Friday, 23 September 2011

The nature of influence

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How can we understand influence in modern society? How does an individual influence society; how does a society influence an individual? How can influence be reconciled with Free Will?

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Usually we think of influence as chains of causes, or perhaps chains of communications (like memes). And one can affect many - as with an epidemic: an epidemic of ideas.

And the evolved psychology of the individual affects what kinds of ideas get noticed, remembered, passed on.

To this can be added some chaos theory, to emphasize the unpredictability of it all.

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But these are all metaphors or models, inevitably; and another model of influence and cause comes from my current re-reading of Rupert Sheldrake, which is that these influences can be conceptualized in terms of fields - like electro-magnetic fields or a gravitational field.

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Fields organize and orientate entities in their range, like a magnet organizing iron filings, or gravity between the sun and planets organizing the solar system, or electromagnetic waves organizing the inner workings of a radio to generate music.

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A person might be like a magnet in a magnetic field made from other magnets.

A magnet will always have influence when placed in a larger magnetic field - although that influence may be very small, may be hard to detect from background - but there will be influence, inevitably.

This metaphor differs from the current idea that people have to strive for influence, or need luck for influence - we ask whether X has had influence with the baseline assumption that zero influence is assumed, and any influence must be proven.

But the field metaphor this assumes that there is influence and then concentrates on understanding its nature and magnitude.

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A person might be like a strong magnet (a Saint or genius or demonic individual) - a strong influence, having widespread influence.

Influence may or may not lead to observable change, but the influence is there - like a magnetic field is there whether or not it moves the iron objects within its influence (they may be glued down, but they still experience the magnetic field).

Or there might be many weak magnets orientating together (a political party, participants in the mass media), and these might have a big influence.

And if the large field organizes magnets within it, this will change the situation further.

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We all live in society, we all feel the magnetic influence, we all exert a magnetic influence and these interact.

But we need to add to this picture Free Will. We feel the influence, but we can say yes or no; indeed we must say yes or no - before we are moved by the field there is always an act of consent, a loosening of resistance.

A Good society exerts on kind of organizing force (which may be consented to or resisted) and an evil society likewise.

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The benefit of living is a Good society is the nature of the field operating, but consent or refusal are operative just as they are in an evil society.

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An individual may generate a strong field, and this may (tend to) organize those around him - and this may be for good or ill.

But when understanding this influence we may not look at chains of causes and effects or chains of communications (who met who, where and when, what did they say?) - instead we conceptualize it as a field of organizing.

On a field metaphor, for X to influence society does not require that X meets lots of people,

or that we measure and trace the explicit widespread communications between people;

fields operate at a distance and often invisibly and undetectably - we may study them by studying the patterns of action of fields, and inferring the origin, focus, shape, tendency of the field as revealed by its effects.

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(And there may be a field operating even when effects are not measured - only when a susceptible entity is introduced can the field be detected. so, the nature of a societal field may only be apparent from its effects on certain types of person.)

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For the field of society to influence individual X likewise does not require that they reveal influence; the influence may be felt in terms of the resistance necessary to prevent a response.

Thus the power of a magnetic field on a magnet may be measured in terms of the strength of glue necessary to prevent the magnet from moving.

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