to the surface of my consciousness. I think I was like 10 years old, so it must have been 1978, communist Poland, of course. We already had in place a system of food rationing, especially as regards meat and fruit. My father was in the communist party and was a fervent acolyte thereof. I remember seeing in the official news, on TV, a reportage on how fantastically buoyant our agriculture and the food sector were. Mountains of delicious fresh food loomed on the TV screen. I asked my father: ‘Dad, how come we have such amounts of food on TV, but in day to day life we have so little meat and fresh fruit, and what we can buy in food stores is mostly industrial sugar and industrial pasta?’. My dad answered: ‘This is because our entire society, in line with the doctrine of the Party, we are committed to support the emancipation of black Americans in the United States’. ‘Oh, so we send them our pork meat, to the United States?’ – I would reply – ‘Cool. I didn’t know. But, dad, couldn’t we help those black Americans a little less and eat a little better? I think it is called a compromise…’. ‘Don’t you dare questioning the policy of the Party! There are no compromises in promoting international social justice’. Yes, it was the usual closure to such conversations, at the time. You never knew who was listening.

Of course, it was bullshit. We were not helping black Americans, we simply had a f**ked up economic system, based on ideology instead of entrepreneurship, and black Americans were just an excuse. I wonder how much of handy excuse are black Americans now, serving to cover various mistakes in people who would lose a lot, should they have to endorse those mistakes, and serving ambitions in other people (or maybe in the same people). As I read business news, I can see, here and there, some top corporate executives, all white, being suddenly fired by other top corporate executives, white as well, because of ‘racial hate speech’ etc.    

I can see society slightly shaking around me, and I realize how strongly I am attached, in my psyche, to relative stability in the social space. I realize how easy it is to fall for either path: ‘Let’s do revolution!’ is just as tempting as ‘Western civilization is dying!’. Both offer easy space for unloading stress, which accumulates as I see social rituals changing all of a sudden. Good. This thread of thinking, i.e. thinking about social stability versus social change, is a good avenue to lead me back towards my research on the role of cities in our civilisation. I build up intellectual distance by referring once again to Arnold Toynbee’s ‘Study of History’ (abridged version: Somervell &Toynbee 1946[1]). In the introduction, Arnold Toynbee writes: ‘If the argument of this chapter is accepted it will be agreed that the intelligible unit of historical study is neither a nation state nor (at the other end of the scale) mankind as a whole but a certain grouping of humanity which we have called a society’.

That excursion into Arnold Toynbee’s theory serves me as a pretext to open up on a more current topic: cities in Asia, and more specifically in China. I had the opportunity to visit some of the Chinese cities and I was baffled with how different they are from the European ones. Under a superficial layer of similarity, a completely different social order dwells. When I wrote that cities are made of movement and human connection, I should take it to square power in the Chinese case. In Chinese cities, even buildings go faster than European ones. Hardly anyone conserves buildings in China the way we do it in Europe. In Europe, we are used to maintaining constructed architectural substance as a sort of skeleton, and to organizing our social activity around it. In China, buildings are like cars: when used up, no one bothers to renovate them, they are just being replaced with new ones. Chinese cities are all movement.      

Cities have grown, across the globe, in strict economic connection to the surrounding countryside. The city creates social roles, and therefore a market for agricultural products, and the countryside provides a stable food base. That connection by partition is fascinatingly different between China and Europe. European agriculture developed as pretty much a closed loop between people, livestock, and vegetal farming. Livestock eats, livestock shits, and thus livestock fertilizes. In China, historically, there has been much less livestock in agriculture, and much more cereals, mostly rice. There is a historical detail about the connection between rice and cities in China. This is one of those details we just don’t talk about, as it sounds awkward: Chinese cities had been fertilizing their neighbouring rice fields with human excrements from cities, with comparatively little amount of animal manure (see for example Braudel 1992[2]). The kind of loop that European humans made with their livestock and their cereal fields, Chinese humans made directly with their rice fields, without inviting cattle to the party.

As you can easily guess, looping our food base on our own excrements gives clear incentives to increase the amount of the latter. Cities can grow much bigger than in Europe. Bigger cities, and faster growth in their population mean more new social roles being created per unit of time, whence new social space for greater a population. Greater a population defecates more, and the loop spirals up.

Chinese cities, including their ancient, peculiar relation to the rice they buy from the countryside, seem to favour hyper-growth in size. Au & Henderson (2006[3]) claim that Chinese cities, such as they emerged as the Chinese economy after its progressive transition towards market economy, are still too small regarding the economic incentives for growth they offer (or rather used to offer 15 years ago). Au & Henderson claimed that Chinese cities create exceptional economic incentives for demographic growth. On the other hand, as we observe the way that Chinese cities function today, they have an outstanding ability to attract new investment. The bottom line under this specific thread of my writing is that social difference between cities and the countryside is strongly idiosyncratic. Why?

The ‘why?’ question is usually an abyssal one. You have logical coherence and functional correlation entangled around the assumption that things which happen later are the outcome of things that happened earlier. I prefer tricking myself by asking ‘How?’ instead of ‘Why?’. How does the idiosyncratic social difference between cities and the countryside develop? How does it start? What are the distinctive steps in the process? Is there any threshold of saturation?

How does a city start? The basic answer is: slowly and with a lot of struggle, when a local population needs to organize itself. A demographic anomaly forms: a collection of man-made structures, apparently pointless from the point of view of warfare and agriculture, and yet functional for trade, business and politics. Some folks discover that it pays off to construct a few buildings close to each other instead of spreading them across the countryside. Those folks deliberately shrink their respective physical territories, from farm-wide to store-wide, in order to have additional benefits from exchange.

I jump back to the present and the current, and to the #BlackLivesMatter protests. In Seattle, U.S., protesters created (well, they didn’t create anything, they occupy somebody else’s property, but ‘created’ sounds better) an autonomous zone. They created a town. Similar episodes are happening across Western Europe as well. People who, objectively speaking, are anarchists and therefore postulate to destroy the incumbent social order, put in place their own social structure as soon as they are satisfied with apparently having destroyed the old one. This is amazingly coherent with what I discovered in my experiments with a neural network, which was supposed to simulate a system of social roles. When social cohesion, i.e. social distance between distinct social roles, gets a bit of loose in the shoulders, the incumbent social roles disappear at first. Yet, after an initial phase of entropy, that very simple set of equations learns how to bring social roles back (see The perfectly dumb, smart social structure).

Maybe this is how cities formed in the past, i.e. they formed in momentary windows of social entropy, when nobody new s**t, and some people said: ‘OK, guys, as no one really knows what to do, we are going to do urban life. This is how intelligence works: knowing what to do when we have no clue what to do’.  

Now, a few more words of explanation as regards my stance on #BlackLivesMatter. By reading what I have just written, you can guess I am a moderate conservatist. Yes, indeed I am, and, on the top, of that, I like asking embarrassing questions and cutting bullshit out of the answers. When people gather in large numbers, what they want most of all is gathering in itself. They want to experience community. Defining a common enemy – those ugly privileged whites and ugly cops – helps reinforcing the oxytocin loops that gathered people trigger with each other. The pandemic and the lockdown have shaken a bit the sense of social cohesion – people stopped going to work, children stopped going to school, habits got shaken – and slogans like ‘Society must change!’, shouted and yelled, actually reflect a post factum acknowledgment of facts (‘F****k! Society changes! Heeeeelp!’).

Sometimes, I have the impression that anarchist movements like this one are a necessary pain in the ass when we want to absorb important exogenous stressors. Maybe we train for the BIG adaptation to climate change?

Cities are distinctive from the countryside by their abnormally high density of population, which is a proportion between population and the territory it occupies. There are two distinct methods of measuring both: administrative and GPW (Gridded Population of the World). I am sharpening my understanding of these two approaches so as to understand the dynamics of urban structures as such. My approach is empiricist. I hope to understand better the boundary between cities and the countryside through understanding the fine distinctions as regards the way we perceive that boundary. Here, one more excursion into current events. Have you noticed that CHaz (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) in Seattle is precisely in Seattle and not in the countryside? Logically, if you want to cut ties with the ugly incumbent social order, forming a commune out there, in the fields and woods, could be a tempting idea. Yet, these specific protesters decided to constitute Chaz in the city. They claimed it because they need it.   

Underneath the cognitively acknowledged social rituals, maths dwell. Before we started to remember what we had forgotten about life in the presence of epidemic risk, our set SR = {sr1, sr2, …, srm} of ‘m’ social roles was congruent with and logically equivalent to such other sets as, for example, the set IN = {in1, in2,…, inz} of ‘z’ typical levels observable in annual income, or the set R = {r1, r2, …, ro} of ‘o’ places of residence. Social contacts had been kind of going along and coming with the social role at hand. Now, our set of social roles has suddenly become significantly congruent with and logically equivalent to a set ßC = {ßc1, ßc2, …, ßcn} of ‘n’ observable levels in epidemic risk derived from social contacts.

Before, the daily mathematical life of our culture consisted in feeding into itself a set of individual experiences regarding income, housing, cars owned etc., and pitching the resulting mix against the benchmark of what we consider as collectively desired outcomes. Life is made of chaos and order, and we mix it. We have things we know we do, i.e. our relative preference for different social roles SR = {sr1, sr2, …, srm}, and that preference manifests itself as the probability p(sri) that a randomly selected human endorses the social role sri. We acknowledge chaos as random, local occurrences ε(t) of something barely conceptualized. Our social roles happen as temporary instances of a general cultural frame, i.e. as SR(t) = {ε(t)*p(sr1), ε(t)*p(sr2), …, ε(t)*p(sri)}. Each ε(t) in that temporary occurrence SR(t) is different. Remember: that ε(t) is just a civilized mask we put on the pretty scary face of barely acknowledged chaos.

We, humans, we are obstinately ordered. Things happen to us in a hurricane of phenomenal chaos, and we take great care to react in an orderly, patterned way. We don’t have enough money? Good, there are patterns to follow: save, invest, get a better job… The catalogue is actually definite, at least for most of us. We feel a bit down on our physical condition? Good. Exercise, sleep more, pay attention to what you eat. Once again, the repertoire of reactions is finite. We need someone else in charge? Well, let’s see… Elections? No? Then maybe a corporate structure and appointment by the strongest players? No? Doesn’t fit the bill either? Well, then we stay with limited options… Structurally unstable dictatorship disguised as democracy where we buy people’s votes with the money they haven’t earned from other people ‘cause we were the first to snatch that money? Good? We go on with this one? Good…

There is another trait of orderliness in our civilization: we are strongly coherent and cohesive in our social ways. Have you ever noticed how frequently those people, who present themselves as outsiders and non-conformists, take great care of fitting into a precise mould of ready-made ideas and behaviours? I remember going to a wedding, in 2018, where the bride and the groom were much younger than I, just as most of their friends. As the wedding party was starting, the young couple announced that ‘this party is a celebration of freedom and independent thinking, without any false moral limitations; do whatever pleases you to do’. The actual consummation of that principle looked stiffer than a reception at the Buckingham Palace. Everybody was eyeing everybody else, how free and independent they appear, and tried to fit exactly into the same model of freedom and independence. This is what we humans do, socially: we eye each other, and we conform. Even when we claim we don’t conform, we actually conform to some other pattern. This is not some innate stupidity: this is how being a social species manifests itself. We hold parties in the same basic way our distant ancestors would hunt the woolly mammoth. We coordinate, and much of this coordination is tacit, i.e. not expressed explicitly.        

The provisional bottom line of this little intellectual excursion into the realm of weddings is that, on the top of distinctive traits observable in particular social roles, our collective intelligence feeds into itself information about mutual coherence between those social roles.

We have those patterns. Whatever happens, we suck our knowledge about happening into some kind of patterned structure. Patterning starts with aggregation of idiosyncrasies. We collectively make some kind of simple metric about reality. Let’s call it h. The simple h can suck reality into itself in many mathematical ways. The h can emerge as h = ε(t)*p(sr1) +  ε(t)*p(sr2) +  … + ε(t)*p(srm), or it can go into the fancy realms of matrix maths, like h = [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(sr2)] + [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(sr3)] + … + [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(srm)]. Whatever. It boils down to taking a lot of largely chaotic reality and squeezing it into the magic hat of culture, so as to pull a nicely structured rabbit afterwards.

Have you noticed that the rabbit always comes up from the magic hat, and never falls down from it? As a collective intelligence, we have patterned ways of drawing conclusions from aggregate existential chaos. There is something at the base – the hat – and something – the rabbit – comes up from that base. As you browse through neural activation functions, which we use in artificial neural networks to represent what we think intelligence is, at the bottom line you most frequently fall either on the mathematical constant e = 2,71828 elevated to the power h of aggregate chaos, with some kind of additional parameters, or on the square root of 1+ h elevated to some arbitrary power. The idea is that our way of being intelligent contains some kind of constant root, such as e = 2,71828 or √(1 + h2). By the way, the constant root e = 2,71828 is a collection of steps towards reverted infinity of dimensions, i.e. e = (1/1) * (1/1) *( ½) * … * 1/(n → ∞).    

Thus, when we think about the way that intelligence works, thus when we project our own thinking about our own intelligence, we assume there is a constant root in that intelligent cognition. At the very base of what we think, we sort of always think the same, and aggregate chaos of daily existence comes as a modifier to that constant root. We think almost the same we used to think before, just with a small drift.

I feel like partly summing it up. We go through that chaos called life by being smartly social. We endorse SR = {sr1, sr2, …, srm} social roles and we discriminate among them by experimenting with their local probabilities p(sri), whilst acknowledging random disturbances ε(t) and producing local instances SR(t) = {ε(t)*p(sr1), ε(t)*p(sr2), …, ε(t)*p(sri)} of our framework social structure. We aggregate our experience with those local variations into simple metrics, like h = [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(sr2)] + [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(sr3)] + … + [ε(t)*p(sr1)/ ε(t)*p(srm)], digestible to our big, patterned institutions, which maintain a baseline continuity and allow some drift as circumstances happen.

The inevitable failure to achieve what we collectively want, largely resulting from the apparently intrinsic inability to define what we really, collectively want, generates learning about the margin of error as regards perfect happiness. We feed that error forward in time, into the next episode of existence, and we backpropagate that error along the logical structure of our civilisation, and it all plays out over and over again. Now, we enrich our collectively subconscious, mathematical life with data about epidemic risk attached to individual social roles, and by that means, to general categories of social roles. We feed into our culture our observation of that risk, we make it a functional part of the social order, and we keep pushing.

OK, change of tangent. I think I have pretty much circled the ideas I want to develop in my book on cities and their civilizational role. Here comes the list:

>>> Idea 1: Cities are demographic anomalies, which we, humans, have devised in order to accommodate a growing population.

>>> Idea 2: Seen as social contrivances, cities have three essential functions. Firstly, they allow rapid multiplication of social roles, which facilitates social structuring of a growing population. Secondly, that creation of new social roles allows the existence of many parallel, social hierarchies, which, in turn, facilitates the moderation of social conflicts. Thirdly, the development of cities allows, as strange as it could seem at the first sight, systematic development of agriculture.

>>> Idea 3: Cities enhance the collective intelligence of human societies, i.e. they enhance our collective ability to experiment with many local, alternative instances of our fundamental social structures. Cities allow systematic development of correlated behavioural coupling, which, in turn, largely eliminates randomness and excessive rigidity in the process of collective learning.    

>>> Idea 4: Technological change as such is a manifestation of collective intelligence rather than the individual one. Our technologies change at the pace allowed by the intensity of social interaction. Artificial intelligence is a good example of a technology that reflects collective intelligence.

>>> Idea 5: Cultures built around and on the basis of urban life display a characteristic pattern, centred on demonstrable social activity, correlated behavioural coupling supported by financial markets, and complex institutional systems.

>>> Idea 6: Cities form, as demographic anomalies, when a factor of disturbance temporarily distorts social cohesion, and then a new process of defining social roles emerges, with a cohesion of its own.  

Those 6 ideas coincide with some basic empirical regularities which I have noticed. Here they come:

*** Fact 1: Since 2008, the global human society has become prevalently urban and the process of urbanisation continues.

*** Fact 2: There is an interesting discrepancy between the administratively defined extent of urban land, on the one hand, and measurements based on satellite imagery, on the other hand. Whilst some cities in the world officially grow in space (i.e. their officially defined territories spread), the total surface of urban land in the world seems to be constant – at least for now – and cities grow into that de facto urban space rather than out of it.

*** Fact 3: The density of urban population, measured on the basis satellite-assessed extent of urban land, demonstrates intriguing properties as socio-economic variables. Those properties become even more interesting when the density of urban population is being denominated in units of general density in population. That compound variable, i.e. urban social density divided by general social density, which essentially measures the social difference between cities and the countryside, grows in an unusually monotonous, linear manner, and demonstrates intriguing correlations with such variables as income per capita, energy consumption per capita or agricultural productivity. When compared cross-sectionally, i.e. between countries, that variable seems to be hitting some kind of sweet spot around the value of 20 ÷ 22, i.e. when urban populations are approximately between twenty and twenty-two times denser than the general population. Anything significantly below or beyond that value seems to be less functional.      

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[1] Royal Institute of International Affairs, Somervell, D. C., & Toynbee, A. (1946). A Study of History. By Arnold J. Toynbee… Abridgement of Volumes I-VI (VII-X.) by DC Somervell. Oxford University Press.,

[2] Braudel, F. (1992). Civilization and capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The structure of everyday life (Vol. 1). Univ of California Press., pp. 145 – 158.

[3] Au, C. C., & Henderson, J. V. (2006). Are Chinese cities too small?. The Review of Economic Studies, 73(3), 549-576. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20185020?origin=JSTOR-pdf

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