Boundaries protect information, too

by Suspended Reason

Last week, Hazard wrote about Julian Assange’s observation that large institutions must keep paper trails for corrupt or illegal systemic actions they take.

systematic injustice by definition is going to have to involve many people… maybe the whole plan isn’t visible [but] by the time it gets down to the grunts [who enact the policy] some component of it is visible… all organizations of any scale have rigorous paper trails for the instructions from the leadership.

To generalize, coordination requires communication between participating agents. This communication may occur either symbolically (e.g. agents exchanging language with one another) or stigmergically (e.g. agents all consulting the same project state), such that each agent may determine its next action, with minimal redundancy of effort, in a way that advances rather than regresses the shared project. To maintain a consistent set of behaviors over time, and specify to participants how they ought to behave in a variety of possible situations, there must be some store of information which perseveres over time, a store deliberately created and maintained against entropy, corruption, and sabotage.

There are many reasons that superorganisms (countries, institutions, animals, cells) maintain boundaries around their constituent sub-organisms. One is to keep valuable resources from leaking out, or being extracted by rivals. Another is to keep toxins, viruses, and parasites out. But in addition to this careful gating of physical forces and materials, there is also a careful gating of informational access. Within boundaries, we maintain and share informational stores (be they through stigmergy or symbols) so that sub-organisms may follow a common code and coordinate. These stores disambiguate project states, and the configuration of the superorganism, so that agents dedicated to advancing the project and interests of the superorganism may better do so. But these information stores, if accessed by rivals, help them exploit and subvert the superorganism’s aims, precisely through the same disambiguation.