The World as Parts and Silos

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<p>As humans, we have a tendency to separate the world into parts and silos. Here we take a look at some of the benefits that come with this kind of perspective, and why it seems to be such a powerful and persisting worldview. </p>

<h1>The World as Parts and Silos</h1>

<p>At universities all over the world, there are different departments, different buildings, and in some cases even different campuses, for various fields of study. At the hospital, there are different doctors, different, floors, different wings, different centers, for the myriad aspects of the body that may need fixing of some kind. In the economy, we have different markets, different companies, different products within companies, different departments within companies etc. When we look at the biosphere we have different species, subspecies, different branches of life, different kingdoms of life etc. </p>

<p>In the modern world, we have arrived at a culture of silos and parts. This can be so embedded into our way of thinking and being, that it may sound silly at first to even think about what that implies. So, why do we have this worldview of silos and parts, where did it come from, and what are its benefits and costs?</p>


<p>It may seem strange at first, particularly in the western world, to realize that it is not inherently necessary to view the world in silos and parts, at least not to the extent we do in daily life. </p>

<p>Did humans always view the world in parts and silos? You can look back into history, not just the history of a country, or a particular culture, or even a particular region, but across the whole of human existence. Then it becomes apparent that our ancestors did not always view the world the way we do now. </p>

<p>One suggestion is that the more humans became decoupled from the ebb and flow of the natural environment, the more we dissected it and broke it into parts. </p>

<h3>Symbolic Representation</h3>

<h4>Language </h4>

<p>Dan Dennett, the American philosopher, has a great saying that “you can’t do much carpentry with your bare hands, and you can’t do much thinking with your bare brain”. He says this in the context of trying to understand why human cognition seems so radically different from what we see in even close genetic relatives like chimpanzees and bonobos. His suggestion, is that we are not merely cognitively superior by some chance physical traits in our brains. </p>

<p>It’s important to note that there certainly could be some randomness and lucky mutations in some aspect of our brains. These might have provided some degree of a hardware jump, particular the density of neurons in the cerebral cortex. That said, whatever the hardware upgrade might have been, it appears that focusing on the hardware alone (or the “wetware” as the brain is jokingly referred to) would not be sufficient. We require something beyond physical brains, to explain the utterly radical advance in cognition and abilities, that we see manifest in the human world. In other words, while our hardware might be improved over close genetic relatives, the upgrade is not going from the Stone Age to an iPhone. It is probably more akin to going from a BlackBerry to an iPhone. It’s definitely a change, but if you notice, the hardware only gets you so far. If the iPhone came out, but was just a touchscreen version of a Blackberry (like many of the copycat products rushed to market), that wouldn’t be so revolutionary.</p>

<p>The crucial point Dennett is asserting, is that humans as a species created tools for thinking. These abstract tools for symbolic representation and the manipulation of symbols in language and mathematics etc., are the missing “magic ingredients”, that allowed our brains to do work that can’t be done with the hardware of the brain itself. </p>

<p>Language is the primary example of this, and something to notice, is how it seems that in a way, the invention of symbolic language, shoehorns in this breaking of the world into silos and parts by necessity. </p>

<p>In order to have a language of any sophistication and usefulness, there are some base requirements. It must at minimum be able to consistently correlate some symbol (a sound, a gesture, an image, an object etc.) which is not the thing itself, with the actual entity being referenced. Doing this in an unambiguous and precise enough way, to reliably communicate, seems to require the development of mental models that shatter the wholistic experience of the world, into discrete parts, in separate silos. </p>


<p>If we look at mathematics, we see an even more explicit example of parts and silos. One cannot do mathematics, without having a concept of parts and silos. Even the most basic rudimentary aspects of mathematics, such as counting with the “natural numbers”, immediately generates a view of breaking wholes into parts. As soon as you start counting, some of the items counted, can be grouped into sets. Now you have created a silo to which some parts belong, and others do not (assuming you’re not creating something bizarre like a set of all things that can ever be in a set).</p>

<p>In fact, one of the biggest advances in mathematics, was the “invention” of zero as its own part. There are record of zero dating back to some time around 3 BC in Mesopotamia, and evidence also suggests that Mayans got to the same concept independently around AD. However, it came into existence, the concept that “nothing” could be represented as “something”, as its own “part” in the “silo” of a mathematical expression.</p>

<p>Collectively, language and mathematics, demonstrate the power and necessity of viewing the world as parts and silos. This ability, is heavily reliant on the “software” of tools for thinking, rather than merely the “hardware” of the brain. It goes a long way toward explain how the modern world came to exist, and why humans are the species that created it. </p>

<h3>Survival and Civilization </h3>

<p>The struggle for survival underpins evolution. At minimum, the struggle for survival imposes a minimum divide between those aspects of the world that are perceived as beneficial for survival, or harmful. All living systems have some version of this, including plants which can, in some cases, open petals and pours, more or less, depending on the conditions most beneficial to their survival. </p>

<p>What we focus on here is far beyond that basic level of plant or even animal survival. It is the notion that the human species has a much more pronounced way of partitioning the world, and we see this on full display when survival meets civilization.</p>

<p>It is the decoupling of survival from the natural constraints of the environment, that both allows humans to dominate, and creates the conditions and necessity for civilization.</p>

<p>When we stopped operating from instinct to survive, and started relying on intelligence, imagination, and insight, the human world was created. This new world, was inherently based on a paradigm of parts and silos, unlike the natural world.</p>

<p>Even something that seems old-fashioned and simple to the modern world, such as farming, requires this mentality of parts and silos. It requires breaking time into parts in terms of narratives about a future which is not here in the present. It requires the division of labor, so the different tasks can be accomplished in the right sequence. Not only that, but it requires an even more subtle division, which is that of the connection to one’s own emotions, to one’s own Inner Landscape. All living systems must expend some energy to do the work that allows their metabolic network to persist. This big difference between humans and most other life that we know of, is the extent to which human activity is decoupled and distanced from fitness payoffs in the natural environment. Humans must consciously expend energy to do “work” which has absolutely no survival benefit to the body, at close points in space or time. Consider being an accountant, for example. There is no direct physical connection from anything an accountant does, that would lead to obtaining food, shelter, or reproducing, in the natural environment. In a way, that’s kind of the miracle and the tragedy of modern life. We are so decoupled from the fitness payoffs of the ancestral environment, that only through very indirect and abstract means does the energy we actually expend, result in obtaining the fitness payoffs in the 21st century.</p>

<p>So, this last example seems to require, not only a concept of parts and silos in the world, but also parts and silos of our own internal states, that can be reflected upon. It requires us to create stories about what the future might be, and to make decisions based on those simulations. It appears that this kind of division and reflection requires a model that separates the external states of the world, from the internal states, of a self.</p>


<p>Perhaps besides symbolic language, what is most central to the human experience, is the sense of being an individual and separate self, apart from the rest of the world. We take this for granted because for most of us, it’s just the obvious default, but is it really so obvious?</p>

<p>We often forget or fail to recognize, that for the vast majority of life on the planet, there probably is no meta-cognitive sense of a separate self. Even for human babies, there is almost certainly a conscious experience there, but at least in the earliest parts of life, there is most likely no sense that the conscious experience is a private “I” experience, of a separate self. Much of the process that goes on in the early stages of mental development in the brain, involves the gradual pruning and reduction of random connections in the brain, that correlate various inner states with external states of the world.</p>

<p>As a baby becomes more adept at correlating various aspects of the external world, and differentiating them from internal states, it is as if the mind and the world held within it, break apart together. The process of learning, is a matter of expanding the possible correlations between elements, and then gradually reducing those, until only the fittest correlations survive. If that sounds a bit like evolution, that’s because it essentially is. The most considerable difference is that as humans, we have a tendency to maintain the silos and parts indefinitely, while evolution in the biosphere, and in self organizing systems generally, has the tendency to create wholes from the parts. </p>

<h2>The Benefits </h2>

<p>Throughout the course of human history, time, and time again, tremendous progress has been made via the philosophy and practice of breaking the world into parts and silos. While we can refer to this general approach in many ways, it might be most helpful in this context, to sort of roll all of that into what is known as reductionism, and the reductionist paradigm. </p>

<h3>Reductionism Made the Modern World Possible</h3>

<p>It is hard to overstate the power that the simple paradigm of reductionism has brought to the human experience. In so many ways, reductionism has made the modern world possible. </p>

<h4>General Science via Reductionism</h4>

<p>Thousands of years ago, Democritus, the Greek philosopher, provided one of the earliest accounts of reductionism as we might think of it in modern times. The basic premise was that indivisible “atoms”, moving in a void, were ultimately the source of all phenomena. This was not exactly correct, but it is truly remarkable how thousands of years later, the basic spirit of that concept, still underlies and drives so much of the human world.</p>

<h4>Physics via Reductionism</h4>

<p>There can be valid reasons for objecting to reductionism, and some of those will be covered later on. That said, what is almost universally true among people who know about the history of science, and the development of human thought and knowledge in general, is the following recognition. Regardless of whether reductionism is the ultimate answer, it was almost certainly what we needed to start asking questions and finding answers, in a scientific manner. </p>

<p>Physics, the field which studies the most fundamental laws and objects in the universe (at least that’s the idea), probably required reductionism, and the broader “parts and silos” approach, in order to get off the ground as a rigorous enterprise. </p>

<p>Galileo, one of the fathers of modern science, formalized the essence of the “parts and silos” approach, and the adoption and dominance of reductionism as the paradigm for doing science. He mathematized his observations in ways that allowed the whole experience of a system, to be explained in terms of the behavior of its separate parts. </p>

<p>Another key distinction that Galileo made, is a split between observer and the observed. He made rigorous the idea that science is about the third-person view of the world, and that the first person view, should not be included. Again, we can argue the merits of this, particularly in light of conundrums that have not been addressed from the reductionism paradigm. That said, I want to stress, that at the time of Galileo, I don’t think he had another viable way to go. His was a world of wild superstition, and rampant religiosity, largely run by a theocratic state. He was after all condemned to house arrest, for the “crime”, of espousing the Copernican position of heliocentrism. So, even at a sociological level, science required a worldview of parts and silos, just to sequester off, parts of the world that could safely be studied by science, without persecution from religious zealots. Note that this is not a condemnation of religion or its practitioners, but merely a factual account of the relationship between science and religion, at the time of Galileo. </p>

<p>By breaking the world into parts and silos, into separate objects, separate planets, separate observations, they could be counted, and if they could be counted as separate parts, they could often be related by mathematical equations.</p>

<p>There was a long gap between Democritus and Galileo, but what started with the Greeks, and seemed to die not long after, had perhaps the most glorious resurrection we actually have evidence of. The idea of a universe consisting of individual parts, that could be counted, examined, mathematically related, and that this process could answer all of our questions, was a fantastic paradigm shift, that reverberates to this day. The significance of adopting this basic paradigm of reductionism, and its general expression as a world of parts and silos, simply cannot be overstated. It means that much to what we do in the present day, what we may do in the future, and who we are as a species, that began as just another kind of primate, albeit with a little less hair. </p>

<h4>Biology via Reductionism</h4>

<p>Biology is one of the few areas, where the reductionist paradigm, and the more general approach of parts and silos, is questioned to some extent. That said, there can be no doubt that parts and silos were needed to get biology to where it is in modern times. </p>

<p>The immense challenge of biology, and complex systems in general, is to find ways to make the systems amenable to investigation and study, when they are often irregular and unpredictable. </p>

<p>In the case of biology, which effectively aims to study the underpinnings of the entire biosphere, we must artificially break nature into separate parts and silos. We must do this because the biosphere is so complex and unwieldy. The ability to isolate sections of it, allows us to gain some understanding in those limited regions. </p>

<p>The idea of the cell, has likely been the most important aspect of biology’s reduction base, and it continues to be crucial today, even in an era where gene sequencing and AI protein folding simulations as possible. </p>

<p>The cell has effectively been the atom of biology. It gave us a sense of parts that could be sported into different silos depending on their combinations and functions in the body. </p>

<p>For Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection, it was the individual animal, having been born with natural variation, which would ultimately compete for survival, and thus drive the process of evolution forward. </p>

<p>Collectively these “parts” i.e., the individual animals, would diverge from each other over time, and eventually become different enough that they could be grouped into separate silos known as “species”. Something fascinating about evolution, is revealed if you look at the tree of life, starting with LUCA (last universal common ancestor) and progressing towards the modern era. You see a visual history of the biosphere branching into more and more parts and silos. Then again, it could all be a matter of perspective, that determines if you see parts or wholes. </p>

<h4>Technology via Reductionism</h4>

<p>Very rarely does anything technological, work as intended, when it is constructed top down, as a whole. With the notable exception of the Manhattan Project, which lead to the atomic bomb, the vast majority of technological progress happens in terms of modularity and incremental improvement. </p>

<p>When you engineer and tinker with modularity, you have the ability to compose and decompose as you see fit. The same holds true for bits of kit, as it does for bits of ideas and information.</p>

<p>When we look at the modern world of technology, it can seem as though it&#39;s all so seamless and unified. It can seem like all these wonderful apps and devices magically appeared out of the void. The reality is quite different. In reality, most of what we see is just the inexorable progression, in incremental steps, of ideas and concepts that are nearly 100 years old, and in some cases even older. </p>

<p>Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, had already in the 1800s, been thinking about how to implement universal computation. Unfortunately their minds were so far ahead of the technology of the day, that they never lived to see universal computation instantiated in physical devices. </p>

<p>We needed Alan Turing to really give us a model for computation that made its essential properties comprehensible. Fortunately for us, we got just that when the “Turing Machine” model was introduced to the world, . The great majority of the time, one insight or model or advancement, is not enough, and such was the case with the development of computing devices. </p>

<p>We also required the contribution of Claude Shannon, who, in 1948 , gave us his insight on “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”. In this 2 part article, Shannon introduced the world to his formal concept of information. No longer a matter of interpretation or meaning, but a cold rigorous accounting of on the degree to which a “message”, reduces the uncertainty about the state of some system. This gave the abstract concept of computation that Turing had brilliantly modeled, some finite part (the “bit”) to be manipulated and stored in silos (registers).</p>

<p>Once the essence of computation was understood, it became a matter of engineering. A Turing machine, running operations on input bits of information, and storing the output in registers, was the basic target. People could start dreaming up ways to instantiate this process in physical devices, as Babbage and Lovelace had sought to do in the 1800s. <sup><a id="ffn1" href="#fn1" class="footnote">1</a></sup> </p>

<p>Bridging the gap between the abstract and the technology, was the realization that Boolean logic could be instantiated with physical “gates”, that could perform the same operations as could be done abstractly, in human made machines. </p>

<p>The CPU (central processing unit) concept came largely from Jon Von Neumann, and is the basic structure for most of the computers we use today (known technically as Von Neumann Architecture). Once you have a CPU, that can direct bits to be sent through a sequence of logic gates (vacuum tubes to start and transistors in modern day), and store the output in registers (memory), you have made a physical computer. Further, if that computer, is capable of running a minimum set of operations as defined by Turing, then an astonishing fact is that it becomes “Universal”. In other words, such a machine becomes capable of doing any computation, that any other classical computer can do now or at any time in the future, given enough time and memory. </p>

<p>The register, the transistor, the logic gate, the operation, the bit, these are the parts (some abstract and some physical) that modern technology is made of. They came from many different silos, from mathematics, from information theory, from mechanical engineering, from electrical engineering, from the steampunk era of Babbage and Lovelace, to the atom punk era of the Manhattan Project.</p>

<p>These parts and silos, made the modern world possible. </p>

<h3>Planned Civilization May Require Parts and Silos </h3>

<p>Our civilization as a species, particularly in the 1st world, is heavily dependent on parts and silos to operate. </p>

<p>As was mentioned earlier in the context of agriculture, it appears that one of the telltale sings of civilization is an increasing decoupling from the ebb and flow of the natural environment. In the process, we must effectively “break” the whole of the natural world, which cannot be controlled top down, into parts and silos that can be methodically managed. </p>

<p>It can start with the division of labor, as it did with hunter-gatherers tribes prior to the rise of agriculture. We believe there was, even then, some division of labor such that not every member of the tribe was doing the exact same tasks. We know, from details about Native American ways of living, that they had often quite specific divisions of labor. The men were mostly hunting the animals, and the women would do astonishing things with just about every single part of what was caught, particularly if it was a buffalo. They knew just how to take the parts of work needed for the tribe to survive, and split them into different role silos in their culture. Likewise, they knew just how to take a whole buffalo, divide it into hundreds if not thousands of parts, and get the most from each part for a given silo. Some parts like skins and furs, were for the clothing and blanket silo. Other parts like strong and long bones, might be for the weapon silo. Muscle and fat was for the food silo. Organs might be for the medicine silo, and other such uses as pigmentation for clothing, and probably a million other uses we would not even think of. </p>

<p>In modern civilization, we divide labor, and authority, and transportation, and so many other functions.</p>

<p>Something interesting to consider, in this context of parts and silos, is the idea of how control and power work in a civilization. There is always an argument as to what forms and structures of governance are most prosperous, most stable, most beneficial. </p>

<p>Whet quickly becomes an argument about ideology, may actually obscure a more salient discussion about scale and parts vs. wholes. </p>

<p>It may be the case that the best forms of governance are not necessarily philosophically based, but instead based on the size scale, and the degree to which the whole must be controlled vs. parts and silos. </p>

<p>Dunbar’s number (about 150) is an estimation of how many relationships a human being can keep track of. Though it is not exact and should never be stated as a rigorous fact, it may shed some light on issues of governance and power in human civilization. It’s possible that around Dunbar&#39;s number (or low multiples thereof), that some forms of governance resembling communism or socialism, inherently manifest. Not because of the philosophy of the people, but because at low multiples of Dunbar’s number, the human mind may be able to conceive of and thrive in, a civilization that consists of a single silo at a large scale. The Inner Landscape of the human mind and body, evolved in social settings where group size was highly constrained. Much of our emotional and cognitive apparatus has been honed by evolution to perceive and react to a single silo civilization where there is a high degree of direct knowledge and contact with all other members of the group. When everyone knows everyone else’s business, and crucially, each individual is largely reliant on many other individuals for mutual survival, the world looks quite different. Cheating is harder, stealing is harder, slacking is harder, accumulating power and wealth is harder. </p>

<p>Nassim Taleb has made a similar point when speaking about forms of government and how they relate to scale and fragility. </p>

<p>It is quite possible that a prerequisite for a large civilization at scales way above Dunbar&#39;s number like 150,000 or 150,000,000 and up, cannot survive when treated as a single silo. It might be the case that something akin to democracy and free market capitalism, has a distinct advantage at large scales. Even with all their flaws, they may be the only forms of governance that can survive long enough at massive scales (like the hundreds of millions in large modern countries), for the flaws to even have a chance of being corrected, before the whole system collapses like the Soviet Union. </p>

<p>There are, of course, exceptions to this rule that can be found, like ancient China, ancient Egypt, and of course Rome under the rule of emperors, for example. But when you look closer, you notice that even what appears to be top down, ruler-based control (“God King” type control in many cases), may not be all that it appears to be at first glance. The realities of large-scale governance required all manner of parts and silos which, in effect, distributed much of the control away from the central ruler. No iron fist is strong enough, no tyrant is terrifying enough, no single person is smart enough, to do it all alone. To manage governing large populations with sophisticated roles and functions, necessitates having some breakage of central authority, into a system of parts and silos, even if not explicitly acknowledged. </p>

<p>So, it turns out that the approach of parts and silos, might be necessary for the scales of civilization that we see in the modern world, regardless of taste or ideology.</p>

<h2>Closing Thoughts </h2>

<p>Here, we have taken a look at what it means to view the world as parts and silos. </p>

<p>From language and mathematics, to survival and civilization, to the concept of the self, we have observed that breaking the world into parts and silos, has very deep-rooted origins in the human experience.</p>

<p>We looked into the benefits that adopting the worldview of parts and silos, can provide. We explored some of the ways that the general framework of parts and silos, and in particular its specific manifestation as reductionism in science, made the modern world possible. From physics, to biology, to technology, we could not have the world we know, if we as a species had not learned to break it into parts, that could be studied, and managed in separate silos. </p>

<p>We also spent some time discussing the role that parts and silos played, in the development of civilization. We saw that planned civilizations, require the framework of parts and silos, in order to divide the labor, resources, power, etc., in a way that can be manageable and sustainable. </p>

<p>Take everything laid out here, and put it aside for just a moment. There is another perspective to this worldview of parts and silos, that needs to be considered. For all the remarkable benefits that have come from thinking in parts and silos, there are a variety of costs and problems, that are inherent to such a worldview. These downsides, are not often discussed, acknowledged, or even noticed in the first place. For all the wonders that parts and silos can provide, we also have to ask where that framework runs out, and when other more inclusive and wholistic perspectives, must be sought, and adopted. </p>

<p>This is what we will examine next. </p>

<ol id="footnotes">
<li id="fn1">Not content to merely provide the world with “A Mathematical Theroy of Communication”, Claude Shannon also made significant contributions to the engineering side. He showed how it was possible to instantiate Boolean logic, with electronic devices. It is this junction, where the abstarct concept of a Turing machine, can be married with the wires and chips, tthat create what we recognize as a computer. <a href="#ffn1">&#x21A9;&#xFE0E;</a></li>