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  • Writer's pictureCameron Gordon

Can an Economy Feel Joy?

Updated: Feb 21, 2020

In a previous post, I received a comment which mentioned an interesting thought experiment: The China Brain. The idea goes as follows - imagine you were to take every individual in China (1.4 billion people, as of 2020) and supply them with a walkie talkie. Each individual is connected to other individuals around the nation and communicate with them by pressing a button which sends a signal to their connected individuals. They decide to share this information if they are sufficiently excited - that is, enough of their own connections are signalling with them to share the information weighted by their trust in those connections. The question here is whether a large nation, where each individual is acting as a 'neuron' and replicating a web of axons and dendrites, can 'think' in the same way that a brain does. And if it thinks does that mean that it is?

The philosophical question of whether this network could have consciousness is an interesting one - but it's an equally interesting one to ask if this network could act as if it has consciousness. That is, regardless of whether the network generates thoughts in the traditional sense, can it still perceive, interpret, react, or reason in response to some stimulus. This is an easier question - it is difficult to decide on the nature of consciousness for even other living things, but we can see whether they act in a way which is consistent with some conception of intelligence. We can't say whether a slime mould thinks, but we can say that it responds to complex environments in a way which approximates an efficient and intelligent response (up to and including traversing mazes). Similarly, it's hard to say the extent to which we can say a bee is intelligent, but that's almost beside the point - from frogs to fish to fungi intelligence is best viewed as a continuum representing the different capabilities - and consciousness is one - that an organism is capable of producing effectively.

This leads us to a fun but silly thought experiment: Can an economy feel joy? Suppose we define an economy as the connections (trading, informational, formal, and informal) between individuals. So defined an economy is affected both by internal and external factors. It is able to perceive external factors including weather conditions, the actions of other economies, sources of new resources and supplies; and through the influence of these external factors it is able to both interpret and react to these factors (for example, by producing more wheat in response to a global shortage, responding to both explicit and predicted price signals). To a certain extent it is even able to consider the reasons for its own actions - read through the financial pages of the newspaper and you'll find a form of reflective metacognition. To be able to think about own thinking is one definition of consciousness, so sense we can say that our toy economy has a form of consciousness - although we've cheated slightly by making our economy include its constituent conscious minds.

More simply we know that our toy economy can at least perceive, interpret, and react to an external stimulus in a way that approximates a certain degree of intelligence. We're left to ask how far this extends - can the behaviour of a market extend beyond an artificial form of intelligence to cover aspects of emotion and affect as well? If we consider that an economy can acts as a simulacrum of a mind - even a simple one - we can consider that a sufficiently advanced version should be able to share in the more complicated aspects of higher order thinking, including the ability to generate responses that approximate emotions. This form of thinking is natural to how we describe markets in language - when economic activity is low we say it is 'depressed'. We speak of exuberance, of bubbles, and moods of animal spirits. And what is joy but a form of exuberance - a state of bubbly energy and of rich immediate pleasures? To the extent that an economy can be said to think or feel (a hard ask!) it is possible for it to feel joy too.

To close off I'll leave you with a couple of comparisons. The population of Australia is 25.5 million. If each of us were to act as a neuron* we would become a brain just slightly less than that of a naked mole rat (26,888,000 neurons). A city of 1 million people would be around that of a bee. And the mass of humanity as a whole (7.7 billion) would be about a macaque - a type of monkey known to spend its time stealing alcohol from tourists and soaking in hot springs. Which is pretty bright, when you think about it.

* I haven't said much of the role of synaptic connections between neurons, which is a vital component of computation. For humans it's estimated that each neuron has around 7,000 synaptic connections. In terms of our limit for stable social relationships it is around 100-250 individuals, however the our set of total interacting individuals is significantly larger.

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