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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

"I think the next century will be the century of complexity." Stephen Hawking
complexity digest: Source: SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS - Sunday, January 23, 2000

The disintegration of argument

Assume a ratio of problems per population. Any given population will have a base level of conflict proportional to population density. The frequency of the problems increase as population density increases. The amplitude of the problems increase as the division of rich and poor becomes more broad. I'm not an actuary, so these relationships could probably do for some tuning.

Assume the number of problems you are able to fix are equal to the number of problems you create. Use these assumptions to predict the effectiveness of any action and the duration of that effect. Apply back-of-the-napkin cost-benefit analysis to twice that duration. Can you predict a durable benefit? (e.g. If only an Afghanistan free of the USSR could sustain an Osama, did Regan net a benefit in toppling the iron curtain? If you're not comfortable with that line of thought, look into the correlation between heroin production and the Taliban. Heroin production was actually down under the Taliban. But don't fret, it's since recovered. There are no easy answers.)

This should be a totally paralyzing exercise. It's not meant to provide a basis for action. It's meant to aid understanding of the variability of action. Most actions taken in their full context are complex. Their nature much more resembles that of a slot machine than that of a poker game. Results are less often a product of will than they are a product of probability.

Pre-Einstein we lived in a world where reason could explain why things happened. Post-Einstein we've been coming into a consciousness of chaos. There's no one reason the US invaded Iraq. There's no one effect it'll have. There's no one person who is responsible. We can't nail any of this down. There is no truth in it. And it's that string of ideas that is offensive to a modern mind. But it's where we are. It's what we live in. It's what we have to deal with. No use in putting your head in the sand. Try and imagine a world that contains no good or evil. That's where you actually live. The values of good and bad must be qualified - good for this, bad for that. They no longer hold themselves up.

An informal experiment:

1.I'll pose you a question to ask me.

2.I will answer "don't know. I mean, I know all about the issue, but I could go either way" to each question.

3. You rate, 1-10, how frustrated my answer makes you.

1. Do you think coke is better than pepsi?
2. Which do you like more, chocolate or vanilla?
3. If you knew that your favorite ice cream factory was being moved from Springfield, MA to a factory in Mexico, would you still eat the ice cream?
4. If you knew that violence was used in suppressing a union movement in that factory, would you eat the ice cream?
5. If you were president, would you have authorized the use of force in Iraq?
6. Having written what you've written here, would you vote for George Bush in 2004?

If this experiment went as I expect, I've provoked you by fence sitting. I've steadily increased your frustration with my inability to make a decision. Why is this provocative? Why does indecision inspire anger? Because it invokes the impenetrable fog of chaos. I'll make a decision when pressed, but for now I'll reserved judgment. This delayed and unprincipled decision making process is unpredictable. It's difficult (and sometimes infuriating) to imagine a society based on indecisive, unprincipled people, but please try. A massive population of people who "could go either way" provides very little stability. But I expect that's where we're headed. A population constantly in superposition, spontaneously falling into enough agreement to locate, then drifting back into that same-same state. I'm not suggesting there's a willful political movement based on indecision. It's more of a shift in the way people will see the world around them.

The vanquishing of Evil (and Good) to the malaise of the abyss

Not so long ago we lived in a US that promised all men were created equally, and yet deprived some of those men (and women) the right to vote. That same promise is honored differently today, and our revisionist hindsight history allows us to portray the people of the past as being on a lower level of moral standing. We see them as having been "wrong" - where they themselves clearly thought they were acting correctly (within the constraints of the debate of the day). We see ourselves as acting well (even if we consciously know history may judge us as poorly as it did our forefathers). We see ourselves as fighting for good and against evil. But can we assume such beasties exist?

"Stupid, faffy, navel-gazing question!" says you "Of course there's Evil and of course there's Good". Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Kim Jung Il, Joseph Stalin, Slobodan Milosevic , Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, any number of celebrity examples form the peak of the bell curve of Evil and establish the fact of Evil. But that Evil is only justified from a limited point of view. Slobadan Milosavic stands as a hero to a large population of Serbs. Any celebrity can be deconstructed into individual attributes with a value of good and evil. Often these attributes are carefully constructed into a monolith of either polarity - e.g. "Pol Pot was evil incarnate. Thomas Jefferson was the pinnacle of all that is good." Although it's pretty clear who I'd rather see coaching my kid's soccer team, neither statement is totally true. There is no earthly example of pure good or pure evil. They exist only as ideas, as servants that are used to qualify things we experience. We should all be very clear that good and evil are -used- to dictate perspectives (whether this is done in a healthy way or not is a separate distinction). They are not qualities that exist independently (without belief). They simply locate the opposite ends of belief, like the poles of the earth. The world is not defined by its poles, but by what's between them. The poles are very easy to locate, but say very little about what the bulk of the world is like. Good and Evil explain about as much. To the extent that actions are being taken today based on this criteria, we're being mis-lead.

This is where I make a prediction. I predict the people of the future will say that we were poor custodians. They will have a difficult time understanding not only the rudimentary basis for the arguments of the day, but also the course taken to pursue those arguments. Take the "global warming" argument for example. The argument was first framed as "it either exists, or it doesn't". Detractors have been forced by empirical evidence (e.g. ice sheets the size of Rhode Island calving off Antarctica) to fall back to "it exists, but it's either natural or it's manmade" (or one worse than that; it's the left or the right's fault). The net effect of this argument has been about 20 years of lip flapping and finger pointing, with no end in sight. There's been very little energy going into figuring out what we should do about global climate change because most of the available energy is being put towards placing blame for it. Very simply put, we will never know. Without access to a multi-verse with all possible world histories, we'll never know the root cause. It's irrelevant! Who cares who's to blame?! If the numbers show global climatic movement, we should assume global climactic movement. It's not the end of the world, just the end of the world as we know it. Aren't we used to that yet?

So, where are these people of the future coming from to be so righteous? Why are the resolutions to these problems so simple for them?

The problem with young people these days is three sided coins

It only takes us about ten years on the planet to understand that you can't always depend on the weatherman. By the time you're eleven years old you've learned that the weatherman is mostly right about yesterday, partly right about today, less sure about tomorrow, and it gets worse from there. I'm loath to use the phrase (It's so `90's), but it's standard chaos theory stuff. You can see it with a simple cigarette. Smoke rises from a cigarette in an orderly smooth column for about four inches, then the column breaks into a knot of tumbling clouds - chaos. Why? Who cares, it just does. So what? So deal with it, that's what. Think of everything in these terms, because that's how things actually work. Climate, politics, economics; all immediately predictable, but rapidly bifurcating into the future as chaotic systems.

(and if you apply the phase change of smooth-smoke-to-turbulence to climate you'll understand why "global warming" is an inaccurate description of what we're facing. What we're actually looking at is a phase change to global climate turbulence - an initial period of destabilization of weather patterns that will lead to a the return to a steady state. One of the problems with chaotic periods is that they form a horizon. We can't predict if this period of instability will culminate in a warmer steady state, or a colder one, or one similar to what we've lived with for the last several thousand years, or if it will settle back into a steady state. Naming the phenomenon "global warming" is a convenient prediction more than an accurate description of what we're facing. It implies that we should buy boardshorts and move to higher ground because things are getting warmer. Sounds great to me right now. But more likely is an irregular pattern of climate that tends to fluctuate outside norms. And if you think this will necessarily be a gradual change, observe the smoke again. It doesn't go from order to chaos gradually. It hits a threshold and flips like a switch to turbulence. Any degree of climate instability causes problems for established agricultural societies - other less viable economies might be helped to flourish. The deserts of Israel may bloom. Think about the various georeligious/political implications of that.)

The more we expect them to be orderly systems, the more we deceive ourselves. The people of the future will understand this because they will have grown up with this understanding; understanding complexity as intuitively as we understand that every action creates an equal and opposite reaction (which isn't to say they will be able to better predict the weather, only that jokes about weatherman will no longer be funny).

These people of the future are the children of today. I've been hearing a fair few home truths delivered to this generation from the authoritative voice of the older generation. Generation-X, and Generation-Y are seen as slacker, lost generations of people who can't make a decision, are without a moral base, without leadership qualities or the integrity of conviction. That's the perspective from today's historians - fortunately we'll have our turn at writing history. And I promise it won't be overly kind to the babyboomers.

The ineffectual listlessness of the young so infuriating to both conservative and liberal pundit is a sign of a powerful rejection by young people of an argument that doesn't fit the reality they've been shown. It is a symptom of an awareness of complexity and the absurdity of inflexible dogma. They've been told the coin only has two sides, flip it, call it - heads or tails. But they see a coin that has depth. It has three sides. The idea of a coin has two sides, a real coin has three. And as far as I can see, the coin has been flipped, but it never lands. It tumbles forever, so calling a side is irrelevant.

You might expect that you've done a lot of work to get the world to the fine state it's in today. Freedom has been won. The battle lines have all been drawn. The call to action has been sounded. All the youth of today need to do is get out and vote for your party. But they don't seem to be responding. But if you were in their place - if someone put forward a flat-earth platform (i.e. the earth is flat so we should act accordingly: 1. No more sailing over the horizon 2. New maps 3. etc, .) would you vote for that? Would you waste your time voting against it if the only other party was the earth-isn't-flat-it's-obviously-a-cube party? Of course not. You'd be offended by the stupidity of your leaders (I am, every day: follow these links to a media critiques of Vice President Dick Cheney's spirited advice to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy; "Go fuck yourself". How Jerry Springer.

I alternate between anger, and impatience with the unimpeachable WWII generation (who spawned the babyboomers) and the babyboomers themselves. They deflect, reframe, dodge and shout-down a generation that's hardly begun to recover from the emotional devastation they were born into. "EMOTIONAL DEVISTATION!?" you scream indignantly. "How can a generation of people complain having grown up in in a land at peace in a time of economic growth?" (and this is typically where WWII and babyboom generation people get on their pedestal and start shouting down and stop listening - they go on and on about the good old days and all we need to do is outlaw this and that and bring back soda fountains. People of my generation look around, stop listening, and walk away to form the generation gap). Let's go back through some recent history, and humor me as I only look at the dark side, to talk about this so called "emotional devastation".

Our boys came home from WWII an absolute pride, but all was not well. It's generally accepted that the effects of war do not just magically go away. The actions a person is witness to persist and change that person. Wars benefit economies at the expense of individuals. A generation of young men came home to become fathers under the simple assumption that the war was over. A generation of children were born to a nation of damaged men and empowered women. The seeds of the 1960s rebellion were born of WWII.

The 1960s rebellion tore down a great deal of the society mythologized in text books
(A new social movement, or a new scientific discipline, creates its own origin at the same time as it writes its textbooks.
Synchronization 4: Hermes, Angels and the Narrative of the Archive By Geoffrey Bowker)
The US suffered the pains of a great miscarriage with Viet Nam, a war rejected by the newly empowered womb of America - suffering from a collection of faltering fathers, unsure of their status (biological or adoptive). The US was ideologically hemorrhaging for years while coming into a position of power without a male heir, and without a reasonable alternative. Nothing from the 1960s succeeded in establishing a more functional model for culture. It merely succeeded in destroying confidence in common wisdom, showing the holes in a Newtonian Paradigm built on Cartesian Reductionism - or more plainly put, an every-action-has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction mind-set was rebelled against.) The 1960s rebellion can be seen as its own phase change to turbulence. It's a phase change we're still recovering from. That's the basis of "emotional devastation" I'm trying to have recognized.

A great deal of cultural momentum is seeing our children educated with pedagogy and textbooks that are broadly of the "Newtonian Paradigm built on Cartesian Reductionism" I mentioned above. But they're faced with a world that everyone understands (actually relies on) to not fit that model. This hypocrisy forms children's first lesson in complexity, illusion, turbulence - whatever you want to call it. Instead of teaching from a standpoint of authority, we're now teaching from a standpoint of myopia. We put forward one, consistent point of view for children. We claim that forms a framework worth building on. But from what I can see, it's a stationary framework in a mobile world. We're giving children an education for a stable, explainable, conquerable world. But the world is none of those things, and we've known that for some time now. It's time to write new textbooks. But textbooks require an immense amount of cultural support. That's the support I'm asking for, and that's what both Right and Left are stridently opposing - entrenched. "To get our orientation unstuck, we need to take in new inputs, and not force-fit them, but tear apart our existing orientation and synthesize another"

I'm not casting blame at older generations for failing to anticipate the rebellion of the 1960s, or failing to construct a way of viewing the world that's consistent with what we actually see. I'm criticizing the older generation for not acknowledging revelations that make seeing things their way obsolete, inaccurate, dishonest and generally impossible. And I'm criticizing them for not acknowledging the burden placed on younger people to establish something new. The older generations are rapidly abdicating responsibility for the world to a generation of people with a different understanding of the world around them. They act differently. This is to be expected. The role of the older generations should be one of perspective and support. We're desperately in need of an acceptance by the older generations of the complexity of the world. We need them to speak out against simple conclusions to complex problems. We need them to speak up and admit that there are very few simple problems, that actions rarely produce predictable results, and that perspective is chosen from a continuum (not ordained). We need them to admit that there is a deterioration of structure going on around us. The pillars of society are crumbling on many fronts. But don't panic. It's natural. And not only that, it's profitable.

Chaos for fun and profit

Variability is where profit resides. There's no profit if there's no change. Up until recently we've been blessed with an ever expanding population. We've had it easy. We've had clear cut values, determined by our personal needs and a basic understanding of the world around us. And we've had sustained growth. That growth should be coming to an end (if it's not, we're in trouble in other ways). And when it does, we need to be able to produce a viable world economy with a (virtually) static population. The only way I can see that working is by embracing complexity - going beyond crash/boom cycles, beyond bull/bear, coke/pepsi ideology, beyond certainty, stridency, dogma and doctrine. We need to expect a world that isn't growing in population, but is growing in perspectives, angles, options and variables. With a population approaching stasis we'll need to consider growth in terms of value instead of just volume. To establish value there must be a goal (raison d'ĂȘtre). We need a goal to transcend to that is measurably achievable. Something that's transhuman, but not spiritual or supernatural. The moonshot was a lesser example of this idea. It was a positive communal response to a negative situation, but it was short lived. We need something more persistent. Without a positive aim we're rudderless.

"No human thing is of serious importance."

In a world with no truth, no direction, no purpose, (and a great many problems) the 1950's-WWII-Leave-It-to-Beaver-qualities ring a little hollow. If you say there is "hope", ask yourself; for what? World peace? a very Miss Universe idea there, and I'll entertain the image. But why do we want world peace? What would we do with it once we got it? You're probably answering an easy question. That's not the question I'm asking - I'm asking, now that we're here, we know we're here, we know the parties involved, what are we going to do with ourselves? "Be nice" does not satisfy me as an answer.

Faith without the middle-man

I always end up returning to Faith. It's not scientific, it's not religious, it's not specific. I have faith that we have permission to be here. There's no intermediary that I owe that permission to. I have faith that the universe isn't trying to trick me, that it presents itself honestly, in all its complexity. And I have faith that that complexity bleeds into even the smallest crevices of my daily life. It's why toast lands butter side down, why chad lost Gore the election, and why some decisions are a real bitch to make. I also have faith that, if we put our minds to it, we'll come up with a raison d'ĂȘtre that is itself justified by our works (not worship - Calvinist maybe, but anything less is merely intellectual ).

The End (and I'm so glad it is)

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