The Harmonics of Complexity: Silver Linings and Unintended Consequences

normal curveKathy Sierra, on Twitter, challenged us to identify the good things that sometimes come out of bad circumstances. In complex systems — social and ecological systems particularly — the number of variables is infinite, so there are no discernible causes and effects, no consequences, no predictability, just trillions of things affecting each other. It’s inevitable that something intended to have positive effects will have, or appear to have, negative effects, sooner or later. And vice versa. Every technology invented has had unintended consequences, and every malicious invention has had some silver lining. Fireworks, gunpowder. Nuclear power, nuclear bombs. Smallpox vaccine, population explosion. Antibiotics, virulent drug-resistant strains. Butterfly wing flap, tsunami. Internal combustion engine, global warming.

One of the interesting things about complex systems is that they tend towards temporary equilibrium states. Quantum states. Orbits. Most remarkably, Gaia, the collective work of all-life-on-Earth, modifying the atmosphere to moderate temperature on the surface below, so that life proliferates, becomes more diverse, and hence more resilient to catastrophic change.

When things are going well, that’s good news — small negatives will tend to be overcome. But when things are going badly, it’s terrible news — when the car’s spinning out of control, slamming on the brakes won’t help. Inertia and momentum. A body in motion tends to remain in motion, even if that body is a country whose lunatic administration is deliberately bankrupting it. Even if that body is a planet heating up at an astronomical rate, such that melting glaciers expose dark earth that attracts even more of the sun’s warming rays.

A body at rest tends to remain at rest. Politicians may have good (or bad) intentions to make changes, but they’re unlikely to make any that stick, unless changes in that direction were already underway. Ailing economies tend to stay sick, until something extreme like a war comes along to shake them out of their equilibrium, until some new equilibrium state, of motion or stasis, is found. Ice age. Hyperinflation. Extinction. And then whatever comes next. After us, the dragons...

We are instinctively aware of this. We sense when things are stuck, or running amok, out of our control, for better, or for worse. For our first million years on Earth, we self-managed our numbers. We had just enough children to keep human population, net of those who were eaten, in the normal course of living every day, in a steady state. Always changing, but in balance. We knew it was good.

And now, we know that those numbers are accelerating into an impossible-to-navigate curve. A normal curve. We know in our bones that our civilization, like every civilization before it, is nearing its spectacular end, and that there is nothing we can do to stop the skid. We know it’s bad. We hope, but we know better.

Our behaviour betrays this knowledge. Acts of staggering violence and nihilism. Inuring ourselves against feeling. Massive hoarding. Eating our young, metaphorically for now, through our desperate theft of the world’s last resources, the ruination of our planet, the accumulation of monstrous debts, all to be left to our children. Look around, you’ll see the signs: 150,000 debt-ridden farmers in India have committed suicide in a decade.

The media, who try to make this complexity simple, have no clue. They throw out random data, and leave it to us to make sense of it. Pattern-recognition is not their forte.

But the normal curve, pictured above, the picture perhaps of oil production 1900-2100, or of human population 1900-2200, is just one of millions of normal curves that define the inertia and the momentum of all things, everywhere and always, connected by the complexity of all things. They are indifferent to our time, our place, our species. They have gone on for billions of years before we emerged from the cosmic soup, and will go on for billions more after we are gone. At the bottom and at the top of everycurve, there is a pause.

We are catching our breath.

Category: Complexity
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3 Responses to The Harmonics of Complexity: Silver Linings and Unintended Consequences

  1. Dale Asberry says:

    “One of the interesting things about complex systems is that they tend towards temporary equilibrium states.”I’ve struggled for the last hour with the falseness of this statement. I started with how complex systems are dissipative. How they behave more like springs. How systems around them absorb the dissipation which they later dissipate. But, ultimately got to this: most complex systems do NOT tend to equilibrium states. We only notice those that do. The difference engine of our minds only notice those few systems that stand out.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmmm…notice I said *temporary* equilibrium states. Ultimately, of course, everything tends towards chaos, randomness, but the history of our planet and universe — physics, chemistry, geology, biology — is all about temporary ‘interrupted’ or ‘punctuated’ equilibria. Complexity in the midst of chaos. Spiral galaxies in the void. Eddies in the stream. Evolution of life and extinction. Self-organization. Take a look at ‘Punctuated Equilibrium” in wikipedia.

  3. philip says:

    And still you keep trying to save the world. I like your honesty in dealing with your shifting mental states. We are on a one way track – there is no equilibrium. It’s all lag time between perception and justiifcation. Denial is the common state.If there is not enough percetion……..

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