From Musical Consonance to Styles of Thought

An article published in Physical Review Letters, reported on in Science News, describes a mathematical model of how neurons can distinguish consonant sounds (say, a C-major chord) from dissonant ones (say, D-E-F). A simple network of neurons, behaving like neurons behave, produces qualitatively different outputs depending on the quantitative differences in the sound frequencies it receives as inputs.

Very interesting as an example of an information processing system with emergent information processing capacities.

I suspect something, at least metaphorically, similar might go on in the processing/experience of consonant ideas. At first I’m tempted to say “least that part of consonant or resonant ideas that we want to ascribe to consonance in the external world” but I think you could take it further and imagine the development of structures along similar lines for the detection of “constructed” consonance. Eventually, one could arrive at mechanisms for implementing “styles of thought” that would not be limited to algorithmic systems that “crank through a set of data” in the same way every time. Rather, we could talk about styles of thought in terms of the kinds of thoughts, tropes, logics, metaphors that would appeal as consonant with “everything else I believe.” Or, the flip side of this would be to move toward mechanisms for cognitive dissonance.

┬áJust a highly speculative bit of musing, but clearly news of this research did strike a chord with some stuff I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

From Information Superhighway to Information Metrosystem

The new FTC report on consumer privacy has an interesting graphic in an appendix. It purports to be a model of the “Personal Data Ecosystem.” It’s interesting as an attempt to portray a four-mode network : individuals, data collectors, data brokers, and data users. The iconography here seems to be derived from classic designs of subway and underground maps.


The genre mixing in the diagram invites, on the one hand, a critical look at where the FTC is coming from in the report (which, in my limited experience of digesting FTC output looks relatively well done) and, on the other, points toward a need to better conceptualize the various components and categories.

Under “collectors,” for example, we have public, internet, medical, financial and insurance, telecommunications and mobile, and retail. The next level (brokers) includes affiliates, information brokers, websites, media archives, credit bureaus, healthcare analytics, ad networks and analytics, catalog coops, and list brokers. Finally, on the info users front we have employers, banks, marketers, media, government, lawyers and private investigators, individuals, law enforcement, and product and service delivery.

It’s a provocative diagram that helps to focus our attention on the conceptual complexity of “personal information” in an information economy/society. More on this to follow.

Friends of Friends

I’ve been thinking about social networks today, and how they grow. In particular, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I “make” a new friend on Facebook, I comb over their friend list to see if there’s anyone on it that I should try to friend.

And so, I’ve been trying to coin a term for this (maybe someone already has — probably someone already has). The first candidates I considered were friend-poaching, friend-lifting (via shoplifting), and friend-pilfering (to steal in small quantities).

A focus on going through the friend lists (rather than the act of making the friend request) might be called friend-prospecting (I like the triple entendre here — one of looking for precious minerals, the other of a salesperson sending out feelers, “looking for prospects,” and lastly, the image of scanning the horizon (of your network)); related would be “friend-foraging.”

I rejected words like pillage or appropriate because you don’t remove them (friend as non-zero-sum phenom). That imagery pushed me to think about friend-piracy, friend-cribbing, and friend-plagiarizing. Friend-sponging has the attraction by analogy to friends using friends. Friend-riding as a variation on free-riding captures something essential, especially among those who ONLY get their friends this way (thereby contributing little to other folks’ ability to do the same*).

I’m working on a simulation that analyzes how network structures change if this is the dominant mode of growth. Stay tuned for an online applet illustrating this.

Any ideas? Any of these strike you as closer to the mark to describe what you are doing when you scan friends’ friend lists? Or what you think about others doing this to yours? Or friends who are only connected this way (“you didn’t think of me yourself! you just saw me on X’s list!”)?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts. If you are interested, I also just started the “virtual focus group” blog as an experiment in collecting data on things like this.

*Important from network analysis point of view, though, is that this would not be completely true since if I forage among the friend lists of multiple friends, everyone I manage to snag becomes available to all of my friends.