Summer vacation, it turns out, is an opportunity for me to reflect on how close we are to global catastrophe. Over the past few of years, as some of my exasperated friends and colleagues will testify, I’ve taken to asking myself and others, on a regular basis, whether we are in 1936 or in 1939. Or for those with a slightly different frame of reference, whether we are closer to 56 or 49 BC? Granted, none of those possibilities is very comforting. I must confess that the question for me is not whether catastrophe will overtake us, but rather when.

Last summer, I wrote about how, in a system of social relations which is far from self-organized criticality (SOC), people can seek advantage through reckless brinksmanship, with few dire consequences. In a system which is close to SOC, any action whatsoever, regardless of its intended effect, can result in an avalanche of change that completely reorganizes the system, with extensive consequences for all of us.

Safely far from SOC, we can afford to dare each other to react to our outrageous self-interested acts of brinksmanship. We learn to be confident that no matter how much we push, things will be relatively ok in the end, and we will get a small benefit. In a more critically self-organized system of social relations, any such behaviour invites catastrophe.

As long as the catastrophe is limited to our local circles, no one will notice much. Things are different for those we appoint to steward our largest national and transnational networks. Are we still in a system in which the individual and group brinksmanship they’ve learned, a safe distance from SOC, has mostly local and predictable consequences? Or are we in a place where any word or action of theirs can precipitate a global Armageddon?

Are we still in a system where most people can tolerate mundane evil because they believe they can predict whether it will affect them directly, or are we in a place where evil will come to us indiscriminately? In a system far from SOC, that calculation works. In a system near SOC, it doesn’t. The trouble is, no one quite knows when the transition will happen, what will cause it, or what it looks like when it is incipient.

Last summer, I ended my post with a note to self: “I need to think about whether, in human systems, the very learning of brinksmanship favoured by distance from SOC, actually favours a movement of the system toward SOC”. In other words, does the fact that some people and groups in a system far from SOC learn that brinksmanship pays, move the system itself closer to SOC, and thus closer to potential catastrophe?

I think that in our webs of social relations, SOC exists at several different scales. Our individual systems of family and friend social relations have an SOC state. Our city and regional systems have an SOC state, and so on. The entire species has a web of social relations with its own SOC state.

I strongly suspect that avalanche or catastrophic changes can take place at local levels without much affecting the higher ones. That is, a catastrophic reorganization of my local web of social relations can have few, if any, consequences for the species-wide network. The reverse, I think, is not true. A catastrophe at one of the higher levels of organization carries away all the networks nested within itself.

In a system far from SOC, tit for tat high profile arrests for espionage, trade-protectionist measures, and economic sanctions, have little overall effect, except those intended. In a system far from SOC, blatantly racist tweets by heads of state, aimed at members of another branch of government, don’t fundamentally reconfigure a web of social relations at the national level. In a system far from SOC, using intentional abuse and cruelty against children to discourage transnational mobility has little chance of causing massive public unrest.

But perhaps in a web of social relations, each of those actions is the equivalent of a grain of sand being dropped on the pile in a Bak-Sneppen system. Perhaps, each of those grains of sand very slightly changes the SOC state of the system. Perhaps, each instance of brinksmanship does move us closer to SOC.

None of those actions are extraordinary in themselves. We would like to think they are, but they really aren’t. Arendt famously called evil banal. Under most circumstances, it is unremarkable, and barely remarked. It goes on around us every day, and often in our name.

We acquiesce, often without accepting, that we are part of the system of relations that produces it. In a system far from SOC, that is not likely to change because of any single evil action. In a system near SOC, revolutions and wars, civil and international, kick-off for far less than your garden variety act of self-interested brinksmanship by a political leader.

One thought on “Another in a continuing series of cheerful summer holiday posts: Archaeology, complexity and Armageddon part 2

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