The future confronts us with an impenetrable complexity. And the future is now. Hidden within this new reality is an unexpected menace that we can only barely imagine.
In the densely interconnected world of digital networks, instant communication, and global markets we find ourselves arriving in what appears to be a seductively attractive frontier, but which in fact masks entirely new dimensions of danger.
It is a new and unpredictable world, and it hides hazards of unimaginable magnitude.
Exponential population growth and digital connectivity, along with warfare, fragile commercial distribution systems, and the global transmission of deadly diseases, are all contributing to rapidly intensifying complexity.
However, it is the immensity and density of digital networks that is most difficult to comprehend. And it is here where we are learning that complexity itself can behave in very strange and disturbing ways.
Complex systems are capable of spiraling out of control suddenly and inexplicably.
Living as we do in the instability of today’s world, I think it important that we understand this.
In his book, “Ubiquity”, science writer Mark Buchanan writes that a natural structure of instability is in fact woven into the fabric of the world.
He writes that complex structures and processes – in geology, in rush hour traffic, in financial markets, and in the many intricate networks of human society – have a natural tendency to organize themselves into what’s called a “critical state,” in which they are poised on what he describes as the “knife-edge of instability.”
A critical state occurs when a system is poised for sudden change.
Some mathematicians and scientists now believe that a pervasive instability is a fundamental feature in nature – and in the structures of human societies.
Any event, even a small one, can have an effect that seems far out of proportion to its cause. A single grain of sand, for example, will cause a sand pile to avalanche. But it is impossible for us to know which grain of sand, which individual maneuver in heavy traffic, or which specific circumstance in the financial markets will trigger inevitable catastrophe.
What is the difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex?
James Rickards, who I introduced to you in the previous post, answers this question in his book, “The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System”.
Rickards explains: “Many analysts use the words ‘complex’ and ‘complicated’ interchangeably, but that is inexact. A complicated mechanism, like the clockworks on St. Mark’s Square in Venice, may have many moving parts, but it can be assembled and disassembled in straightforward ways.
“The parts do not adapt to one another, and the clock cannot suddenly turn into a sparrow and fly away. In contrast, complex systems sometimes do morph and fly away, or slide down mountains, or ruin nations….
“Complex systems include moving parts, called autonomous agents, but they do more than move. The agents are diverse, connected, interactive, and adaptive. Their diversity and connectivity can be modeled to a limited extent, but interaction and adaptation quickly branch into a seeming infinity of outcomes that can be modeled in theory but not in practice.
“To put it another way, one can know that bad things might happen yet never know exactly why.”
James Rickards goes on to expound on the instability of today’s financial markets and global economy. He writes: “Bankers’ parasitic behavior, the result of a cultural phase transition, is entirely characteristic of a society nearing collapse.
“Wealth is no longer created; it is taken from others. Parasitic behavior is not confined to bankers; it also infects high government officials, corporate executives, and the elite societal stratum.”
Today the financial markets and monetary system are again poised “on the knife’s edge of criticality.”
My message here is the importance of preparing for severe unforeseen shocks. It is essential that we not panic when confronted with the unexpected. We must remain steady on our feet when others are ready to stampede.
Only with a commitment to justice – and the self-discipline for ethical behavior and moral responsibility – will we hold our communities together and begin to rebuild.
Yes, the road to freedom requires courage, but getting there depends on responsibility.
Please look for the next post on or about October 20: Why the Bankers Are Trapped.
New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts on this page.