Monday, September 27, 2004

Nanoprinciples (I)

For several years I have been seeking to identify and describe what I term nanoprinciples. These are mechanisms that have a limited scope. They stand at the opposite pole from grand theories, such as Darwinism and globalization.

Here is an example from the story of Ali Baba in the Arabian Nights. After the forty thieves had ascertained that someone had been taking away treasure from their cave, they sent a spy to the city where Ali Baba lived. Through a ruse, the spy found the house. Fearing that he would not be able to relocate it for his comrades in the winding labyrinth of streets he marked it with a sign in chalk. Late, the servant girl Marjana noted the sign as she came home from the market. Taking up some chalk, she made the same sign on a number of neighboring houses. When the forty thieves arrived they could not detect which house Ali Baba lived in, as the distinctive sign was no longer distinctive.

A related example comes from the 1970s, when the heiress Patti Hearst was abducted. After she became involved in some of the crimes of the Symbionese Liberation Army, her captors, authorities redoubled their efforts to find her. These were complicated by a number of young women who wore T-shorts saying "I'm Patti Hearst."

This principle, though interesting, is hard to apply In the case of Marjana (the name is spelled several different ways) her sharp eyes detected the sign and the means of replicating it were easy. The Patti Hearst complication stemmed from the radical mood of the time, which generated enough young people who were willing to help produce the "noise" that clogged the efforts to find Hearst.

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