The Motivation of Genius, Part III

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March 2017
Ivan Obolensky

Civilization is considered to be emergent and complex in that structures created by the interaction of millions of elements bear little resemblance to the parts that make them up. One has only to consider the Internet to have some familiarity with the concept. Who could have predicted what the Internet has become?

Higher, more complex structures build on the complexity that already exists, and higher levels of organization shape the properties of lower level components. This downward thrust is called downward causation.

On a molecular level, bonds between elements distribute energy within a system and reduce the amount of energy available to do work. How molecules form and what shapes they can assume are determined by the laws of quantum mechanics. The more complex the molecule, the more bonds exist, and the more evenly energy can be distributed and held in them in the form of vibrations. Energy seems to be more comfortable when it is dispersed in this way. Hence, our universe operates to support complexity not simplicity.

For complex structures to exist, the elements that make them up give up certain freedoms and are constrained to act in ways that are often different from their behavior as individual elements. This is called coherence. If this was not the case, complex structures would simply fall apart after only a brief period.1

In terms of society, we as members are required to act appropriately when interacting within a group in spite of having instincts that make us disagree and want to fight the demands of the many. If these individualistic tendencies were completely dominant, we would not form groups at all, but we do. There must exist stronger forces that push us in the direction of cohesion.

Conserving energy until it is needed is a mechanism used by almost all living creatures. Being part of complex organizational structures and systems allows members to expend less energy than they would as solitary individuals. It is this benefit that society gives the individual for taking part.

Receiving a package via UPS from Amazon is a case in point. To the individual, it is more energy-efficient than going to the store. Why is that? Infrastructure holds energy as effectively as chemical bonds. Energy can be stored in structures and systems, such as warehouses and transportation methods, which require minimum energy to operate once they are established. An individual transporting a single package across the Atlantic Ocean by canoe, in terms of energy expended, cost, time, and reliability, is far more expensive than if it is shipped along with thousands of others at the same time. We know this is true because the cost is perhaps fifty dollars to overnight a package from New York to London while even buying a canoe to attempt the voyage would cost several hundred dollars. The reason the individual voyage costs so much more is that the infrastructure to make the journey does not exist for the individual. He or she must make it in order to use it.

This reality is what makes being an individual difficult. Individuals must expend more energy to create what already may exist and be available to them if they choose to be part of an organized society. The complexity we have created and the convenience it provides are our greatest gift to the future, and our greatest curse.

Groups, organizations, corporations, societies and civilizations exist because they make economic sense. They are organized and more energy efficient. Organization is also what allows the creation of technology.

Organizing means arranging elements into a whole made up of interdependent parts. Nature does this through natural laws, which lead to more complex structures. Humans have the ability to organize as well. Another way to look at technology is to view it as the arrangement of parts into systems that perform various functions. New technology is new arrangements. Because technology is fundamentally organizational and structural, the rules of coherence and downward causation apply. It also doesn’t have to be electronic. The invention of coinage allowed the user to buy what was needed with small coins rather than carrying around a dozen chickens. Money is a technology whose efficiency and impact cannot be underestimated.

To be established and maintained, society and technology must offer something we all want and need. What they both offer is convenience. Convenience is the downward causation of the emergent structure we call civilization. It is what glues us all together and shapes our activities along only certain paths. It is a powerful bias.

Today, science and technology drive modern society. Both create further complexity in the same way one adds another level to an apartment building. They also operate as powerful forces of downward causation. Societies and civilizations are notoriously conservative for this reason.

Convenience plays its part in this. Change requires the expenditure of energy. Change is rarely convenient.

A main driver of change is individual genius. Geniuses are often in conflict with the status quo. Society both loves and hates them, because they tend to be disruptive. In the last article, it was pointed out that the demand for meaning by the individual is instinctive and predicated on the desire for competence, connection, and autonomy. These psychological needs are often in conflict with the demands of the group.

The motivation of genius is to discover and understand something unique about the world. The result is new meaning. It is individually inspired but even genius is constrained by the coherence demanded by the society of which it is part.

Geniuses resonate with us because genius connects. Great art connects to the viewer in a primal and fulfilling manner. Society, on the other hand, would have us connect in only certain ways.

Connection and being connected are not the same thing. Today we are connected, but do not on the visceral level that gives us meaning. Such primal connections can be disruptive. Rock and Roll created disruptions during the 1960s as its latent sexuality conflicted with the sexual mores of the time. It inspired revolution.

How we listen to music has changed since the 1960s and more fundamentally still since 1994.

Today music is everywhere. Compression technology, MP3 audio formatting in particular, is what makes music available and instant.

MP3 is an audio coding format that utilizes lossy compression also known as irreversible compression. It is a type of data manipulation that utilizes inexact approximations and partial data discarding to represent content.

Today we want instant downloads, but it comes at a cost.2

CD digital formatting requires 1,411,200 bits/sec. Streaming a typical MP3 encoding is typically 128,000 bits/sec. The result is much smaller audio files. This is a compression rate of some 91% compared to CDs. This is convenient but what is it we are downloading? An earlier article, “Language and the Digital Age”, mentioned that digital could be considered to be stair-stepped, while analog is a smooth curve. Analog is always the high-end option, and what nature uses. That article referred to CD quality data transmission. Today the music quality is 91% less than even CDs, and music is no longer able to give the listener the impact and experience it used to.3

Technology, because it is complex and structural, generates downward causation. Compression technology is an example. It has constrained how we listen to music, but we go along because of the convenience and the availability such formatting allows.

The emergent downward causation of highly complex structures are powerful enough to influence not only the arts but the sciences as well.

During the 1920s and 1930s a scientific movement called Logical Positivism emerged. Followers thought that data was data and existed independent of how it was discovered, or what people thought of it. A computer loaded with all the data in the world would be nonfunctional unless it was given a hint as to what its creators wanted. Data is nothing without some form of bias.4

In 1963, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. One of the concepts he outlined was that observational data is theory-laden. Data is viewed within the framework of what one believes.

For example, let’s suppose you are an ichthyologist who studies fish. You have a fish. You dissect it and learn all about its internal structures. You take pictures, draw diagrams, show how this species compares with others, and write a paper on this fish that is accepted by a scientific journal. This is typical science.5

Imagine a scientist living in Southeast Asia who believes in dependent origination. To him, the fish in the dissecting room is not an accurate representation of a fish. The fish was caught in a specific location. What put it in that location? Suppose there was a hook and some bait. What caused the fish to take the bait? What if it hadn’t been hungry at the time?

In this context, the fish is viewed not as an event but a process. In Newtonian mechanics, a billiard ball strikes another and the outcome is predictable from the laws of motion based on a single cause. According to dependent origination, there are a plurality of causes. States of being arise from previous pre-existing states.6

In this example, the same raw data is viewed differently even when viewed from a scientific perspective. Who is the more correct? The answer depends on your point of view and to what theory you subscribe. Scientific theories exist within the social context that shapes them.

Genius also takes place within that same context. Steve Jobs is considered a genius. Would Steve Jobs have been considered a genius if he had been born fifty years earlier?

Genius is contextual because as with any work that is put into the public, its success and acceptance is dependent to no small degree on the society’s willingness to receive it. The General Theory of Relativity would not have been accepted in 1600. Nor would have the idea of an airplane.

In the film, Beltracchi – the Art of Forgery, one of the gallery owners who specialized in German art of the 1920s and 1930s made a point about the difference between a forgery passed off by Wolfgang Beltracchi and the real thing. She said that the forger did not undergo the extraordinary mental battle required to fight against the existing social pressures that made the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner so exciting and original. This conflict is not contained in the forgery, which is why it is a forgery.7

What motivates genius may be rebellion against that social context, but that context channels genius just as much. Push the boundary too far, and the work is not accepted.

Without that instinct to revolt would the work have taken place? We are all motivated by our internal drives, and these are expressed in certain ways. Push too hard against the society in which we find ourselves, and we, too, are cut off. Science, in spite of its supposed independence, objectivity, and relentless search for the truth is also channeled even if only by funding, and who determines that?

Today we find ourselves in an overly connected society that experiences little real connection between its individual members. Much of this can be laid at the doorstep of technology that reinforces our desire for convenience. The need for speed and availability has degenerated our ability to connect on the most fundamentally human level of music. In an eerie similarity to the “beautiful ones” found in Calhoun’s work of the 1960s, many of us strut about with extensive tattoos, body enhancements, surgeries, and efforts to look good. Self-obsession has reached a new level. We no longer see each other except as messages and act on them without full analysis. We do not take the time to look in one another’s eyes to see the zeal that otherwise might give us pause.

In the long run, population density is also an unknown factor that induces changes in behavior in ways we do not understand. Procreation in the developed world is becoming the abnormal rather than the normal. It is likely human population levels will decrease and solve the problem for us. Bio-engineering may create test tube babies, but someone will have to bring them up and educate them. The question is what will that education be, and what will be the result?

We are driven by instincts that conflict with much that living in today’s world demands, and judging from complexity theory, we are likely to be more constrained in the future. Instincts take thousands of years to change and the structures we have built count for only a tiny fraction of that time. There will be conflicts.

Genius is as much internally driven as externally formed. Much of how we feel is instinctual and much is induced in us by the society we live in. It is likely that if we examine our actions closely, we will understand that we are influenced by both, and much more than we had considered previously. Our free will and our own determinism is limited.

What can we as individuals do and how can we cope?

For a start, one does not need to be a genius to know that we need to take a hard look at the subject of convenience, and how we can embrace its opposite. There are benefits to convenience, but there are dangers. It is two-edged. We need to be aware of the positives, but know the costs and think about the possible unintended consequences. We all may have the seeds of real genius within us, but until we decide to step outside what is considered convenient we will never know.

As a final note, what gives me hope is the amazing things that the future holds. If life and the way of the universe naturally move toward the more complex, our lives will become richer, provided we can hold to our individuality and our ability to take the inconvenient path. It is the only way to garner the joy that being alive holds out as a possibility for each of us.

 


  1. Marsh, G. E. (2009) The Demystification of Emergent Behavior. Retrieved March 11, 2017 from https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0907/0907.1117.pdf.
  2. Rosenberg, J. (Director) (2014) The Distortion of Sound. Retrieved March 11, 2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDZcz-V29_M&feature=youtu.be.
  3. Brain, M. (2000) How MP3 Files Work. How Stuff Works. Retrieved March 11, 2017 from http://computer.howstuffworks.com/mp31.htm.
  4. A. (N.D.) Logical Positivism. Retrieved March 11, 2017 from http://www.loyno.edu/~folse/logpos.htm.
  5. Kuhn, T. S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Fourth Edition. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
  6. O’Brien, B. (2017) The Principle of Dependent Origination in Buddhism. Retrieved March 11, 2017 from https://www.thoughtco.com/dependent-origination-meaning-449723.
  7. Birkenstock, A. (Director) (2014). Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery. Germany: Global Screen.

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© 2017 Ivan Obolensky. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced without the written permission from the author.

  1. Craig Houchin
    Craig Houchin07-24-2017

    Ivan,

    I have such a backlog of your articles. I’m finally getting to them. I really liked this one. There are a lot of little nuggets to unpack and think about. Thanks!

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