But now we're depending more and more on systems where nobody's in charge; the intelligence is simply emergent. These probabilistic systems aren't perfect, but they are statistically optimized to excel over time and large numbers. They're designed to scale, and to improve with size. And a little slop at the microscale is the price of such efficiency at the macroscale....Both market economics and evolution are probabilistic systems, which are simply counterintuitive to our mammalian brains. The fact that a few smart humans figured this out and used that insight to build the foundations of our modern economy, from the stock market to Google, is just evidence that our mental software has evolved faster than our hardware....The Web is the ultimate marketplace of ideas, governed by the laws of big numbers. That grain Graham sees is the weave of statistical mechanics, the only logic that such really large systems understand. Perhaps someday we will, too.
Maybe it's just the Christmas season, but all this talk of omniscience and inscrutability and the insufficiency of our mammalian brains brings to mind the classic explanation for why God's ways remain mysterious to mere mortals: "Man's finite mind is incapable of comprehending the infinite mind of God." Chris presents the web's alien intelligence as something of a secular godhead, a higher power beyond human understanding. Noting that "the weave of statistical mechanics" is "the only logic that such really large systems understand," he concludes on a prayerful note: "Perhaps someday we will, too." In the meantime, we must have faith.
I confess: I'm an unbeliever. My mammalian mind remains mired in the earthly muck of doubt. It's not that I think Chris is wrong about the workings of "probabilistic systems." I'm sure he's right. Where I have a problem is in his implicit trust that the optimization of the system, the achievement of the mathematical perfection of the macroscale, is something to be desired. To people, "optimization" is a neutral term. The optimization of a complex mathematical, or economic, system may make things better for us, or it may make things worse. It may improve society, or degrade it. We may not be able to apprehend the ends, but that doesn't mean the ends are going to be good.