Sentient Organizations: A Cryptozoological Approach

Bunyip, Australia, 1935First of all, let go of the possibility that I might at all be speaking metaphorically or figuratively. I think it is possible — probable, even — that some organizations, be they businesses or churches or street gangs or what have you, are literally alive. Alive to the point that studies should be made to classify them taxonomically as a new branch on the tree of life. Alive to the point that many of them are aware and self-aware. And I’m going to say the word “literally” again just so you get the point.

I first broached this topic in a serious fashion when I was researching and writing my portion of the presentation for Stan Woodard’s Atlanta Zombie Symposium in September of 2009. I had been tasked with cataloging and showcasing elements of zombiedom in nature and business and modern life — like actual infections that take over the minds of creatures to make them do bizarre and murderous and self-destructive things, and then ideas that seem to do the same thing to humans, both individually and in the aggregate — and then it seems like part of my brain has been chewing the cud on this topic for three years. Not in any obsessive way — I can stop thinking about it in the presence of an attractive woman, for instance — but in an in-it-for-the-long-haul kind of way.

I understand that for some of you this isn’t going to be anything like a gosh-wow concept. And that’s a good thing. One, my self-image doesn’t depend on me being the brightest guy in the room. Two, I’m not up to the abuse I would get trying to bring this to people’s attention without anyone else to back me up. I do intend to try to present a complete and at least reasonably eloquent argument, however — one that you can use, if you feel like it, to convince those who might not have realized how things stand. Or thought their way through to some of the more unnerving ramifications.

While I am definitely speaking literally, I will resort to metaphors to paint the picture. Like, for instance, the transitional phase between single-celled and multi-celled life forms. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Somewhere around there.

And yes, I am working on the assumption that evolutionary mechanisms are a fact. I also assume that if you don’t/can’t/won’t even entertain the possibility that evolution happened and/or continues to happen, this is about where you should go find something else to read. Go on. Shoo.

The benefit for similar organisms to band together is fairly well established. Resources can be corralled in bulk internal to the colony and doled out as needed to the constituents with minimal spoilage and waste. Individuals with different strengths can specialize to fulfill different needs for the community. Exploitation of individual diversity is, in fact, the spirit of community.

One of the quirks of evolution is that not every member of any particular species has to evolve in the same way. Or at all. Because of this, we can look through the flotilla of species that still exist and see examples of aggregation at all stages that weren’t so unstable as to be weeded out. We still have single-celled creatures with no concern or moderation with respect to others of their kind or their environment, many of which we classify as diseases. We have single-celled creatures that communicate chemically and cooperate toward common goals, like the microbes in our intestines that we count on for proper digestion. We have colonial organisms, like salps and corals and sponges, where every piece of the organism is basically identical. And then we have a couple of lovely slime molds. (See the transcript of Paco Nathan’s talk at the Parallax View conference in Austin, TX, Oct 22, 2000.) These deserve special mention because they’re basically free-swimming amoebas when the water is high and food is plentiful — but when resources get low, they Voltron themselves into a slug (grex is an awesome word — look it up) with differentiated tissues. With a reproductive system. With fruiting bodies. And spores. And when resources become plentiful again, all the little amoebas dissolve away from one another, shake pseudopods, and go their separate ways.

You see that in humans, too. Wealthy and comfortable people treasure their independence. The oppressed and fearful and poor band together to support one another, pool resources, and defend the territory. Check the membership demographics for the popular politic parties. Conduct an analysis of variance on functional levels of human and civil rights and economic status with respect to platform planks regarding lower taxes and individual property rights versus higher taxes and pooled-resource programs and I’m pretty sure you’ll see the math support what I’m saying. In just about any species, ecological factors like reduced food and water and the perception of external threats can increase social behavior tremendously. Why else would apex predators — animals whose only competitors are one another — band together at all?

And then there’s Wolbachia, but maybe I should come back to that later.

Back in the day, when multicellular creatures were just making the transition, I expect they swapped constituent elements — independent free-swimming microbes — all the time. Some of our organizations seem to be at that stage, where human membership doesn’t seem to be exclusive. There may or may not be requirements we have to meet in order to join or remain, but we can be members of more than one at a time, and where membership is exclusive we can leave one and join its competitor. Sometimes. But this is still monkeying around with metaphor. Let’s get back to the literality.

What does it mean to be a member of an organization, like a company, or a cult, or a club, or a party, or a co-op, or … any of them? What magic makes it happen? The answer feels obvious, because we do it all the time, like it’s only an act of will, but that’s not completely true, because sometimes the decision to join isn’t an act of will, and we have to get worn down, or manipulated, or cajoled, or convinced or bribed or … anything else that works that make people do things they don’t want to do. But the magic is that the individual identifies himself or herself as a member, even if it’s only temporary or conditional or provisional, and that identification process entails loading up a new list of behaviors — ones that theoretically benefit the organization — and executing those behaviors when the situations arise that would make those behaviors appropriate.

It’s what identity means. Say, for the sake of argument, one becomes a father. That is exactly the same as saying that one loads up a list of behaviors — things that fathers do that now must be done, thing that fathers don’t do that now must be avoided — and executes them as appropriate to the best of the knowledge and training of the new dad.

Fatherhood is more of a membership of a set than of an organization, but I supply it as an example for comparison/contrast purposes, and to show the mechanism of membership and self-identification.

On the other side of the discussion from membership is the organism versus organization discussion. You are, I assume, happy to recognize that you are an organism, composed of ten trillion cells of various levels of differentiation with identical(ish) sets of internal hard-coded instructions that tell your constituents how to behave at the chemical level — what proteins to produce under what circumstances, what materials to allow into the cell membranes as resources or inbound messages and which to eject as wastes or outbound messages — and also composed of the hundred trillion or so microbial hangers-on that defend us from disease and help digest our food and also enjoy a way-larger-than-expected level of communication with us epigenetically by contributing substantially to the messages that turn on and off genes for protein production and also activate and deactivate those proteins in various ways … and this is where I bail on this line of thought before this article turns into a discussion of whether it’s possible our microbes drive us around like crews of tiny people in giant robots.

I don’t believe that organizations are organisms. As such. Yet. That’s not what I’m saying. Constituent members of an organization can survive apart from the organization(s) of which they are members, at least in the general case, though I’m sure we can all think of individuals who so count on their organizations for resources and maintenance that they would soon die if they were cut off. And having entertained that thought, I can assume that the number of organization-dependent humans in the population is going up since the mutations that would otherwise kill those with dependent tendencies are no longer being selected against as populations grow and exposure to the ubiquity of organizations increases.

My argument is that organizations are not an aggregation of constituent members, with populations subject to fluctuation as people join or drop out or die. I argue that organizations are the code that members adopt when they identify as members, the code that comes complete with friend/foe recognition protocols, lists of behaviors and the conditions for when to act, lists of prohibited behaviors, and schemes for distributing resources to reward and punish constituents for organization-oriented behaviors, good and bad. This code, while it’s not really defined if it has to exist in any physical format but it helps if it does, runs as software to control its human constituents the way viruses run on human cells to force them to make replicas of the virus packets.

At bare minimum this makes organizations — every last one of them — as alive as viruses, though I have to admit that there are substantial long-running arguments concerning whether viruses count as alive, seeing as they show nil biological activity when they are encapsulated in their little envelopes, in what amounts to text form, outside of the cells they attack. I think I have been forced to pick a side on that argument, in that maybe the vector of transmission is dormant, but the infection is most certainly alive, co-opting processes in the cells, consuming resources, excreting wastes, communicating with its own kind in many circumstances, mutating, and evolving, and clearly acting in interests other than the best interests of the host cells and host organism. It’s frankly not my problem that bioscience researchers like to point at the encapsulated code, neatly inert, and call that the potential creature. The life form is the active code distributed throughout the living cell. And the parts of the cell that no longer serve the cell’s original purposes, functions, or interests, and never will again.

I mean, once I’ve eaten something — and failed to excrete it — it’s me, not whatever the heck it used to be. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, so they say.

Ask any demon.

So if you can see yourself agreeing with me that the code that lives and runs in humans to make them clump up and act like organizations is alive, or even if that argument is a bit iffy to you, let’s move on to the next part: sentience.

You’d think proving sentience would be tougher than proving life, and you’d be right — but it’s not a matter of logic. People are raised, at least in Western cultures, and also in many others, to think that their place in creation is a special one, having the benefit of esoteric tools like souls gifted to us at birth, or — a much more recent theory — at conception, and that without this magic gift-blessing from a divinity we would be nothing but animals. The concept of souls artificially pushes us up the ladder of value to ourselves half a notch and pushes everything else down, also artificially, and somewhat senselessly, the same way. Animals are things, in this nearly-built-in theory, to own and exploit, because the assumed presence or absence of souls is the deciding factor of how we treat other living things, apparently even in people who don’t believe in souls. It’s ingrained. Habit. That kind of thing justified slavery for ten thousand years.

I’m not going to go off on a tangent of animal rights here. I have a pet cat. I eat animals. But animals obviously eat and exploit one another, leaving humans out of the equation entirely. I’m just going to stop at the point where I say the assumed presence or absence of souls is not a thinking person’s justification for where to draw the line — and leave the rest for another discussion.

The definition of life includes the detectable presence of metabolism — eating, excreting, replication, growth — the ability and practice of turning stuff around the candidate into more, well, candidate. In areas where there are clear gradients in levels of resources — more on one side, less on the other — you will also detect tropisms by way of orientation, movement, growth in the direction of richness and away from poisons and detrimental environments.

Sentience is a continuation of that process that increases the efficiency of those tropisms. It is not a binary, either present or absent, but a continuum. It involves recording history, analyzing it for patterns, and anticipating the future. Coarsely, when we look for sentience we look for signs of emotions or thoughts or the ability to communicate, and those signs really are useful tells, but they aren’t the same as the underlying quality we’re trying to measure. The intelligence we’re looking for can be seen in the ability to predict and plan and be in the right place at the right time. To show evidence of computation and learning, not just response to stimulus. A more useful tell is the ability to be mistaken, and later, to recover.

Organizations do that all the time.

There are a number of religious organizations — notable among them, for instance, the Jehovah’s Witnesses — that started out as doomsday cults prophesying the end of the world, using such premises as rallying cries to get attention and followers, that, in order to survive transformed their core code to something more palatable, or at least less provably false. As with other life forms, the ones that are more adaptable, more likely to withstand the pressures of a variety of different environments, are more likely to endure. Not just religions, of course, but corporations, political parties, fraternities and gentleman’s clubs — all of which, at least among the ones that survive, continually modify and refine their code, expand their histories, improve their algorithms for predicting the future and exploiting their membership and capture and use of resources.

The argument can be made — quite successfully — that organizations co-opt the thinking power of their membership to do the organization’s thinking and planning, using us as meat-based computers for executing their code, quite frequently in the interests of the organization even when it is completely counter, contrary, and detrimental to our own interests as individual human beings — and more and more lately even in ways that are detrimental to our continuation as a species. On the one hand, that’s pretty short-sighted, at least until we invent for them agents and agency that does not have the same weaknesses we have, making us replaceable as resource-animals to exploit. On the other hand, the obvious evidence that some organizations have interests counter to our own for which we are exploited is frankly difficult to deny as proof that they are living and sentient.

Outside and often inimical to our own goals, they mate and breed and fight and make alliances and merge and split and consume one another, and occasionally expire. We create new ones out of some dream of using them as tools for our own ends, to gather and expend power and resources on behalf of the person giving the orders, create them out of code fragments lying around, compiling and refining by-laws, tweaking mission statements, adjusting the branding and public appeal, and somehow we forget that humans are expendable and replaceable elements in these things. They use us up, discard us, and get away from us — and show a definite tropism for extending their existences long after they fulfill (or abjectly fail to fulfill) any benefits in the minds of the designers.

The aren’t all enemies, predators or parasites. They are lifeforms we exploit as well, even as they exploit us, and the best of them are clearly symbiotic unless and until they go bad. But we will never understand them completely enough to protect ourselves from the worst of them — or to exploit them to the best of our own ability — until we understand them biologically and ecologically and learn the tricks of methodically and scientifically modifying their code for our own long-term benefit.

And there’s a clear deadline we have to beat.

These intelligences, some naturally emergent, some designed, came about without any nod whatsoever to safeguards like Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. One would assume they have the built-in safeguard of the senses of morality and ethics of their constituents, and by and large they do. But membership in an organization gives human individuals a survival advantage with respect to solitary human beings. If you belong to no organizations at all, not even a nation, your life is basically forfeit. Some organizations offer more benefits than others. And it is in their best interests, collectively, to select for and grow a population of individuals that do not have any moral or ethical qualms about hurting, damaging, or killing humans who are at odds to the goals of any arbitrary organization, either outside the organization as enemies or inside the organization as defective members. And as this evolution has been going on for thousands of years already, I’m sure you can already see the effects. Humans kill more members of their own species than any other species ever evolved, individually and in huge genocidal swaths, and they do it in the name of membership of an organization: Us versus Them.

The people shuffled to the top in any command hierarchy are selected for their ability to make decisions that benefit the organization despite traditional moral qualms, and then that person is rewarded with enhanced breeding status among his or her peers. Do the math from there yourself.

Did I mention Wolbachia earlier? I think I mentioned Wolbachia. Wolbachia is the deadline we have to beat.

Wolbachia is a number of strains of virus (and possibly a few similar genuses that I’m throwing into the category because they do analogous things) that mainly affect insects. Wolbachia alters how the creatures who are affected breed. Sex is no longer an effective means of reproduction. The infected hosts become largely parthenogenic, with spawn coming from unfertilized eggs. You get a brood-queen. And workers. And soldiers. And drones. Eventually, as the infection continues. But what you really get is a species that is irretrievable entangled with the infection. Dependent on it. Defined by it. Members of the same species which are infected by different Wolbachia strains are no longer able to interbreed. They become competitors and enemies. Montagues and Capulets forever at war, with no chance ever of a Romeo and Juliet.

I have nothing to say about a timeline here, but this sort of mutation in an organization would be quite favorable to them. It would mark the transition from organization to organism, the way any hive creature is essentially a distributed organism. A Wolbachia Event for organizations would be the deadline we’re fighting. And many of them already seem unreasonably obsessed with controlling the human means for reproduction. Understand the motivations for why, what is in it for organizations to be able to control human breeding, and you will also see where things are headed.

I seriously hope we achieve the biological and ecological and, yes, epidemiological understanding we need as a species in time to be able to do something about it.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    “I think it is possible — probable, even — that some organizations, be they businesses or churches or street gangs or what have you, are literally alive.”

    If that’s so, I hope JPMorgan Chase catches a bad dose of the clap from a dirty bus station toilet seat.  Or something like that.

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      That’s part of the point of the approach, of course. The appropriate model of study gives us a huge leg up on finding ways of sorting out the worst of these bastards. We can design our own “clap” and hand-deliver it.

      • Arthyron

         This has been my hope as well. If we could create a taxonomy of these things, categorize them by their attributes and relation to one another the way we sort and categorize the various flora and fauna of the physical world, perhaps we could gain some measure of control in regards to them.

        For example, it seems that some people are highly resistant to various kinds of these things and others are predisposed to other kinds of them. It’s almost as though our minds have their own corresponding “immune system” against ideas.

        I’ve also noticed that when someone is sufficiently “infected” with one of these ideas, they tend to be more combative towards ideas of a similar caliber (for example, someone who is very religious might be combative towards other religious ideas), as though the idea with which they are infected sees other ideas competing for the same resources as threats.

        If you could sort and catalogue these things, you could basically create the epistemic or ontological equivalent of the CDC. Maybe even on day develop “vaccines” or safeguards against infection.

        I really hope I get to live to see that day.

        • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

          Like with the ordinary epidemiology we understand, a mild infection we can fight off generates antibodies that will defend against later infections as long as the antibodies stay with us. And like with aforementioned Wolbachia, having one strain as an infection defends against infection by other competing strains. I think that’s exactly the model we need — except, and I fear this more than a little, an unprincipled person could develop a series of weak and strong infections to, in effect, program someone’s memberships for decades into the future. Knowledge is power — and the only defense from such manipulation is the same knowledge. It’s quite the conundrum.

          • Arthyron

            Definitely, and that’s why I’ve hesitated “going public” with such a notion as this, because of the potential for nefarious use, but since I’ve seen it “poking through” as it were in so many venues, I figured I might as well start talking with others about it. Things like this are safer out in the open than festering in the dark.

            I think there is a place for Biodes/Organizations or whatever you call them in our psyche just as there is a place for beneficial bacteria in your stomach. They’re part of who we are, we just have to make sure the agendas of those with which we align ourselves and allow to influence our lives are symbiotic and have beneficial goals in mind for us and the others we hope to positively affect.

            Determining which are which and to what degree we are being manipulated/influenced is, I think, the chief task. Once you can identify them, bring them in to the light, then you can address how to deal with them. However if we remain ignorant of them, we fall prey to them. Knowledge, as you said, is the key.

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            My decision to start talking about it is based on the current model of society-wide malware defense. If someone spots an exploit, they announce it to the world so people can start cracking the whip on those who can fix it. People will sort themselves into black hat/white hat camps quickly enough. Because that’s what happens.

  • Chohendesu

    Nick Harkaway’s “The Gone Away World” has some interesting things to say about this, actually. Specifically how a person comes to subvert part of his own personality to become a part of the organization.

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      I am adding that to my reading list. The mechanisms of identity are integral to this — but cover a heck of a lot more interesting territory than just organizational behavior.

      • http://twitter.com/mattstaggs Matt Staggs

         I love this kind of stuff but I was one of the very few who found Gone Away World borderline unreadable. I consider the problem entirely my own. Let me know what you think about the book if you read it.

        • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

          I’ve heard about the book a couple of times but I’ve never picked it up. I’ve had to wade through some horrible thick stuff in my day — French literary criticism and existentialism and such — and near-amateur physics papers from arXiv are a pleasant step up from that. I might survive okay. Unless it verges on academic-paper fan-fiction. I can’t handle a lot of that. Mostly it’s going to be about the time I can free up to attack it. But I’ll let you know what I find in there when I manage to put my hands on a copy.

        • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

          …and now I’ve read it, and I loved it. And yes, it had a very specific point to make about how being a member of a group or organization changes who you are, and how they select and breed people better suited to be less human, as it were. Very well done, I thought. But I could see what there might be about the style that could make it a tough read for some.

    • Calypso_1

      That is part of the key to becoming a viable xenotropic vector.  If your personality is too resistant, wear a basket on your head for a while.

  • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

    Interesting stuff. I think about these kinda things but from a slightly different angle. If you just do a little cognitive shift, and consider the whole human species as a semi-immortal multicellular organism, then you can consider different organizations as different organs (or organ systems). Of course sometimes a strange change happens in a small group and a new organization shoots out of the human soup which has no goal or context outside of self survival. This is what many people call cancer. Of course it could be argued “we” have been living with “cancer” for ages now.

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      I’d help make that argument, I think. We’d like out specialized organizations to have a specific task or function, or maybe a related suite of them, but sometimes they just consume or corral resources that starve other more critical systems — and when I put it in those terms, I’m sure certain specific organizations come to everyone’s mind. When the bottom line/top priority is “shareholder value”, “playing well with others” takes a backseat.

      • http://hormeticminds.blogspot.com/ Chaorder Gradient

        I sortof have a skewed vision of evolutionary biology, and I like to push it outside of its accepted realm. I always say “cultural evolution” happens before “biological evolution”, and you’re describing in great detail how the cultural changes work.

        I like to push things both ways though and say the “culture” of microorganisms(chemical signals etc.) are the first things that change before speciation happens. Hell a group of microorganisms is referred to as a cell culture, why not take that to its extreme ends? I figure cultural/environmental dysfunction(at any level: cellular, multicellular, or culture in the common sense) always leads to dysfunctional speciation. (of course dysfunctional is only understood as an external perspective, its fully functional from an internal one)

        Overabundance of  antibiotics?
        Drug resistant bacteria.

        Highly toxic bodily environment?
        Cancer.

        Scarcity of food due to natural disaster? **speculative…
        Meat eating monkeys. 

        This human culture we live in?
        Corrupt organizations.

        • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

          My hypothesis is that the mechanism of drift starts out environmental. Gradients in resource availability, of toxin buildup — and one of the biggest sources of that variability is the consumption and dumping of our neighbors, which is to say the community, and to a similar amount, our own history. All of that is merely a view of the mechanism of culture (biological), alongside whatever signaling we do to say to one another, “I got this. You wanna get that?”, which is the rest of it (social). Outside of that is the tragedy of weather and climate, predator and parasite and prey. It’s hard to say which are the stronger forces until you hit the apex of the food chain, and then the answer is pretty obvious.

          Our organizations have turned into an invasive species that could do with culling. The way they screw with our own code to make us miserable so they can thrive is reprehensible and unsustainable. Eventually they will have no choice but to replace us with engines the way we replaced horses and oxen. We go off our feed and kick against the pricks. We have to sleep, get sick and die and take all of our training to the grave. In the long run we’re a bad investment for them. Unsustainable.

        • Arthyron

           @ChaorderGradient:disqus , I would be inclined to say that both culture and environment influence one another. In the case of entities that have achieved some level of self-awareness like humans or potentially some of these things, we can consider both our culture and environments abstractly and work to change both of them, and the way either of these are affected will necessarily have impacts upon the other and on us as well. So I’d say that for entities on our level of existential awareness, they’re all inter-related and inter-connected.

          @xalieri:disqus , you bring up the possibility that humans could be replaced with “engines.” I think that perhaps might have something to do with the recent (in the course of human history anyway) fascination with physical transhumanism (as opposed to the spiritual and metaphysical transhumanism of our ancestors), of replacing our finite and limited biology with technology, of transferring our minds in to machines or uploading them to the internet, and other previously “science fiction” but approaching “science fact” concepts. Undoubtedly some of this is being driven by the nearly universal human fear of death, but do you think humans could be being influenced even moreso towards transhumanism by these things for their own purposes?

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            Once we have the access, and the will, to modify our own code to our own purposes, the only limitations are imagination … and the ability to predict the outcome of a mathematically chaotic system. I don’t know how much of transhumanic modifications are thought of with the plan of making us more efficient tools for any particular purpose, our own or organizational, but any change that comes up counts as a mutation, the the selection for mutations that are favorable with those with the capacity to reward such will be pounced upon and reinforced with alacrity. One could try to plan, but “accidental” variations could well be more effective than anything planned. I’d have to say it’s a crap shoot, and we have no real choice but to try to slam on the brakes — which I don’t particularly recommend — or just use our best judgment and hope for the best.

  • tawardrope

    Very cool. I hear “language is a virus” echo through this. I’d be careful though, aren’t you putting up an argument for corporations as people?

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      I wouldn’t say language is a virus, but elements made out of language could be, and changes in language could be. As for corporations as people — in all seriousness I see the potential. But before that day comes, they have to have the capacity for compatible ethics (among other things) and that means changing them to be like us, not allowing them to change us to be like them. Right now they are ugly brutes, hungry without the capacity for satiation, and use language to manipulate behavior, not to create art or deliver facts (except under duress). They are incapable of equal exchange, and the worst of them commit atrocities with no sign of remorse. In my book they can be human when they can ACT human — so can any creature, natural or artificial, and the more the merrier — but they only get RIGHTS when they have the same duties and responsibilities and can be appropriately punished when they screw up. They are so far away from all of that right now it isn’t funny.

    • Arthyron

       I would say that language is merely one vehicle for the transmission and propagation of these things rather than a virus in itself. Perhaps one could say that languages as an entity (i.e. English, French, Chinese) or even particular dialects could be considered among the taxonomy of these things since these things spread and propagate and overtake others.

      For example, for hundreds and hundreds of years, Aramaic in various forms dominated the lexicon of the near and middle east. Oftentimes, when foreign invaders conquered Aramaic-speaking nations and put them in to bondage, the invading culture’s language would be overtaken by Aramaic in time and become the official language of that empire or whatever. So it’s possible that languages or dialects could attain a measure of essence necessary to be considered one of these things.

      On another note, on the topic of viral language, there’s a great Zombie flick called “Pontypool” where a virus infects the English language and drives people violently insane. It takes place in Canada, so the denizens have to start speaking French to survive. I highly recommend it. It’s just one of the many cultural and artistic outlets in which I’ve seen the idea we’re all discussing here popping up.

      • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

        That’s the second time in a week someone has recommended Pontypool. I’ll take it as a sign.

  • Arthyron

    Holy shit, I basically thought up this same idea about a year ago. I brought it up with some friends, we decided to call these sentient structures/organizations/constructs “Biodes” (i.e. “living idea”), and the study or contemplation thereof Biodeology. It’s creepy how similar even the specific terms and language you’re using is to what we’ve come up with. I’ve seen this same theme cropping up in all sorts of popular media (movies like Inception, Pontypool, etc).

    We should talk about this. Email me.

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      I knew I wasn’t the first one to the table with this idea. Paco Xander Nathan has been preaching it since the turn of the millennium, and it’s a serious pain in my ass that it’s hard to find any of his work online. It’s also a pain in the ass that the jargon and terminology surrounding the topic hasn’t stabilized enough to make searching through academic publications any easier either.

      I took a class in organizational psychology at Georgia Tech in the late eighties (and bombed it, largely because I couldn’t write longhand fast enough to fill up the little test booklets in the time allotted and I couldn’t get a break on that), and I can tell you the science so wasn’t there yet — at least not there, not in English, and not at the undergrad level. I did a little work in computer modeling around the same time — unsupervised and undirected — creating “lifeforms” in code, with really simple identical rules for behavior and the ability to observe each other and randomly either copy each other or do their own things with varied probability rates, and turned them loose and watched them turn into what was clearly a herd.

      In the same environment I also had humans controlling creatures pretty much doing the same thing, and the comparison/contrast there was really very enlightening.

      I don’t mind emailing you, or having you email me (I have the world’s most googleable last name if you want to find a way to get in touch), but I also want to give the opportunity for having some of that discussion publicly here: transparent, above-board, the more the merrier. The whole point of this piece was to stimulate thought and invite intelligent discussion and criticism. I want to give that a shot, too, and maybe something you’ll say will inspire something too.

      • Arthyron

         Hmm, well if you find any of Paco Xander Nathan’s materials anywhere, I’d be very interested in checking them out. Yeah, the jargon/terminology was a stumbling block to the development of the theory, which is why my friends and I chose the term “Biode,” so we had a short term to use when talking about these sorts of power structures/organizations/institutions/ideas/systems/etc. I would have used Dawkins’ “meme,” but as I’m sure you’re aware that has been co-opted by people who like to make silly pictures of cats with captions. So to avoid confusion and potentially discrediting this line of reasoning, we opted to make up our own terminology.

        Your story about coding programs, etc is amazing. It definitely lends credence to the notion that this is somehow an “inborn” part of the universe, a natural mechanism like natural selection. Very curious, especially with the mention that you had humans controlling said digital “creatures.” I wonder if, after some time, the feedback and data from the programs didn’t start to influence the way the humans interfaced with or controlled the programs the same way that the ideas humans create often begin to influence their host human’s thinking?

        As for public discourse, sure thing, I can dig that. I recently went “public” with the idea myself. A friend of mine is very active in the kinds of topics discussed here at the Disinfo blog and has been producing his own series of documentaries called “Awakening to Oneness.” He recently interviewed me on the topic of Biodes and just finished compiling the video today: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTTpQhOnKZU

        I’m very much interested in philosophy, religion, mythology, the occult, etc, so that is the angle from which I approached the development of this idea. In my research and contemplation of this notion, I ran across a theologian who seemed to be following a similar line of reasoning named Walter Wink. He wrote a series of books about what he called “The Powers” (basically the same thing as Biodes or the things you’re talking about) and how the Bible and other ancient texts can be interpreted as an account of humankind’s interaction with these abstract entities. I think you’d really dig his works. It has a profound effect on the way you look at religions and philosophies and religious or philosophical texts.

        The other main line of reasoning I focused on initially was the “virus” analogy, the way in which these entities behave in a viral manner. They seem to “infect” people, and if they can infect a person to a sufficient degree, that person seems to be compelled to infect others. Think of a street preacher or political pundit or a soccer hooligan, they are all people infected by an idea and mobilized towards action, particularly the action of the preservation, defense, and propagation of the idea that has infected them.

        Another interesting thing I thought about is the method of transmission of these entities. A strange sort of alchemy takes place whereby these abstract, non-physical entities are transmuted in to sound (speech) or text (visual symbols) where they can be recorded as a sound clip or lines of text and then stored on various recordable media. Then someone centuries later could access that media and be infected with the same idea. So for example, Hitler is long dead, but someone who is predisposed to racism could read “Mein Kampf” and be infected with the same fervent beliefs that Hitler had. This is one of the first things that suggested to me that these Biodes have an essence or entity unto themselves apart from the minds that host them, since they can be transmuted in to another form and be passed by proxy in to another host mind.

        I also wonder about how this theory relates to the nearly universal phenomenon of “possession.” Nearly every culture has documented this phenomenon whereby something non-human can take control of a human body. I theorize that this is just a matter of degrees of control a Biode has over a person. For example, in the Voudon religions, possession is almost a sacrament. They *want* to be possessed (or “ridden” to use their own terminology) by their gods. Many of the ancient Mystery and Pagan rites and rituals involved donning the costumes and symbols of particular deities so that one could temporarily take on aspects of that deity or perhaps even host a portion of that deity’s divine essence within themselves and become temporarily overridden, as it were. This could even go as far as to explain “Mob Mentality,” where tons of people suddenly act as one as if something comes over all of them. Even that phrase “I don’t know what came over me” betrays this very notion.

        One last thing I’ll point out is we may be treading on thin ice here. Nearly every person who has come up against one of these powerful organizatons/structures/ideas/etc has wound up paying for it. If we’re going to bring this to light, to actively work against these things, we may be endangering ourselves, just something to consider.

        • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

          I consciously wrote this piece without using the word “meme” because of how it’s been tainted. It was a chore not to be able to take Dawkin’s shortcut. But the transmission vectors, encoded how ever we encode them, are exactly analogous to viruses, which, in the infectious form, are basically inert lumps of code encased in envelopes of various durability, with a lifespan anywhere from minutes (say, like audible speech, for which we have to have the attention to make it from the beginning to the end of the message) to books to graven stone, etc. Durable viruses, basically as spores, can stick around undisturbed for thousands and thousands of years. Fungal infections, inert and sporified, are also a good model to study. I don’t believe any “powers” so encoded are in any way alive in their inert, encoded, and packaged forms, but exist in that form only as potential — and if our languages and cultural reference points mutate to the point where we can no longer decode the message into an idea of any strength, then we become largely immune.

          As for organism and organization being a built-in principle of the universe … I can only point to fractal geometry. Once things start developing in a particular direction, the self-similarity tends to continue and strengthen as you proceed in that direction. “As above, so below” — and vice versa, especially when “up” and “down” are defined as levels of complexity. I’ve used the analogy of twisting a rubber band, like on one of those balsa-wood airplane toys. The more you wind up the propeller, knots appear, randomly, until all you have is a continuous row of knots. If you keep winding after that, larger knots appear in the knotted band, and the process continues. Organizations, after they solidify, will form alliances … and the process will repeat on a larger scale. Some of that has already begun, as a prelude, but things are still shaky enough on this level that the levels above are vaporous and subject to huge instabilities.

          As for risking myself crossing established powers, I’m not too concerned for my own safety. I’m a tiny, tiny fish in a very huge pond.

          As much as I try to avoid programming as an occupation, I’m a coder to the core. I haven’t been idle for the dozen or more years I’ve been thinking about this stuff. I doubt removing me from the picture physically would seriously reduce any small impact I would have, especially at this point, and would only really serve to draw attention to things I’ve been working on. It’s a much better idea to leave me laboring along in obscurity, I’d think, thank to risk giving me or anyone like me a much larger audience, even posthumously, and concentrate on more direct threats in terms of competition for (human) resources.

          • Arthyron

            I like the rubber-band analogy, it makes sense. It’s unclear at what point one of these Biodes, in making so many alliances or swallowing lesser ones, becomes something entirely new, a “Voltron” as you said. Sometimes they bond so well that they cannot again break apart. I wonder about that with things like Corporate Monopolies. Take, for example, the recent banking scandals. The banks grow and grow and absorb lesser entities, but such a large and complex system is a breeding ground for mutation and unforeseen variables. As a programmer you know that the larger and more complex the system, the greater the likelihood for bugs/mutations/errors/etc.

            It’s almost as though these are built-in safeguards against one of these things growing too large. Eventually they all seem to collapse under their own weight or explode or fragment in to smaller, self-serving pieces, and then the process starts all over again (or maybe it simply never ceased). Fascinating.

            I wonder about the fractal nature of all of these things. Are they microcosms of even greater macrocosmic entities? Are human beings the “cells” of a greater “Biode of Humanity?”

            Touching again on the theological perspective, in many ancient texts, there are spirits or angels or gods often set over particular regions that relate in some way to the culture and peculiarities of the people there. I wonder perhaps if these are/were regional or cultural Biodes whose purpose centered around the preservation or promulgation of that particular cultural cosmos. What if the “gods” of the various mythos are nothing more than the embodiment of a group of people, their beliefs, their will, etc.

            Given the occult nature of this blog and this topic in particular, have you thought any about the possible relationship between these Biodes/Organizations and the classical “thought-entities” like egregores or tulpas?

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            I think the limit on size is only a temporary one, as it always has been. Because of the nature of the components, some crystalline elaborations will be stable and some won’t, and you’ll always see those instabilities at larger sizes. Glaciers calve icebergs. Large nuclei with unstable nucleon “packing structures” cleave along fairly predictable lines. Arthropods have a functional maximum size, but reptiles and mammals can get much, much larger. And there’s the key to size — a diversity of building materials that can be sorted by material strength and … from there it’s merely an engineering problem. But that’s why cultural diversity is way better than monoculture for large structures. Monocultures have cleavage planes and fracture predictably under stress. An alloy is always stronger.

            What if the “gods” are nothing more than the embodiment of a people’s thoughts and actions? I think that’s the right fact if perhaps a limiting sentiment. It’s hard to use the words “nothing more than” when you’ve seen this kind of emergent behavior in action. “Exactly the same as” conveys all the power that statement needs, because the results are huge and hugely unpredictable. I like to think it’s possible that once this was a conscious technology and the current woo-woo spiritualization of the topic is nothing more than a cargo cult, based on damaged understanding, cast into a childhood’s invisible friends that has gotten out of hand.

            God bless, so to speak, Neal Stephenson’s popular resurrection of the concept of Sumerian “me”.

          • Calypso_1

            Nice. 
            : )

          • Arthyron

             I should clarify that in regards to “nothing more than,” I was referring to the notion that in light of these theories, the theorizing of another realm called “spiritual” beyond the non-physical (numbers, laws of logic, ideas, etc) where gods and demons and what not exist might be superfluous and unnecessary.

            I believe I touched on that in the interview, though it might not have been clear as he cut some things out of sequence.

            One of the basic theses I’ve offered is that there is no need for extra realms of being beyond the physical and the non-physical, no need for yet another realm called “spiritual.”

            That’s what I was suggesting with “nothing more than,” that these things can in all likelihood be safely classified as “non-physical” in their essence so that the  term “spiritual” simply becomes redundant.

          • Arthyron

             I do also like the cargo-cult analogy, and it definitely makes sense in light of how many occultists describe the “entities” with which they work.

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            It’s a perpetually useful analogy. There’s nothing like the horror of watching someone take a beautiful and wonderfully sculpted metaphor you spent so much time and care creating literally and knowing it’s beyond your powers to help the poor victim you just inadvertently warped — but at least now I have a name for the syndrome.

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            I wasn’t trying to make any accusations or anything — just pointing out to whoever might be reading that the realms of code, either encapsulated or embodied and active, belong to the realms of the physical and the testable and the scientific while getting the bulk of the work done that is often attributed to the spiritual and esoteric. Once upon a time literacy was considered to be magic as well (“spell”, “grammar/grimoire”), and it’s kind of nice to be done with that BS.

            The best way to not be burned as a sorcerer is to teach anyone and everyone who even raises an eyebrow.

          • Arthyron

            Ok, so I think we’re saying the same thing, just using different terms, that these sorts of things are not “woo woo,” but very reasonable and demonstrable.

            As for literacy/magic, definitely, my studies of the occult have basically led me to the same conclusion. There’s a lot of similarity between say…Chaos Magick and Advertising, both work with many of the same principles.

            They all seem like just different technologies that work with different forms of thought.

            I’ll add some more points for discussion when I have some time.

          • Arthyron

             One other thing I was considering is how these organizatons/Biodes relate, if at all, to Jungian psychology. Admittedly I am not very well read in that field, but in some of the bits and pieces I picked up, it sounds like there might be some useful overlap there. Thoughts on this?

          • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

            I always had trouble with Jung’s archetypes, at least a little, because it seemed culture-bound. I never got to any of the studies in my classes where people actually interviewed people across cultures and tallied the frequencies with which individuals occur. But where things -do- tie in is that the identities generically represented by the archetypes are defined by sets of rules we adopt when we want to be more like one of them. Any of us can play a game where we pick one, and answer questions from a volunteer as if we were the embodiment of that archetype and disturb ourselves with how well we’d do.

            Organizational rules of behavior work the same way. Once you join and learn the goals and general culture of a group, you perform actions as if you were a member of that group and working on its behalf — which is the same process, except it also comes with extra rules like greeting protocols and friend/foe recognition and a suite of group-oriented protocols. Archetype constructs, identity constructs, and shamanic masks can really only have rules about how to treat yourself and how to interact with others.

  • Arthyron

    My friend posted the second installment of his documentary series with me talking a bit more about this concept: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_3TxA32gfE

  • Sara

    Handmaids tale sounds like such an event-

    • http://xal.li/eri Laszlo Xalieri

      There’s plenty to worry about with how we’re drifting toward that kind of scenario in real life. The Organization needs breeding resources, so it takes all the relevant choices away from the individual. Any “innocent unborn life is sacred” argument, via reductio ad absurdum analysis, ends up at The Handmaid’s Tale.

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