November 18, 2008

Economics, Part VI: Heuristics

An empire requires that human beings succumb to the illusion of dependence on the system. Without this illusion, the empire as such cannot exist. In a way, it is like this for every culture - the culture as a generalized whole has to buy into its own ideas, otherwise it wouldn't cohere. It is only by making processes unconscious that a culture or society can function; we call them "heuristics" in psychology.

The heuristic is a funny little idea noticed first in biopsychology. Somebody noticed that the human mind is capable of a whole lot of processing, but not enough to deal with every single stimulus that comes from the environment around us. Think about your perception for a moment; when you look at the world, what happens? You tend to focus on certain things, as opposed to others. For example, if you are sitting in class (as I am now), there are many options for your attention - you can focus on the professor, of course, but there are many other sights, sounds, and smells to notice. You can see and hear other students typing on their laptops (often in facebook, not powerpoint or onenote); you can focus on the sound of the air conditioning; you could focus on the feel of the chair beneath you; you could focus on the feel of your clothes sitting on your body; you could focus on the smell of the coffee of the guy a few rows down, or the sound of your laptop fan; you could focus on the constant shifting and sniffling of the guy behind you.

So why don't you focus on those things? Because you have heuristics - mental short-cuts - that tell you those things are not significant in the context of a classroom. Instead, you're supposed to focus on the professor, who is teaching. But ok, how do you know who the professor is? You have a heuristic for that too - it's the person who stands at the front of the classroom and tells you things from a notebook or a powerpoint. Usually the person is older than you, and usually the person is better dressed than you are. If this seems obvious to you, it's because your heuristics are working - they're those little unspoken assumptions that help you make your mental perception more accurate. Over time these heuristics become more and more unconscious, as the evidence in their favor mounts and the contradictions fade (as we get used to their use), and we become "set in our ways." They allow the mind the capacity to process higher functions, such as logic and emotions, because it doesn't need spend as many resources to process raw sensory information.

If heuristics are thus necessary to the human condition, it is their abuse that perpetuates Empire. When people take their heuristics for granted, when heuristics go unquestioned, they leave the heuristics open for someone else to take advantage of them. Heuristics are never perfect, and are meant to be dynamic rather than static; there are always "exceptions to the rule," as it were, but when someone does not allow those exceptions, he or she does not allow for the limited nature of perception in his or her tiny little corner of the world. However, if someone else were to convince a person that his or her heuristics were static (solidifying them into "stereotypes"), the person would then become trapped in an illusion of simplicity. For example, instead of allowing the category "professor" to include somebody wearing jeans and a sweater (which is less traditional), one might stubbornly maintain that professors ONLY wear suits and ties. It's too simple of a category that doesn't allow for diversity; "professors" (or whatever) become a closed system, incapable of change or addition. Amplify this to a large number of heuristics and add a dose of ethnocentrism ("our heuristics are better", as any human being does with his or her own perceptions, which is then amplified in community), and suddenly you are on the path towards Empire. When this large group of people believe the world to be starkly simple, they have given up their ability to critique themselves, and thus the ability to change for the better.

Since the heuristic element is an intrapersonal element, within the individual (although there are such things as "collective heuristics"), it is with individual heuristics that the problem of empire begins - and must end. Massive cultural shifts do not happen because of a movement that begins with the masses, with the collective, but rather at the level of the individual, with a few people that move beyond established traditions, heuristics, or cultural assumptions. Empire is thwarted primarily by individuals that then become a collective movement.

In other words, Empire is thwarted by choice.

(to be continued ...)

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