The Substance Of Society : Infocap [MT102]
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.
Accumulated knowledge, like accumulated capital, increases at compound interest
The Chinese Connection
We stood beside the road in the tiny Chinese village.
It was 1979, and China was in process of opening up to the world. Tourism was tentatively
being encouraged, but only under strict conditions. Tourists were allowed in only in groups,
for formal 'study tours'.
You didn't choose the contents of your tour, or even know details of what it included before
you went. Most groups visited factories, a kindergarten, a dam project, a collective farm, and
a school, as well as typical tourist sites like caves, birthplaces of famous people, and museums.
Our group was a bit different to most, in that it was made up by lumping together a number
of individuals who hadn't started off as a pre-formed group, the Woop-Woop Womens
Hockey Club or whatever. And so it had couples from Switzerland, Canada, the United States,
and Hong Kong, as well as another couple from Australia besides my wife and myself. Most
of us would have been classed as 'professional couples'.
The Chinese guides on this tour were completely open and apparently willing to talk about
any aspects of their society or ours. Although perhaps these tours did not extend to 'sensitive'
parts of the country, there were no restrictions upon what we did, which shops or buildings we
went into, or who we talked to, other than the sort of logistic constraints which affect any
organized tour. We saw military aircraft parked besides civilian ones in the mixed-use
airports, schoolchildren doing rifle practice on the high-school playing field, even two women
in a stand-up, drag-down, hair-pulling fight in a Canton street.
The Hong Kong members of the group were all people of European origin who were living
in Hong Kong. Several of them spoke fluent Cantonese, the local Chinese dialect. We had
stopped at the small village, chosen at random as the tour bus drove along the road, at the
request of some of the Chinese-speakers, so that they could chat with some of the villagers.
Nobody we encountered anywhere showed any reluctance to talk freely, or any fear of the
consequences (in marked contrast to Russia, which we had also visited just previously). This
openness encouraged us to ask how much some of these people earned -- a natural curiosity
which we would perhaps have held in check in a European country.
It turned out that none of these people earned as much in a month as some of the people
in our group earned in an hour. This was true even for the tour guides, some of whom were
also at professional levels, English-speakers who had studied at universities and in some cases
were seconded or drafted from other positions for the tours.
Why the Gap?
Thinking about this situation led me to wonder about why there was this huge gap in
earnings. Did the western visitors work more than a hundred times as hard as the Chinese?
Obviously not. A hundred times more efficiently? Perhaps there was something in this factor,
but it could not explain the size of the gap, over two orders of magnitude. Were the Westerners
a hundred times more intelligent? No way.
Clearly it was true that the standard of living was quite different in the two cases. But
'standard of living' is only a measure of the difference, not an explanation of it.
There had to be more.
Nine Tons of Steel
"Behind every American stands nine tons of steel". I came across this quotation when I
was in my teens, and it has stuck with me ever since.
Here was another clue. The actual figure of nine tons, now no doubt completely
superseded, was more than just an interesting statistic. It tells us something about American
society, both the actual figure, and the fact that some American was moved to quote it.
There was more.
The Accidental Plastic
In 1956 I was one of a group of prospective chemistry graduates invited to visit some of
the manufacturing plants of Imperial Chemical Industries in England. This was part of ICI's
graduate employment scheme, to show what they did.
We saw the site where the ubiquitous plastic, polythene, was discovered, as a result of a
huge accidental explosion. Some keen-eyed clearer-up of the wreckage spotted the lump of
new-born polythene, and was bright enough to realize what it meant.
This was at the huge plant at Billingham, County Durham -- a traditional site with miles
of snaking pipes, smokestacks, acres of vast plant, all grouped round the original farmhouse
which still stood on the site. It had grown like Topsy.
We also visited another site, at Wilton. Wilton was a modern, clean, specially-designed
plant, all nicely laid out and with trees planted among the chemical structures. ICI
management were justifiably proud of its appearance and safety.
They were also proud of its efficiency and economy. This was partly due, we were told, to the exceptionally high capital investment per worker -- around 30,000 pounds sterling per
worker as I recall -- which was far higher than the average for the chemical industry.
And the Meat's Gone Bad
One of the topics I have always followed with interest has been that of human languages,
and the process of translating things from one language into another.
Back in the 1950s, there were great strides made in the development of computers.
Originally used for scientific calculations, and then business calculations, computers have
since spread everywhere through our society. Even back in the fifties, there were efforts to
translate between human languages using computers, and it was confidently predicted that the
day of the human translator would soon be over.
That was almost 40 years ago, and, of course, it just hasn't happened. There is the oft-quoted
story of the computer told to translate 'The flesh is weak, but the spirit is willing' from
English into Russian, and back again. The end result was "The meat's gone bad but the
Why have computers not achieved the early machine-translation expectations? The
answer lies, I believe, in the fact that accurate translation from one human language into
another demands much more than even the most complex set of rules, such as can be
programmed into a computer. It also requires a huge 'database' of social context and human
experience such as at present only exists in the human mind.
When such a database can be successfully set up in a computer, then, and only then, will
machine translation be as satisfactory as human translation for all purposes. Of course, when
this stage is reached, the computers may be clamouring for equality with humans -- and by
then may deserve it. But that is another story.
The last clue.
The Infocap Story
What is the common thread among all these clues? In the last three, there is a clear element
of backing by something of value. With American steel, it was a matter of a material, though
this was only a symbol of something wider. With the British chemical company, it was a case
of capital invested. And with machine translation, the limitation was lack of a database of
This leads us to the first major element in our model of society, the concept of Infocap. The
suggestion is that society contains, as a fundamental reactive part, a substance which
influences and determines the operation of areas of that society.
In this suite of articles that substance has been assigned the name Infocap. At this stage, an exact
definition will not be attempted -- it is purely a postulated mind-model element, and its
clarification must depend on exercising the model to extract its properties and characteristics.
But the concept is a very broad one, assumed to include all the commonly accepted thing-value
items in society, such as capital invested, information resources such as libraries, computer
databases, patent rights, buildings, roads, plant, and vehicles.
The concept also includes such people-value things as received education, gained
expertise and experience, governmental infrastructures, laws, computer programs, and tennis
ability, and further extends into more diffuse areas such as results of mineral exploration
surveys, stable political systems, climates, and healthy ecosystems.
The symbol used for Infocap in the model will be a square box with a dot in it.
Fig. 102.1. The Infocap symbol
We can also mark this point with a formal Proposition:
Proposition 102A.**** Human societies contain an information- or capital-rich
substance, assigned the name infocap, which exerts a major influence in the operation of
We now return to the question posed at the beginning of this article. Why does the average
Chinese earn so much less than the average Westerner? We can get an answer by postulating
one of the properties of infocap:
Proposition 102B***. The infocap content of an advanced society generates, of itself,
a growth element or dividend which provides the bulk of the running costs of that society
Does this provide a reasonable answer to the question? Think about it. Imagine a particular
country as a black box with only a few indicator dials on the front, one of which is marked
'Infocap'. Pour a jug of infocap into the funnel at the top, and watch the dial. Does the Infocap
Dial register the extra amount poured in exactly? Does the total then slowly increase on its
own, or does it fall back gradually?
Of course the above image is only a generalization of situations we are already familiar
with, things like pouring aid services into a poor distressed country, injecting more capital into
a manufacturing company, or simply placing money on deposit in an interest-bearing fund.
In the last situation, we would certainly expect our 'infocap' to increase. And yet, if the
fund is an equity-linked fund based on share-market holdings, the value of those shares may
fall and so the infocap content may also decrease. Even if the shares retain their values, and
also yield dividends to the fund, there may be fund management charges which more than eat
up those dividends. And of course if the fund or its management company goes bust, the
infocap may disappear completely.
The Ambitious House
Some years ago, in a period of rising house prices, I happened to notice that my house was
earning more than I was. I had to go out to work five days a week for my money, it just sat
there smugly getting richer and richer, without turning a finger. It kept that up for several years.
And so with China, or America, or any other two countries you want to compare. The
infocap content of China is far below that of America, especially on a per-capita basis -- it
would be interesting to work out whether each Chinese was backed by as much as 90 kilograms
Of course it is not as simple as just comparing standard monetary reserves if we want to
compare the true 'infocap' economies of two countries. In the model, money is just one element
of infocap. Even more important is how the country treats its infocap dividends -- are these
keeping up with running costs, falling behind (giving a net infocap decrease), or being partly
ploughed back into the country?
Then there is the interesting question of measuring infocap. So far, we do not have a real
Infocap Dial on our box to do this for us. We will see later that measuring infocap is a complex
goal, but will make some progress towards achieving it.
Keeping Up with The Joneses
Even if a country is using only its current infocap dividends for running costs, and so could
be expected to at least 'keep place', there is the question of rising expectations. These rising
expectations stem not just from its own population, but also from outside. Is it right that the
health levels in some African countries should be so low? Shouldn't the governments be
obliged to do something about it? Even if the health of the population is good, can they ever
expect to get ahead when most of them don't even have radio, let alone television, to keep them
aware of the world?
We will look at some questions like this in more detail later. But it does seem to me to be
a possible cause for the unfortunate fact that, where countries are concerned, the Rich Get
Richer and the Poor Get Poorer. The poorer countries just don't generate enough infocap
dividends even to cover what we would regard as the bare essentials. And as what we regard
as 'essential' increases in amount and proportion each year, lifting our thresholds, they fall
further and further behind.
Proposition 102C**. As time goes by, poorer countries are increasingly disadvantaged
as their infocap dividends become progressively less able to cover rising threshold expectations
That is enough for now to introduce the concept of Infocap. Let us move on now and look
at the second elements of the Matrix -- the entities which contain the infocap.
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Go to the "Matrix Thinking: How Society Works" Home Page
Versions 1.0-1.2, printed editions (Matrix Thinking Book I, BFC Press, Australia, 1992-1997)
Version 2.0, 2004, PDFs etc on World Wide Web (http://www.aoi.com.au/matrix/MT.htm)
Version 3.0, 2014 Jul 3-23, Reworked from chapter 102 of "Matrix Thinking" as one article in a suite on the World Wide Web.