In recent decades a profound and unexpected threat has been growing exponentially. The densely interconnected world of digital networks, instant communication, and global markets have presented a seductively attractive frontier. Yet, we find ourselves awakening now to the danger embedded in this complexity.
Hidden within this new reality is a menace that is difficult to comprehend. A new and unpredictable world, it hides hazards of barely imaginable magnitude.
We are confronted with impenetrable complexity.
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 grasp. It is here where we are learning that complexity can behave in very strange and disturbing ways.
Complex systems are capable of spiraling out of control suddenly and inexplicably. Living as we do with 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 is called a “critical state.”
When this happens 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 an inevitable catastrophe.
What is the difference between something that is complicated and something that is complex?
James Rickards, who I have introduced to you in the past, 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 resisting panic when confronted with frightening and unexpected shocks. We must remain steady on our feet when others are ready to stampede.
Only with a commitment to justice and steady self-discipline will we hold our communities together.
The road to freedom requires courage, and getting there through a dark night will depend on the strength of local cooperation and moral responsibility.
Note to readers: Watch for the next post on or about November 19. New readers can find a project description, a draft introduction to the forthcoming book, and several chapter drafts at the top of this page.