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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

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Published by David Orban
Transcript of the inaugural speech at the Ibn Khaldun
Lecture series on Al-Andalus Alhambra on April 27 2008
Transcript of the inaugural speech at the Ibn Khaldun
Lecture series on Al-Andalus Alhambra on April 27 2008

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Published by: David Orban on Apr 27, 2008
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09/25/2010

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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

David Orban www.davidorban.com Transcript of the inaugural speech at the Ibn Khaldun Lecture series on Al-Andalus Alhambra on April 27 2008

Thank you for attending this evening the inaugural lecture in the Ibn Khaldun Lecture series on AlAndalus Alhambra! I want to thank Michel Manen for inviting me, for inviting me back, after an other inaugural lecture that I gave for him more than a year ago. It is evident with how much passion and persistence Michel built the basis of Al-Andalus, and of the community that you see around, made of people, and of the principles that drive them. I will start with an introduction, where we will look at Ibn Khaldun’s contributions to culture and science. In the first part of our conversation I will describe what I view as the basis of tolerance or lack of tolerance in our societies. In the second part, based on an analogy with the characteristics that we identify in the first part, I will look at the nature of robust IT systems. In the third part we will look at how can online worlds evolve social systems based on these principles? Can these systems teach a lesson to those of the physical world? In conclusion, I will want to make some proposals based on the lessons learned during the lecture. ...So let’s start! I am honored to start a lecture series named after such an important figure in the culture, and history of humankind. Ibn Khaldun lived in the 14th century, in what is today Tunisia. He was a scholar, historian, theologian, and a statesman, and he is considered the father of several scientific disciplines, such as demography, sociology, and modern economics. Of the social sciences in general! His theory of social conflict and of social cohesion expressed in his major work, the Muqaddimah, as well as his economic analysis of value added labor processes are recognized as the basis of the modern analyses of these important elements.

His life has been in balance between his scientific endeavors, and the realism of the political sphere as he had to constantly strive for a position of stability among the rapidly changing powers of his time. This is very much true of all of us, as we are torn between our quests for knowledge, and understanding, and the needs of our personal, social, and professional lives. The real measure of his value, as it is for all those who create systems of ideas, is the fertility of what he created. Our memetic evolution is based on fertile ideas, and based on this measure the seeds that Ibn Khaldun planted have shown to be of immense value to everyone who came after him.

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As I am about to start the exposition of the main arguments of my lecture, I can only hope to introduce some elements that are minimally worthy... Let’s see how tolerance in societies emerges as a value, and what makes it desirable. People, as well as societies have to define themselves through a set of norms. These give rise to the individuality of a person or of a society. Apart from features of the biology, or topography, in people and places, many of the defining characteristics of a person or a society are derived from the roles and the rules that are developed, learned, transmitted, and maintained throughout its life. These features provide a utility, through their expression, to their bearer, and their presence creates a positive feedback, achieving in the system a high level of coherence.

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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

A coherence, and cohesion, that in turn becomes the basis through which the system is recognized. The maintenance of this high level of coherence requires an effort, an expenditure of energy, which is not per se needed for the functioning of each constituent part. This energy is additional to that basic level, and it is what is required to ensure that the parts do not drift apart in time. Since the system can not count on an unlimited amount of resources available to it, satisfying the requirements of the first level of energy use is a priority in order to keep its various parts in working order. Consequently there is a precise measurable level beyond which further expenditures of energy have a negative return. Everything that is not clearly part of the coherent cohesive system, is automatically labeled as the other. I would like to remind you that here we are talking simultaneously about either a biological system, such as a human individual, or about human societies. The other will be recognized by the system because of its differences, in composition, behavior, rules, and meta-rules. There will be explicit comparisons, and the results of these are going to determine the mind, and the level of reaction to the other. As long as these differences stay dynamically below a certain threshold, it will be more convenient for the system to accept them, rather than expend additional energies to shield from them, or to fight against them. The differences will not at that point disappear, and they will not stop from having an effect on both the system and the other. Rather, as implicitly they have been labeled benign, they will exert a fertilizing and stimulating effect on the self, making it sure that that the parameters that define its nature stay clearly defined, that they can be always confronted with a wider reality of parameter-sets.

In this view that I just described, tolerance is not a moral imperative, which has to be explained through inputs that necessarily come from the outside of what is being analyzed. It is not something that becomes imposed, and then itself is an ill-’tolerated’ abstract principle. On the contrary, tolerance, as we call it, is an important part of a system’s behavior. It is exhibited when the system is healthy, and when it is within a larger environment which contributes to its well being. We have seen how tolerance emerges spontaneously within a biological or social system. Now let’s see what is its analogue in a technological construct.

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We live in a technological world, which has so much enmeshed our lives and societies that without its constant support the quality of our lives, and even the number of people living on the planet would be radically reduced. This is the fundamental reason why it is so crucially important that we learn how to create technological systems which are dependable. Our technological systems are created through a process that finds optimal solutions given a series of constraints in a time that is orders of magnitude faster than biological evolution. This process is the evolution of ideas, or memetic evolution. The same principles of differentiating between the desired system, and the external factors remain. And as the functions of the system are needed in time, on top of executing them, there is an additional meta-goal of preserving the system’s integrity in the artificial systems as well. Using their human creators, these systems strive to keep on living. One of the best examples of fault-tolerance, of tolerance for errors, is the routing system employed by the Internet. When you have a large system like the internet, based on relatively unreliable parts, whose connections might or might not work in any given moment, the packets of information that are routed to their destination cannot, and should not know in advance what specific path they will take. The decision is relegated to every routing station, and it will be they the ones to realize that eventually an alternative route is needed if the successive relay station cannot be reached.

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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

The network looses rigidity, acquires flexibility and robustness by being based on such a flexible behavior. The robustness derives from its emerging capability to properly respond to unanticipated conditions. The conditions are not listed a priori by the designers, and the system is not expected to operate in a predictable environment, within certain extremal bounds. Still, by relying on the principles of error correction, and determining new paths to the destination of its communication, it will achieve its goals. The Internet actually outperformed the predictions of the creators of its infrastructure, who thought it would collapse under the stresses of its increasing success. These robust networks are going to be a necessity as the technological systems we use are more and more entrenched in our ways of life. The economical competition between agribusinesses for example leads to their extreme exploitation of the environment, even when operating in a sustainable manner. Their production, their logistics, their warehousing do not work on ‘just in case’ principles. This means that unless we learn how to make sure that they are sufficiently robust, unexpected conditions will cause severe disruptions in their operations, and hence in our example, in the food supply.

There are those who criticize the people who find their homes in online worlds, and express their individuality and provide care and value to their communities here. The charges are that of being in any case reliant on the support of the material world. Be it for food or shelter of the physical bodies, or the energy that runs the physical servers of the sims. These critics should realize that their technological civilization similarly relies on the biosphere which took 4 billion years to evolve, and which in turn is found on a planet that cannot but be born ten billion years after the beginning of the Universe. (But this requires a lecture on its own!) As we move in our newly acquired online identities, and build the worlds we want to inhabit, unavoidably what we create in our clumsy enthusiasm clashes with the true potential of the new medium. In light of the principles expressed previously, how can we interpret the mistakes we commit, and the imperfections of our designs? These are evidently not a consequence of a lack of effort, or of creativity. Many people who invest their time and energy in the creation of meaning in online worlds feel that what they are doing is worth every possible action they are capable of. The excellence we can achieve in the structures we build, and their increased complexity and utility is the reason for our efforts. Previously we spoke about ROI in the efforts of preserving the coherence of a given system. The complementary concept of cost opportunity comes into play here: what do I lose if I concentrate on avoiding mistakes? Or, similarly, what can I gain by doing, however imperfectly, and what do I lose by not doing? These calculations are done implicitly, but are the basis of real activity and investments in time and resources in the online worlds. This is why the online worlds are not just mere tools to help with the daily chores of life in the material world. They are bound to develop new levels of organization that will express higher fertility and broader resilience than anything seen in our atomic societies before. These new organizations will base their existence on the atomic world, but their adventurousness, experimentation, and readiness to progress through mistakes is going to be superior. It is superior already!

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So what does this have to do with the metaverse, and online worlds? I contend that it has everything to do with it! In this penultimate section of my lecture let’s see how, and why... The complexity of our online lives is increasing exponentially. It took tens of thousands of years to develop tribal living, and thousands of years to build the urban societies. The existences that started with the earliest online chat rooms, and news groups, and email lists precede only few decades the richness of the experience that we are now living in the metaverse.

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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

Is it possible then to take away clear and practical lessons from these consideration? Yes, it is, and to start, I want to show you a couple of proposals, that apply to the biological and social systems. These proposals are of course just an example of the generative power of the guiding principles that we have illustrated. Our memetic drive, the need to understand are not only a trait of our species, not only a curiosity, but a fundamentally important feature of the value we can add to the world. Being open to the options that those who are different from us bring, enhancing our experience and enriching our world is necessarily part of the future. The tolerance and robustness we described previously are not something imposed from above, from the outside. These values emerge spontaneously from a healthy society, or a viable technology, and represent the evolutionarily winning strategy! Proposal 1: we have to treat our body, and our biology with respect. Those who we sometimes we feel are intruders, in reality are an indispensable part of what we are. If we create an apparent monoculture by aiming to kill off everything that doesn’t neatly fit into our expected ecology, what we prepare is only our own downfall. (Do you realize how foolishly dangerous is to force bacteria to evolve resistance to the antibacterial products if we use them daily, only to be let off by them when we need them most?) Proposal 2: the greatest force cannot eradicate differences in thoughts, and action. As we risk moving away from democracy in the physical world, it is as if we acquired an autoimmune disease, which is this dictatorial illusion of total control. We cannot give up the values at the heart of what our societies are in order to assure that nothing escapes our control. I want to invite you, at the end of this lecture to continue this line of thought. In your actions and lives as members of the community of Al-Andalus, and as parts of your atomic societies.

Thank you again for your attention and patience in listening to me. I always welcome feedback on what I say: the ideas of those who invest their time in understanding my message, even when remaining in disagreement with it, remain the most important element. Thank you!

Slides of the speech are available on http://slideshare.net/davidorban

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Tolerance as a Guiding Principle

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