Psychohistory

There is, in truth, no reason why psychohistory, as depicted by Isaac Asimov in his Foundation novels, can’t work in real life. Unquestionably there are observable patterns in human behavior that are within the ken of statistical prediction, and outside of the individual control commonly associated with historical processes.

The difficulty in the social sciences lies in that there is no such thing as a simple test. In sciences like physics, it is possible to simply toss one ball vertically into the air. There are two factors, gravity and air resistance. The mass of the earth and the mass of the ball. Results can be measured with precision, and data collected from repeatable experiments. Such an experiment is impossible when dealing with people. Even one person is far too complex a system to be analyzed with a single formula like the ball experiment. But it gets worse. The social sciences are not given one person and told to make sense of how they work, oh no. Social scientists are presented with entire countries based on as little as a few centuries of yellow-in-multiple-senses history. The type of rigor associated with the material sciences is not only impractical, it is utterly impossible unless that scientist happens to have a computer powerful enough to simulate every interaction taking place in the country, as well as every interaction that has taken place in all history relevant to that country. Which, essentially, means all history period. The patterns are not merely unintuitive, they are straight-up buried in a sea of unreliable muck, and even the sea is much too small to be useful.

That being said, the basic principles still hold. Though the system is, by definition, more complicated than the sum of all human experience combined, its behavior can still be predicted axiomatically. And, through abstraction, we can reduce the complexity of a practical representation of that system to the point where it becomes useful. Let’s consider a very simple person. Let’s call him Bob. Bob has a problem. He is obsessive about food. It’s all he can think about; the consumption of vast quantities of food, the tastier the better. But Bob isn’t stupid, he knows enough that he can actively move towards the acquisition of food. Bob’s simplicity lends itself to the easy selection of strategies for him. Using that as a basis, we can predict his behavior with formidable accuracy. For example, Bob’s complete obsession with food means that he is prepared to pay any price he can actually afford for it. And although Bob is prepared to pay exorbitant prices for food, he knows that if it’s cheaper then he can buy more of it. But he knows full well that if the person selling him food knew of his obsession, the vendor’s price would skyrocket. So Bob realizes he needs to keep his obsession secret. Also, Bob’s need for consuming food entails the acquisition and storage of food, probably in huge and ever-increasing quantities. Because Bob knows that money translates directly into food without the issue of spoilage, he begins to obsessively obtain and hoard money, siphoning it off to eat as much as he physically is able to. He could turn to a life of crime, either stealing money or just ripping off food from grocery stores and suchlike. This becomes a viable strategy if and only if Bob’s gains exceed his potential penalties. (If you doubt this statement, would you take $1 million if you had a 5% chance of spending 2 weeks in jail?)

However, psychohistory would be much more rigorous, and far larger in scale than the caricature I have outlined. But we know enough of human behavior now to begin on turning the social sciences into a formal discipline instead of a sort of wishy-washy all-answers-are-correct morass of opinion and artistic misconception. The goal of social sciences is to understand human behavior, society, government, etc. etc. and the logical consequence of that is to eventually describe human behavior rigorously. However, there is a problem. If knowledge of psychohistory becomes too common, then it becomes useless because the fact that everyone knows they are being sociologically guided changes their behavior. More interestingly, any rigorous analysis would have to take into account the possible effects of other rigorous analyses. If half the population has heard your prediction and believes it to be true, the conditions you made that prediction under are now completely different, rendering the prediction more or less void.  This is somewhat akin to the problem of observing a quantum particle. You cannot know both its position and its velocity because the act of measuring its position changes its velocity, and the act of measuring its velocity changes its position, operating at the time scale of a single planck time so you can’t exactly just take both at the same time.

Psychohistory is, to all available evidence, feasible. It has its flaws; it appears impossible simply as a knee-jerk reaction, it will be difficult to make it usable, and will probably have little application until it nears maturity.  Worst of all, predictions would be limited in strength by the possibility that input information was incorrect, or that variables exist that are unaccounted for, or the impact of future events that cannot be predicted. As a sidenote, I currently speak of natural effects such as a hurricane or whatnot. But in a similar fashion, those too should be predictable despite the insane complexity of the Earth’s environmental system. However, in the face of all of that, the possibilities of being able to predict the human future are enormous. More to the point, it becomes possible to push the compass towards a better future by subtle action in the present.

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The Penny and Currency

Why do we have pennies? Here in the United States there exists a denomination of coin that is worth less than the impure copper it is made from. Obviously those enterprising enough to figure this out, and just devious enough to break laws nobody cares about, have already started melting pennies down and selling the product for a profit.

To reach a more practical point, why do we even have change? Why bother with all this nickels and dimes and quarters nonsense?  If you want to use less than a whole dollar, then simply have smaller bills.  A paper bill weighs less, and consumes less space than a coin of a fraction of its value.  You would think that a smart currency would have the paper represent the less valuable denominations, and the metal the more valuable ones. But no. In any case, the modern economy is built so solidly upon faith money that the physical metal is completely unnecessary, a relic from the days that the metal was actually valuable and you were quite literally trading a specific quantity of it for a good or service. In fact, in modern times the coin has a deleterious effect on the economy. How many people actually spend their change? How many lose their coins or simply allow them to collect in sofas or nooks and crannies?  The definition of a healthier economy is one where more money is moving around, the common position of economic slowdown being a state where everybody is choosing to conserve their assets because the field seems to risky at the time. But every time a customer buys an item that doesn’t come out even, they are saddled with coins that complicate the situation because they are annoying to get rid of. Pennies.org (that exists?) says the US Mint produced 8.7 billion pennies this year, or $87 million. I would bet a dollar to a donut that the vast majority of that coinage will be involved in at most three transactions in its average of about 25 years of life (usmint.gov).  One; from the mint to a company. Two; from the company to a customer paying in cash. Three; it’s 25 years, so it must change hands at least one more time, whether from being saved up and used in place of cash, or fed into an old vending machine- current ones won’t accept pennies.

So that’s $8.7 million that isn’t going to move around too much. But there are also, of course, plenty of pennies that were not minted this year that could easily have been made in cash instead and be flowing freely as the dollar. Penny.org again says the US Mint has produced over 288.7 billion pennies to date.  Let’s call it 290 billion, which translates into $290 million in cash.  And most of those have existed in limbo for decades, lost or stashed.  Ignoring other coins completely (who uses nickels?  Dimes?), that’s a lot of money.

So what’s the alternative? The obvious, though perhaps ridiculous solution is to simply use bills for small denominations of money.  You could have a one cent bill as easily as a coin, and it has the decided advantage that it would be worth more than the paper it’s printed on.  Though that’s still a waste of time to use a denomination so small. I don’t care for 99 cent purchases just because it’s a sleazy but ubiquitous psychological trick to make you think it costs less when really it’s only a penny. Interestingly, despite knowing better, it certainly still has a psychological effect on me. It doesn’t matter if you are aware that they are trying to fool you, it still seems like a larger difference than a penny. So just print whatever denominations are useful. I am inclined towards a 10 cent bill being the smallest available denomination, utilized as $0.1 instead of all this cents stuff.

Second, more interestingly futuristic, alternative. A cashless economy. The real problem with such a system is that most people are accustomed to the current mode of credit use where the card is for taking point-of-purchase loans. While profitable for the card company, this is an economic lunacy on par with shooting those who buy candy. “Would you like a hot dog?” “Sure, I’ll take a loan.” Egad! Loans are great for capital management, banks, investment, and all that good stuff. But truly there is no call to be taking out loans every other hour. A debit card embodies one aspect of the necessary functionality for a universal cash card, but lacks the others. The first requisite element is two-way transfer. You need to be able to use your card, point of purchase, to either spend or acquire money. The card then becomes a slim wallet containing as much money as you happen to want on hand.  Provided you have it, at least. Though you could conceivably set it up to take out loans on demand, so it acts like a credit card when you want (if this gets rolling, loans will be deviously arrayed, watch it). Secondly, the card needs to have its own contact mechanism. That is to say that you can’t need to have a cash register swipe machine present at every transaction. Whether this is by wireless network, contact through your cell phone, or whatever, the mode doesn’t really matter. The card itself needs to have the functionality needed to make any transfers the bearer desires. And lastly, sufficiently advanced security such that a card-user can be quite sure that the money they are carrying in their virtual wallet is more secure than cash they might be carrying in a physical wallet. A combination of factors such as fingerprint verification, proximity RFID tags, and conventional bank methods would mean a mugger would be quite simply out of luck. A cashless economy gets that extra little oomph that is currently lost simply to stupid currency flaws.