Thursday, December 30, 2004

Chaos and Catastrophe

  The subversion of complex systems

Chaos and catastrophe are intrinsic attributes of complex systems. Structure and organization involve a significant cost overhead, an investment of energy proportional to the complexity of the system.

From the macro scale of galactic clusters to the micro scale of subatomic particles, order and chaos dance a dynamic duet of destruction and creation, expansion and contraction.

Civilization is a complex system of the highest order. Society must invest an enormous amount of energy and resources to maintain control and provide for the population.

But there is always a limit to the availability of energy and resources. There inevitably comes a time in the development of a complex system where the available energy is insufficient to maintain order. At that point, chaos and catastrophe strike.

Chaos theory provides a host of mathematical and conceptual tools for the study of complex systems. Social activists can gain insight and guidance by learning from the science of chaos.

Order and stability are characterized by small incremental changes against a backdrop of seeming continuity. Conditions of equilibrium dominate complex systems. The very laws of nature, their constancy and invariance, enable the development of complex systems.

But these constant incremental changes generate tensions within the system as a whole that eventually exceed the constraints of stasis. At some point, organization fails and order gives way to chaos.

Throughout the history of life on earth, evolution has been sporadic, long periods of little change interrupted by mass extinction events and the rapid proliferation of new life forms. Evolutionary ecologists call this pattern “punctuated equilibrium”.

The imperceptible movement of tectonic plates creates tension that can trigger devastating earthquakes and tsunamis. The accumulation of ions in a thunderhead produces sudden dramatic bolts of lightening that rent the air and strike the ground at random. Open too many windows on your computer and the system becomes unstable.

In each example, the accumulated tension generated by “normal” processes precipitates a catastrophic event. This cataclysmic disturbance acts, in a way, to reset the system.

A key feature of complex systems is “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”, which gives rise to the phenomena known as the Butterfly effect. Small and insignificant perturbations in the system can, over time, lead to major ructions.

This attribute is of particular interest to social activists - it underpins the power of “memes”, movements like “critical mass” and the concept of “morphic resonance”. It reveals the importance of small actions.

Another striking characteristic of complex systems is the appearance of self-similarity across orders of magnitude. This phenomenon is best illustrated by fractal geometry, but it can be observed all around us in the real world, from the jagged appearance of the coastline, whether viewed from near or far, to the convoluted texture of vegetation or the grainy structure of rock.

This pattern of self-similarity is equally evident in human society. Political divisions exist within all levels of social organization, from the supra-national to the local, within tribes, families and the individual. While the issues and customs may vary, the degree of divergence remains constant across all levels of organization.

This aspect of complexity is particularly useful for activists who seek to bring about change at a grass-roots level. Such activity correlates with broader social movement in various ways. Grass-roots activism seeds the population with the impetus for change and energizes society.

Resistance and dissent are natural responses to excessive control and oppression. Civilization is the inevitable consequence of rising social organization, but somewhere along the way, it begins to sacrifice individual freedom for the sake of order.

At this point, individuals face the challenge of reshaping their reality, sowing the seeds of revolution, preparing the ground for changes yet unseen but well underway. As complexity multiplies, the system groans under its own weight, and people sense calamity brewing.

The most effective strategy in such circumstances is one that employs the creative power of chaos. By tweaking the system in small ways, like a butterfly beating its wings, original ideas can produce extraordinary results.

Whether an activist chooses the path of “subversive compliance” or “disorganized resistance”, working alone or in small groups, spreading memes or fostering alternatives, their efforts are part of a much grander scheme, barely perceived by most.

Lao Tzu said, great acts are made up of small deeds. And so it is for the activists, quietly, steadily working toward enlightening and transforming their world.

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