Thursday, 15 October 2015

30. The crisis of codes

Code has become an ubiquitous word. It's everywhere. From programming, gaming to marketing or spiritual awareness (eg bio-decodage) and without forgetting the Da Vinci Code... the notion of hidden codes that command processes -and some say even our own actions- is becoming bigger and bigger.

The movie "Inception" is a story based on the concept that an idea (in the form of a metaphor, a code) can be incepted in peoples' unconscious in order to command future decisions. In the movie, Leonardo Di Caprio's character is hired to incept an idea into the heir of a big business. He had incepted an idea before into his wife deep unconscious: a metaphor that she would interpret as "this is a dream". This hidden code drove her to kill herself: believing "this is a dream" even when awake, meant she could not connect with reality any more. She thought the only way to wake up was through dying. 

Even if this is a story, it illustrates what others also speak about: the existence of codes in life, unwritten decrees, adopted beliefs, that govern us in different ways. Because they are unwritten, they are not conscious. They are highly symbolic and mostly hidden from our rational filter.

Economics: Something beyond market forces

I'll start with Economics for two reasons: the first one is that nowadays it "governs the governments" and secondly because it is an area where cultural imperatives and ideologies are not named or frequently denied whilst hiding behind the word science.

In this video, Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz discuss the current state of economics. Even though, classical economics is based on the principle that men are rational entities, looking to maximise utility, they discuss that it is self-evident that this is not the case, that there are "forces beyond the market" that dictate many behaviours.

Thomas Piketty starts (min 5) saying: "I think there is a lot of ideology in the economic profession. And I think many economists have a view of markets which is not only idealistic and naive. They are defending the views that markets are working efficiently, are working well."

Joseph Stiglitz comments on minimum wage: "one of the things that 'Wall Mart raising the wage to that level' illustrates it is the fact that it is not just market forces determining minimum wages... they have the power, the choice to raise the wages. [] There are a lot of non-market forces determining what's going on." Later on, he repeats this assertion in relation to male-female wage inequality and the lack of female CEOs.

Paul Krugman comments on nationalism in America and some state's entrenched opposition to national programs that would benefit them: "there is a lot of discussion in the sociological and political science literature [] on the question of false consciousness. Clearly in the US, a lot of it is back to the original sin: it is about race."
Later on he adds: "I picked up a phrase, when Bernie Madoff scandal came, I learned a very useful phrase which is "affinity fraud": people are very easily conned by people who they think of as being like themselves, as being part of their tribe."

So if we have two Nobel price winners and a top economist saying that there is a lot of ideology and cultural beliefs being sold as "economic truths", why then the TINA (there is no alternative) principle of neo-liberalism has been so accepted?

Those structures built before us

There were several concepts that have become quite popular in this regard:
Check your privilege  is an online expression used by bloggers and in twitter  to remind others that the body and life they are born into comes with specific privileges we normally are blind to. This is illustrated by a TED talk done by Michael Kimmel. He tells an anecdote of how he learned about this concept (way before it was made popular by social media) having a meal with a study group. He witnessed an exchange between two women (a white woman and a black woman). The white woman says "All women face the same oppression. We are all placed in the same position in the patriarchy". The black woman replies "I'm not so sure. Let me ask you a question. When you wake up in the morning and you look in the mirror, what do you see?". The white woman said "I see a woman". Then,the black woman said "You see. That's the problem. When I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror I see a black woman. To me, race is visible." Being the only man in the group, he thought oh-oh and then admitted "when I look in the mirror I see a human being. I'm the generic person... I'm universally generalisable." And then comments "that's the moment when I became a middle-class white man." (he missed the adjective 'american', though).

Another concept being talked about is Self-efficacy (and attribution): the extent or strength of one's belief in one's own ability to complete tasks and reach goals; the level of confidence we have that our behaviour can actually affect what we achieve and how much of our success/failure we attribute to our actions. It's a common concept looked at in cases of burnout, obesity and mental health in general.

How are these two linked together? When we think of system structure and which is our place in this system in this particular moment in time.

In this video, Paul Krugman discusses issues of infrastructure with Senator Elizabeth Warren (min. 56 onwards). He asks "New York city is expensive.[] Why are people here? It's because of the opportunities. Where do these opportunities come from? They come from all the other people who are here, from the interaction between them, they come from the incredible infrastructure []." But then he argues "I find it incredible that somebody had made the decision to be in this crowded place, in this expensive place -because of all these opportunities- but then they say, all that money 'is money I made', 'you have not right', 'it's all me', 'it's all my individual stuff'. And 'how does the government thinks it can tax some of that away?' to pay for some of the things that makes this place where I want to be. This city -and America as a whole- is an overwhelming demonstration we are more than the sum of the parts. And that's why we need more than markets, we need government to make things work." 
In this comment, of course, he describes a misattribution of success as a pure individual achievement without taking into account the systemic enablers (geography, family, point in History, class, access to education, access to opportunities, etc). On the other end of the spectrum, the self-efficacy of anyone with less privileges will be greatly affected, sometimes without fully accounting for the systemic disablers. Of course when there are systemic enablers for some and systemic disablers for others, there is systemic injustice.

Codes defining systems' structures

In this video, Fritjof Capra (introducing the book "The systems View of Life") explains that Systems science uses networks at the centre of the model to explain life in its multidimensional levels of organization, changing the old model that looked at systems as machines. Here he touches on biological, sociological and economical applications, but I'll comment on what he says when speaking about social networks (min 27): social networks are networks of communication. Social networks are self-generated but what they generate is non-material: they generate thoughts and meaning. They form multiple feedback loops, which eventually produce a shared system of beliefs, explanations and values, which is known as culture. And showing membership of a community means that you have to behave in a certain way. There are also restrictions on behaviour of their members, but these restrictions are generated by the members themselves.

In other words there is a code of conduct

According to Capra systems science changes the way of thinking towards relationships, patterns and context.

Following a similar line, "The culture code" is a marketing book by Dr. Clotaire Rampaille (who has also recently launched "The global code"), that describes that most decisions we make are unconscious. They are commanded vastly by a reference system we imprint in our early years of life, are shaped by the emotions we feel any time we have a "first experience" -and even more when this is repeated and reinforced-, and embedded in our reptilian brain (the most ancient part of the brain commanding survival and reproduction processes). This reference system will work as a code that defines what is accepted and rejected. Some of these first experiences are very individual, and some will be transmitted by our family and by our culture. In this way, most of our choices are decoded as survival tactics that we and our tribe have developed. 
According to Rampaille, this code determines what's the relationship we establish with an object, a subject, a notion, an idea and it is highly symbolic. The content itself is interchangeable. Applied to marketing, if a brand of shampoo wants to sell us beauty, it will tap into the culture codes of beauty (young, slim, symmetrical, in many cases blond, unattainable, etc). Any product that wants to establish a relationship with us using beauty as a bridge, will have to build a vision of beauty similar to our own. Many brands of shampoo could achieve this. But he goes beyond, and suggest there are codes that define what certain cultures look in a president, how they see their countries identity, etc.

So, if networks are relationships, and there are codes that ultimately determine relationships (by accepting/rejecting), these codes will determine the shape of the network, its structure, its geometry. 

It is probably in this context that what happened with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina can be interpreted. The Washington Post shared some of the findings of The Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth that were tracking 1420 low income children, including this specific group. Suddenly, a Casino was built in the reservation which saw most families increasing their income. As a result children showed a significant increase a personality traits that are strongly linked with positive outcomes further in life: conscientiousness and agreeableness. It is hypothesised that the extra income improve the relationship between parents, the relationship between parents and children, and reduce alcohol intake, commenting that when this happens before the age of 8, these traits can become permanent. The codes that get imprinted about our most primary relationships are more positive when these relationships are healthier.

These findings are also in line with the views of Professor Robert Putman.

On-code, off-code or changing the code?

Coherence to the code is the key to success within a given system. In this sense, when thinking how few women get to the top Sheryl Sandberg makes very interesting comments. 
She speaks about self-efficacy and shares stats showing that men attribute their success to themselves, while women tend to comment on the enabling factors external to themselves. She gives cultural clues: men are positively correlated to success and likeability whilst women are negatively correlated. As a whole, she indicates to women that being "on-code" in business has to do with confidence, single focus on the business, individuality, challenging the rules and self-attribution-bias (even if it is partially delusional). There is a lot of sense in her point of view. Of course, it is not clear if this would be really enough when there are disabling systemic factors. You can hardly be more successful, committed and confident than Serena Williams, however she once said "I'm the most underestimated 8-times grand slam champion ever" (after this quote she continued winning and has accumulated 21 grand slams victories -and counting-). This did not stop her to achieve all that she has achieved. But the fact she is not being truly recognised is an indication that if she had played within a structure where achievements were measured much more subjectively, her success would've probably been limited. Her experience suggests that there is a bit more than attitude that play against women and african americans.   
It is not difficult to recognise either that there are many disabling factors against working motherssome degree of cultural disapproval (still, and coming from both sexes),none or short maternity leave, lack of flexibility and even cost of childcare being higher than their own salary (the infamous I-can't-afford-to-work issue). 
We need to think too about the system geometry and the fact that men thrive in pyramidal structures (which is in itself a symbol of masculinity), probably trying to resolve some of their Oedypus complex every time they symbolically kill their symbolic father (their boss) by taking their place and thus penetrating further their symbolic mother (the company, that feeds them). Of course, pyramids are not inclusive of all men, they have mechanisms to exclude any group they do not see as matching their own identity (some people will be always off-code even if they are willing to mimic on-code behaviours).

Beyond this, studies on collective intelligence done by the MIT led by Tom Malone suggest that groups act more intelligently when:
This is a real invitation to think how hierarchical and reward structures could be better in accommodating and recognising members that are enablers of collective intelligence. 
In this sense, it is important to remember that processes and structures cannot be decoupled.

Changing the metaphor

In Capra's video, he states: "There is a system awareness that sees itself through a metaphor, a code, and through this code, it designs processes. Indeed at the very heart of the change in paradigm, we find a fundamental change of metaphor of understanding life as a machine as understanding it as a network."

Even if we want to insist we are rational beings, science has shown that decisions are deeply emotional or plainly instinctive. In a world that is only trying to evolve through addressing the pre-frontal cortex (words and rational thinking) is neglecting most part of its brain that can only process symbolic information. The symbolic language we used to connect to in ritual once-a-week attendance to church (with all its positive and negative implications) is being used 24/7 by advertising and the entertainment industry which normally works in accordance to the current (mostly survival and competitive) codes.  

How do these codes codes get changed? How do we evolve? Personally and collectively?
My attempt to answer these questions would be:
1- Back to basics
Personally: Listening to our inner child (the one that needs), and provide him/her with the resources we have as adults. I think the awareness of our own history is important and understanding our early years is an important enabler to understand what are our codes, our most basic needs. 
Collectively: Improving well being of all children: (through addressing the main causes of distress of their parents), will definitely bring a next generation with new codes.  

2. Stepping outside our comfort zone:
Personally: New habits, new experiences. According to Einstein the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. 
Collectively: New conversations, embracing plurality, immigration
When people with different views of the world interact, these conversations will slowly affect the codes of all participants but only if this works as an exercise of acceptance and integration of the 'other'. This requires the mastery of the art of brave conversations, where we are willing to speak our truth and listening to a different point of view that might even challenge it. In this regard, it is not surprising to see defence mechanisms at play through a higher level of awareness of racial tensions and anti-immigration rhetoric  particularly in countries where Imperial codes (of racial superiority) might still be present.

3. Embracing moments of crisis: renaissance
Personally: Personal crisis are opportunities to get rid of what's not working. In this sense, there is a part of us that must be allowed to die: old ideas of ourselves, old expectations, old habits, old models. This is not a simple process and a full grieving is necessary.  
Collectively: crisis are powerful symbolic collective events. I've touched upon collective trauma in a previous entry. Collective crisis should also offer the opportunity to revisit old models, too. But in a globally connected world, there are other events that get imprinted too. Images that can be highly symbolic like "The Blue Marble", a photograph of the earth from space was embraced by environmentalist, Western counter-culture (movements for civil rights, peace, feminism, etc) as an image that raised our awareness of unity, of earth vulnerability and challenged our ego image. 
Some people say that the attack on the twin towers is in itself a very strong image that brought a sense of something big just happened, "this means change" to the entire world.
I would argue that the image of Aydan Kurdi has been also significant. Almost a warning telling us that point 1 is not being done properly.

Even if we can all rationally agree that the first point (well being for all children) is indisputable and what every society wants, current economical policies are working against it and we keep voting in their support.

Somehow, the never-ending economical crisis -that triggered several national identity crisis-, the new wave of civil wars -that led to a refugee crisis- and international wars seem to have started to shake things at a much deeper level, to reach core codes and beliefs that the beginning of the crisis did not touch, the ones that we need to confront and hopefully overcome.


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