Photograph of Arshille Gorky working on his “Modern Aviation: Evolution of Forms under Aerodynamic Limitations” mural at Newark Airport, 1937.

Read the Reflection, written 10 August 28, 2021, below the following original Transmission.

Our world mostly works. When you're leaving the airplane, don't think, follow: good design nudges you all the way to the taxi. The architect Christopher Alexander built a life's work on showing how something as simple as the design of a home's window seat has, over centuries, adjusted to a delicate balance of physical, psychological, and social needs. In equilibrium, good systems get you by on instinct. 

Like the hiker who brought a can of espresso beans, however, many of us are now noticing how much of day-to-day mind-life has been cooked, not left raw. By choice, or by necessity, we're forced to think about things we've usually left to the environment. As I asked a friend who teaches philosophy: have you ever done this much thinking before?

There's a challenge down the road from today's mental jubilee. Call it the quarantine end game. We do, actually, want to get kids out of the house, throw a dinner party, or hear some jazz. When COVID is tamed, but not yet defeated, we'll need new norms for how we bring our worlds back together. 

It's more than just hand-washing. It's, for example, whom we trust, and why. What reasons do we give when we turn someone down for a play date? What reasons can that person throw back? You can't hand them a printout of an article from the Financial Times, or a machine-learning GPS trace. It matters, because the explanations we give each other are buildings we come to live in, often for life.

We know quite a bit about how people go about those buildings, and it's more than just how it makes them feel, or whether "it makes sense." For an explanation to flourish, it often has to have a particular kind of feel, and make a particular kind of sense. We're predisposed, for example, to prefer "unifying" explanations about the world — something we call a consilience drive. The same preferences also go wrong, and those who tilt too far can end up on a conspiracy-theory forum, or in a mental ward. Parallel work shows that moral matters are just as complicated, and high-level concepts like justice, friendship, or dignity are more than window-dressing on a world of short-term contracts.

Getting the quarantine end game right means thinking about how to change thinking itself. You can't sell an idea the way you sell a can of soda. That's no silver lining, but if evolution did indeed make us thinkers, we might as well get back to getting good at it.

Simon DeDeo
Carnegie Mellon University
Santa Fe Institute

T-004 (DeDeo) PDF

Read more posts in the Transmission series, dedicated to sharing SFI insights on the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to SFI President David Krakauer discuss this Transmission in episode 26 of our Complexity Podcast


August 10, 2021

From Virus to Symptom

After trauma, complex systems rarely return to where they began. It’s a principle we can lament: consider, for example, the persistent disruption to a cell’s gene regulatory network after brief exposure to a carcinogen. It’s also a principle we’ve learned, in some cases, to make use of: in how, for example, the mental “noise” of a psychedelic experience can lead to long-lasting escape from life’s mental ruts. You can’t go home again, and hysteresis—the physicist’s term for this effect—is a social law as much as a physical one.

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 trauma was to accelerate what my colleagues George Loewenstein and Nick Chater1 have termed the drive for sense-making. Our tolerance for endless catalogs of disconnected facts is always low, and out of the avalanche of events in the last two years, we were mad to explain what was going on. What matters, in that sense-making process, is not accuracy, but more ambiguous values such as simplicity and unification.2 We didn’t just want to know how it all happened. Our minds wanted the explanation to feel right—and every day the “it” we wanted to explain grew larger.

In retrospect, many of the things we know about explanation-making held true. With so many out-of-scope events, people built explanations to account not just for the disease, but also for the accompanying—often incidental—political events, and even, at a meta level, for the distortions of our appointed explainers.

As time went on, these explanations expanded to encompass more than just the immediate progress of the virus. The virus was not simply something that caused the classic symptoms we were so vigilant for: it seemed to become itself a symptom of more fundamental grievances, fears, and hopes. The virus was used to diagnose everything from the wisdom of the managerial class to sustainability of globalism and the rising power—or hidden weakness—of China. Just as doctors do, we seemed to see beneath these symptoms—wailing sirens and quarantine breakers—to a world that made sense, where a biological virus could in turn be caused by a social one. But which one?

If our understanding of sense-making stumbled, it was a matter of underestimation. The semiotics of COVID-19 were far more complex than I could have imagined. It was less about keeping safe—a question we still have yet to answer well—and more about making sense of how safety could be so strangely taken away. The work in our laboratory at CMU sees this now in our synoptic, data-science studies of online conspiracy groups, and in the ways in which COVID-19 is quickly tangled into explanations of why, for example, liberal democracies are primed for implosion.

In the social domain, COVID-19’s hysteretic release has revealed a far greater heterogeneity than we ever thought possible. As the sirens fade, and vaccination rates slowly move toward herd immunity, we have not only traveled far from where we, personally, each began. We also, it appears, have traveled away from each other. It’s not just that our explanations for the way things are have been fundamentally altered by the nearly two chaotic years of COVID-19. It’s that our explanations have been altered differently. In a newly maskless world, many of us—myself included—play our cards a little closer to the chest, lest we elicit a story even crazier than our own. 

The transformation of a virus into a symptom in this fashion seems to be a part of a longer-term development in political life—one almost Hegelian in its scale. In retrospect, COVID-19 pushed our democracies further and further away from the coalitional politics of the twentieth century, and into a new epistemic realm. Our tribes may no longer be matters of common interest, but ones of common belief. Such a world is one where we recognize each other’s dignity in our toleration—or not—of their explanations, rather than the validity of their needs. In such a world, politics is won and lost not in the material realm, but in that of ideas. And those ideas are only getting stranger.

Read more thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic from complex-systems researchers in The Complex Alternative, published by SFI Press.

Reflection Footnotes

1 N. Chater and G. Loewenstein. 2016. “The Under-Appreciated Drive for Sense-Making,” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 126(B): 137–154. doi: 10.1016/j.jebo.2015.10.016

2 Z. Wojtowicz and S. DeDeo. 2020. “From Probability to Consilience: How Explanatory Values Implement Bayesian Reasoning,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 24(12): 981–993. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2020.09.013