Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Cybernetics of Radicalism

Random and weather-generated wave systems in the open ocean occasionally coincide fortuitously, reinforcing one another in cumulative ways that lead to rogue waves, dangerous waves with destructive power. Friction and complexity, however, combine to undermine these behemoths, sapping their strength. This is a negative feedback process, which generally prevents the ocean from being overwhelmed by unbounded wave growth.

Radical groups have a similar birth in the political chaos of the memeworld. When they reach a certain size and intensity, however, they sometimes fall prey to positive feedback effects. Unchained to the moderating effects of hard confrontation with reason and reality, these organizations can grow in power, unchecked until they consume the universe. What usually happens is that they become intolerable long before the forces of nature step in. They are then stopped by determined force, the imposition of negative feedback from an outside body. As an example, consider the animal rights organization PETA. Penn & Teller have put together a marvelous little exposé (linked from Sand Monkey’s post), showing us exactly how far these people have gone beyond the wide floodplain that constitutes mainstream thinking. Baron Bodissey has posted the description of a group even farther into the feedback process, along with proof of the progression. There is some good discussion about it on The Belmont Club

I believe that the source of the self-reinforcing process is basically oneupsmanship. The leader of a small group will say something extreme. As a consequence an auto-triage within the group will cause it to split into three groups:

  1. those who think that the leader has gone too far, causing internal dissension and schism
  2. those who love it and are lapping it up
  3. those who resent the leader’s popularity and decide to trump the extremism with something worse. If the leader doesn't keep up the new ones take charge.

This iterative process can commence very easily in any group that forms around a single idea. Even so sensible and sympathetic a group as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) seems to be moving along that road.

9/25/2005 11:55 PM

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