For some years, I have been wondering just how close our social system was to self-organized criticality. Now I think I know. Two recent events may have initiated an avalanche, a sudden, rapid, and complete reorganization of our system. Perhaps it will turn out to be a more limited reorganization, but it is clear by now that some significant change is happening. Technically, these kinds of reorganizations are called catastrophes.

One key feature of complex systems, such as our societies, is that extra-ordinary consequences don’t require extra-ordinary causes. Far reaching change can be caused by ordinary or mundane events. What determines the extent of an event’s consequences is not its nature, but the state of the environment in which it happens.

When an environment is ready for change, it is close to a state of self-organized criticality (SOC). When it is far away from SOC, even very large, extra-ordinary events may have very limited consequences. The system is stable and resilient to change. It will resist even concerted, intentional attempts at reform.

When the system is close to SOC, even the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings can generate a hurricane. Given the slightest input, the system will slide into a catastrophic avalanche of change. It will resist any attempt at stabilization. It will only become stable again when it reaches a new state far away from SOC.

We’ve had pandemics before. Some of them quite recently. Some of them deadlier and more widespread than the current one. The reaction to this one has been very different. The measures taken all make sense, especially if we are interested in protecting the vulnerable, but they are unusual. The pandemic is the reason for the measures, but it isn’t the reason for their extent and socio-economic reach. These are extensive not because the pandemic is unusual, but because it happened in an unusual context.

Black men have been killed by police officers before. Many, often, recently, constantly. Many voices, many activists, many decent ordinary people, many cultural influencers, many political and community leaders have tried to do something about it. They have been arguing, pushing, preaching change. It hasn’t happened. The murder of George Floyd is no different. However, it happened in a different context, than other recent ones, and so its impact is going to be different.

That isn’t to say that the work of activists, the earnest efforts of ordinary people, the voices of political and community leaders are irrelevant. Their words, spoken, written, recorded, and their actions, witnessed and felt, are the potential energy stored in the system, that becomes kinetic once there is a release, like in an earthquake. They are what allows a butterfly’s wings to cause a hurricane.

The big unresolved question for me is whether that energy is purposefully directional. Does it prepare the system to shift suddenly, rapidly, in a given direction related to the intentions of the actors, or, once it starts moving, does the system have a mind of its own?

Is the resulting system state related to the intentions and wishes of the actors, or is it purely driven by impersonal, unseeing and uncaring chaotic forces? I want to think that intentions are directional drivers of change, but given the past record of sudden social realignments, I have trouble believing it. Still, I will behave as if intentions drive outcomes, because that is all we can do.

5 thoughts on “Social change and complexity, past, present, and future

  1. So, as you know, the week before the shutdowns began I finished writing a thesis that partly dealt with this topic. So I have been thinking a lot along these lines. I think SOC is the result of two main phenomena: excessive inter-connectedness and the related binding up of capital (of all sorts). Both result in the inability of the system to either change direction or to react to stress with sufficient flexibility. Testing kit supply chains are a great example. As the companies that produced them tried to lower costs by finding the cheapest sources of labour, materials, etc., the supply chains became more and more far-flung, with parts coming from around the world, further and further from the hospitals that actually use them. This priced out other suppliers, so that in turn even more of this market was owned by fewer companies. The conjunction of a health crisis requiring more of these things with the consequent disruption in manufacturing and transport has led to a spiralling cycle due to this interconnectedness: the pandemic caused both the need and the disruption. The longer it takes to get these supplies, the longer it takes to control the pandemic, which continues to delay the supplies.

    A catastrophe is a release of resources into the system, a redistribution that allows a greater part of the population to act in their own self-interest. I don’t think that the catastrophe itself is ever intentional or even directed, since in the short term the results are, as the name suggests, catastrophic. Despite the economic inequality of the system that produces them, nobody wants to run out of testing kits. But we live at the intersection of many self organizing systems. If the economic and power systems collapse, bringing down many of the institutions that support them, where are those people who come out the other side with an increased percentage of the available capital going to direct it? Protest movements are their own systems. For example, will BLM be connected enough to pursue a coherent agenda? Will it be flexible enough to absorb new members who bring their own capital, but also their own interests to the movement? I think we get a couple of choices. What smaller systems do we chose to develop when the larger systems are stable? Some of those will survive a more generalized social catastrophe. Our second choice is where we commit our resources after the catastrophe.

    Of course we want to believe that our own intentions matter. On the other hand, I take some solace in the fact that the intentions of those whose values I completely oppose matter as little as my own. You have had the power to affect certain educational systems in the past few years. If those survive, are they systems you want others to commit to? Are they flexible enough to grow, stable enough to last? And, if they don’t survive (and you do), where are you going to commit your resources?


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