Press "Enter" to skip to content

Author: Ted

The Red Queen Trap

The Red Queen Trap is to be found in the famous Red Queen paradox from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. In this story, a sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice climbs into a mirror and enters a world in which everything is reversed. There, she encounters the Red Queen who explains to her the rules of the world resembling a game of chess. Among other things, the Red Queen tells Alice:

It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

On the face of it, this is an absurd paradox, but it reveals an important insight about a critical point in the life of every system. Let me explain.

Every system, be that a single entity or a large organization, must perform itself into existence from moment to moment. If it stops doing that it succumbs to entropy and falls apart. Spoiler alert, in the long run entropy always wins.

To perform itself into existence every system must expand a certain amount of energy, which is a function of the relationship between its internal state and the external conditions it operates in. In other words, it must expand some energy on keeping its internals working smoothly together, and then expand some energy on resisting and adapting to adverse external conditions.

The better adapted a system’s internal state is to its external conditions, the less energy it must dedicate to perform itself into existence, and the larger the potential energy surplus it can use to grow, expand, or replicate itself.

However, external reality is complicated [not to be confused with complex] and changes dynamically in ways which cannot be modeled over the long term and require constant adjustments by the systems [organisms, humans, organizations] operating within it. In other words, an external state observable at time A is no longer present at time B.

This is a problem for all systems, because it requires them to change how they operate.

It is a small problem for simple systems which are usually internally homogeneous and highly distributed. Their homogeneity means they don’t need to spend much energy to maintain their internal state, and their distributed topology means they make decisions and react very fast.  

It is a serious problem for complex systems [large organizations] which are usually rather centralized and heterogeneous. Their heterogeneity means they must expand a lot of energy to maintain a coherent internal state consisting of various qualitatively different elements, and their centralized topology means they react and make decisions rather slow.

It is a profound problem for complex hierarchical systems [large organizations with vertically integrated decision making] which consist of multiple heterogeneous elements stacked along one or more vertical axes. Vertical integration means that each successive layer going up is further removed from direct exposure to external conditions and is therefore slower in adjusting to them.

A system might be quite successful in adjusting its internal state to external conditions at time A, but a later time B might present a different configuration of conditions to which the internal state of the system at time A is profoundly inadequate. The more complex the system, the more energy it must expand in adjusting to changes in external conditions from time A to time B.

Complex hierarchical systems have the hardest time in making these adjustments because key strategic elements of their internal state [i.e. decision-making centers high in the hierarchy] are far removed from direct contact with external conditions. To orient themselves and perform the system’s OODA loop they rely on communication about external conditions reaching them from the periphery of the system, while orders on necessary adjustments must travel the other way, from center to periphery. This takes time, and the more layers the signal communicated from the periphery must pass through on its way to the center the more abstracted it becomes from external conditions. In other words, the center receives a highly imperfect version of the external conditions about which it must make adaptive decisions.

Over time, this generates a growing number of errors in the internal state of the system, requiring more and more energy to be routed to internal maintenance [i.e. bureaucratic paperwork], leaving less and less surplus energy for adaptation, growth and expansion. Eventually, and this stage can arrive very fast, the system reaches a state of pseudo-equilibrium in which all energy it can produce goes towards internal maintenance and there is zero surplus energy left. This is where the Red Queen Trap kicks in:

The system does all the running it can do, to keep in the same place.

How does the trap work? First, from the inside everything in the system still seems to be operating smoothly and things are humming along in accordance with external conditions at present time A. However, this is a false perception of equilibrium, because when external conditions invariably change in future time B the system will have no surplus energy reserves to adjust to the new conditions.

The more imperfect the version of external conditions reaching the center of decision-making, the more pronounced the system’s inertia in this state of pseudo-equilibrium, and the deeper it goes into the Red Queen Trap.

Second, having eventually discovered there are no more surplus energy reserves left, the system must now make a choice.  In the absence of surplus energy and provided there is no energy transfer from the outside, it must somehow free up energy from within its internal state in order to adapt. The question is, which internal elements should be sacrificed to free up that energy? This is where the Red Queen Trap’s simple elegance is fully revealed.

Essentially, there are two options – a seductively easy one and an unthinkable one. The seductively easy option is to sacrifice the periphery, or elements of it, and preserve the decision-making center. It is an easy choice for the center to make because it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice allows it to remain intact. It is a seductive choice because the center suddenly finds itself with a flush of spare energy which it can use to maintain the pseudo-equilibrium and often even to grow itself at the cost of the periphery. Alas, the elegance of the trap is in the fact that the seductively easy option removes the center even further from external conditions; less periphery equals less opportunities to observe and react quickly to external reality, thereby further magnifying the initial conditions that brought the system to this state in the first place. By making that choice the center sinks further into the trap.

By contrast, the unthinkable option is to sacrifice the center and preserve the periphery, thereby flattening the internal structure of the system into a less hierarchical form. It is an unthinkable option for the center to make because, as pointed out above, it naturally sees itself as the key element of the system and this choice forces it to sacrifice itself. It is also unthinkable because it involves a thorough rethinking of the internal structure of the system, which until that moment was organized entirely around vertically integrated decision making, with little to no autonomy in the periphery. The centre must not only sacrifice some of itself, but also reorganize the periphery in such a way so that it can now perform those functions in place of the center. This would allow the system to free itself from the trap.

Obviously, most systems choose the seductively easy option and the Red Queen Trap eventually grinds them into oblivion. Those few systems that go for the unthinkable option escape the trap and, if they remain persistent in their application of the unthinkable, learn how to go different places with running to spare.

Signaling the provenance of smart textiles using radio frequency watermarks

This is a paper on provenance and smart garments I just published together with colleagues from advanced materials, engineering and information sciences. Here is the abstract:

There is a significant nascent market for ethically produced products with enormous
commercial potential around the world. A reliable method to signal the provenance of products is
therefore critical for industry, given that competition based on price is not a viable strategy. The
ability to trace and signal ethical treatment of animals is also of significant value to textiles
manufactures. The efficacy of such a method can be measured with respect to the cost of
implementation, scalability, and the difficulty of counterfeiting. The key to traceability is to win the
trust of the consumer about the veracity of this information. Wearable sensors make it possible to
monitor and improve the management of traceability and/or provenance. In this paper, we
introduce a method for signalling the provenance of garments using radio frequency watermarks.
The proposed model consists of two levels of authentication that are easy to use by legitimate
vendors, but extremely difficult to imitate or hack, because the watermark is built-in and based on
the radiation signature of electroactive materials.

And here is the full paper:

Future Networks lecture series

This is a lecture series I developed and recorded for a 200 level subject in the Digital and Social Media major titled BCM206 Future Networks. I examine the historical context of global information networks leading to the rise of the network society paradigm; the role of cyberculture and cyberpunk in shaping the network society; the role of important network phenomena such as power law distributions and network transaction costs on the interactions between various network topologies; as well as contemporary internet dynamics in the context of liquid life and liquid labour, the attention economy, big data surveillance, hacking culture, meme warfare, cyberwarfare, and the rising internet of things.

The lecture playlist can be found here, or through this embed:

Making Media lecture series

This is a lecture series I developed and recorded for a 100 level core subject in the Bachelor of Communication and Media [BCM] titled BCM114 Making Media.  The lecture series introduces students to key concepts in digital media making, using as its structure the key stages of the design thinking cycle. The main focus of the lecture series is to expose students to concepts such as idea mapping, rapid prototyping and testing, and continuous feedback-based iteration.

The lecture playlist can be found here, or through this embed:

Emergent Media lecture series

This is a lecture series I developed and livestreamed for a 100 level subject in the Digital and Social Media major titled BCM112 Emergent Media. The course of lectures is intended as an introduction to digital and social media and explores a range of media theories and concepts through practical case studies. I discuss thinkers ranging from McLuhan and Jenkins to Debord, Deleuze and Baudrillard, and the phenomena of digital production, networked participation, collective intelligence, distributed media, meme warfare, framing and schema, perception manipulation, propaganda, hyperreality and simulation, control societies and the society of the spectacle, intellectual property and the content control industry, surveillance, and media futures.

The lecture playlist can be found here, or through this embed:

OODA loops

Building on my earlier posts on paradigm shifts and framing, I continue my interest in the process of shifting perception between models of reality. Paradigm shifts are fundamentally always shifts in the way we perceive reality. Perception itself is the dynamic outcome of the interactions between frames and schema.

When this model of perception is inserted in a complex and chaotically changing environment we end up with a cyclical process involving the reception and processing of external stimuli, followed by action or its absence and a repeated reception of stimuli closing a feedback loop. This process maps very well to John Boyd’s OODA loop concept, where OODA stands for observe-orient-decide-act. The key stage of the OODA loop is orientation, because it is in the orientation stage that external stimuli, and frames, interface with the internal perception frame and the schema that form it. In this lecture I discuss the OODA loop concept as a cyclical decision making and feedback process, and focus on the orientation stage as the key aspect of that process.

On framing and schema

We live in interesting times. Times of transition, involving the collapse of an old order and the shift to a new paradigm. Such transitions are often mistaken for technological changes or revolutionary shifts in material conditions. Actually they are neither. Paradigm shifts are fundamentally always shifts of perception, that is, shifts in the way we perceive reality and therefore in the way we act in the world.

Therefore, to understand a paradigm shift we need to understand how perceptions of reality can be modulated and altered at scale. In other words, we need to understand the mechanics of perception. In this lecture I discuss the concepts of schema and frames as the building blocks of the mechanics of perception. I examine the way framing can be used to alter perceptions and discuss the case of Edward Bernays’ Torches of Freedom campaign.

Paradigm Shifts

You better start believing in paradigm shifts Miss Turner, because you’re in one.

Here’s a lecture I recorded recently, discussing the concept of paradigms and the process of paradigm shifts. I discuss paradigm shifts based on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, though my focus is on a more general understanding of the process, involving awareness of change and the key mechanics of the phase transition from one paradigm to another. I also use Jordan Hall’s excellent short essay On Thinking and Simulated Thinking to illustrate how paradigm shifts necessitate a phase transition in thinking about and orienting ourselves in a given reality.

I think the year 2020 so far bears the marks of a massive socio-political-economic phase transition to a new paradigm, and that the mid 2020s will be unrecognizable to someone from 1996 or 2006.

There is a story that when Zhou Enlai, the late premier of China under Mao, visited France for the first time in the 1950s he was asked what he thinks of the French Revolution. His answer was ‘It’s too early to say.’

Gaudeamus igitur

Episode 7 of Naive and Dangerous, the podcast series I record together with my colleague Dr Chris Moore. Even though this episode was recorded at the end of 2019 I am posting it now as it closed season 1 of Naive and Dangerous, and, as I am returning from a long posting hiatus, I have to pick up where I left off. The episode is focused entirely on the Medieval in all its wonderful complexity. Enjoy.

Good artists copy, great artists steal

Episode 6 of Naive and Dangerous, the podcast series I record together with my colleague Dr Chris Moore. In this episode we return to emergent media with a focus on mashups. On top of that, we have our first special guest – the mashup researcher and artist Jamie Pye-Respondek. We had a lot of fun recording this episode, and we cover a lot of musical ground, while also straying into remix culture and the copyright insanity. Have a listen.