Unexpected and Unsuspecting

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.

Tom

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.

A Future We Can Respect

In preparing ourselves for the future I have proposed two priorities for your consideration. The first, as you know, is to get ourselves onto the same page. This means rising above our differences to identify some degree of shared values and to unite around a common vision.

The second priority, which depends upon the first, will be to think strategically – together as a nation – to envision and build a future we can believe in. This will require that we adjust our thinking both to the broader realities of structural change and to the immediate challenges confronting us locally.

It will also require setting aside partisan politics to get on with practical solutions to local problems. And so it is that reaching general agreement on shared vision and purpose will be necessary if we are to move forward.

I believe we face a long, grinding crisis. If we are to organize our local communities to secure the safety of our families and neighbors, we have no choice but to rise above our differences and to find common ground on which to live and work.

In Part 3 of the book, I will offer practical tools that you may find useful if you choose to undertake this difficult task. We will consider the processes by which we can consult with one another effectively, deal with differences, make decisions, and address local needs.

However, as most of you know, the purpose of this project involves more than a concern with survival. I have asked that we approach the future constructively, building on the foundation of trustworthy relationships, safe communities and well-organized networks of communities.

In the coming weeks I will focus on the second of the priorities mentioned above, the task of envisioning the future and rebuilding the foundations of the American republic.

Planning for the future when we are fighting for survival might not seem realistic. To secure the necessities of life it will be difficult to think about anything other than the immediate needs at hand. But, in truth, surviving with dignity will require that we learn to live with one another. And safety will require that we can depend on one another.

So, let’s be clear: The way we manage relationships and resolve problems will be the first stage in our process of preparing for the future. A right attitude for dealing with an immediate crisis will probably be the right attitude for working with one another in addressing the future.

We would do well to recognize that our first priority will be to manage ourselves.

There are some questions we can only ask of ourselves. How can we act in a way that will lead to the desired results? What approach will best facilitate community-building among diverse and sometimes anxious or frightened neighbors? What personal strengths can we develop in ourselves to inspire trust and a positive response from others?

Beyond the personal challenges of mastering the self, there are a number of concerns for the future that beg attention.

For many the first that leaps to mind is learning to accept fiscal responsibility, to manage money and resources responsibly. This problem has led the way into the current debacle at every level of society.

Another is the problem of “bigness”, and the heavy cost Americans are paying for this. I think many things have grown far too big, from government and banks to big business and big-box stores. As I wrote in response to a reader comment on Facebook last week, the American character needs both government and business to function on a human scale.

Perhaps the most difficult and thorny questions relate to the rapid deterioration of the quality of life for middle class and poorer Americans. If we approve of the policies of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton that ended or greatly restricted social programs, as I expect many of you do, then we need to think constructively about the painful consequences that now confront us – and craft solutions that work.

A renewed America will require new and creative ideas. In the coming weeks, we will consider some of the strategic questions we will face in reconstructing the future.

Tom

Next week: A Pattern of Change

Dear readers, your thoughts and feedback will be very helpful; please join the conversation.