Thursday, March 8, 2007

Emergent Sociology ~= Chaos Math



Books like the amazing Peopleware often put forth the idea that to manage software development, you need to understand sociology. This often produces resistance in developers, which is ironic, because anybody who ever writes any piece of software must manage their own software development. But sociology is a "soft science," a touchy-feely discipline where bullshit artists make stuff up and cook up phony studies to back up their personal generalizations -- this, at least, is the stereotype which often lurks at the back of a developer's mind. It's seen as being as arbitrary, speculative, and disingenuous as psychology, just operating on a group scale rather than an individual one.

An interesting possibility, however, is that certain elements of sociology are not actually derived from psychology at all -- but from mathematics. My own suspicion is that certain elements of sociology, which is to say, certain elements of the patterns of behavior of people in groups, are simply intrinsic not to the psychology of humans as they relate to one another, but to the mathematics of systems of independent agents operating in concert.

My belief in this comes from the fact that certain unanticipated sociological phenomena, such as patterns of etiquette, emerge when robotics researchers design robots to operate in groups. Unfortunately I saw this years ago and have lost track of the link. Google wasn't any help. But this is interesting because robots do not have psychology in any meaningful sense, nor can you trace back their group dynamics to primitive tribal behavior the way you often can with human behavior. Yet groups of robots develop protocols of etiquette anyway. They also develop more sophisticated behavior, such as patterns of deceit and misdirection.

If sociological behavior such as etiquette, and consistent patterns of groups misleading other groups, may indeed derive to some extent in an emergent fashion from the interaction of groups of mechanical agents which have neither primitive tribal urges nor any psychology to speak of, there is a very good chance that certain elements of sociology are in fact entirely mathematical in nature. This does not, however, mean that you automatically get the ability to cook up the math for a good team dynamic. Emergent behaviors are closely linked to chaos math, and chaos math is definitively non-deterministic. If sociological phenomena have any foundation in math it is almost certainly non-deterministic math.

Still, this is a very, very interesting line of research, and I expect further findings in this field will continue to be very interesting.

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