How can we understand complexity?

A previous post was about the difference between what is complicated and what is complex. Creating complications is, by definition, a difficult task. This would be the case with a high precision mechanical watch. On the other hand, complexity can be generated swiftly, like cooking a dish of spaghetti or appending a second pendulum to an existing one. This does not mean that a complicated system is always predictable: especially in social interactions, intricate rules can easily result in contradictory consequences. Complexity, or chaos, occurs when very different outcomes happen in response to minor differences of a starting point. It's the base of many gambling games: it is practically impossible to control the result of throwing dice or spinning the wheel of roulette.

Complexity and chaos emerge naturally from the web of relations of our lives. Gazing at my own web of connections, friends, family, and professional ties, I see something that looks much more like a dish of spaghetti than a precise clock. To keep our lives manageable, though, we need stability and predictability. Most social constructs are built to satisfy this need to provide order and security. This results in elaborate organisations that aim at structuring our lives in predictable ways: governments, churches, armies, educational systems, tax systems etc. . The worldview behind the design of our economic and social system is built upon a mechanistic understanding of nature. An approach rooted in the great discoveries of classical physics, starting from the fundamental laws of Newton that offered an explanation to the most diverse phenomena in the universe, from an apple falling to the ground to remote planets orbiting around the sun. In this worldview, social relations and economics are explained as rational agents interacting to increase their utility. Organisations today, small and large, are designed as logical, regulated contraptions. Experts are sitting at the top to control the system through a carefully engineered chain of command. Yet, the very complication of our social constructs makes them fragile and prone to failure when confronted with the unexpected. Consider the collapse of the financial system during the subprime crisis or the debacle of the American and Nato armies in Afghanistan facing the Taliban.

Until a few years ago, we lived in a world where we had to deal with a clear and stable set of actors, unquestionably identified and well separated from each other. Take the telephone: It was common to have one telephone line per family when I was a kid. Moreover, telephone and communication suppliers were basically one and the same. Today, in developed countries, we own multiple lines, several mobiles within the family, each associated with its own subscription plan and giving access to additional channels like WhatsApp or Telegram. At the global level also things have been growing more convoluted. Nation-states used to have clear boundaries of their power. Those boundaries were occasionally crossed in war, but the state of war itself was clearly defined. Today nations interact in many, sometimes incoherent, bilateral and multilateral ways. Even war is not what it used to be. International conflicts are muddled by terrorism, cyber warfare or the weaponisation of migrants as experienced at the borders of the European Union. This is not to say today we are worse or better than in the past. The point is that the variety of players, at the global, social, and personal level and the interaction channels have increased dramatically. No matter how much we like to build a society that looks like a mechanical clock, reality increasingly looks like an entangled dish of spaghetti.

If you feel overwhelmed, you may find comfort in the knowledge that you are not alone. In the '80s, at the end of the Cold War, US Army strategists had to face the disappearance of their traditional enemies. They described the new strategic situation as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous: VUCA. The expression "VUCA world" was adopted by management consultants, speakers, thinkers, and writers worldwide. While the VUCA acronym was specific to the post-Cold War period, the feeling is recurrent. Since the fifties, management literature consistently described the "present" as more complicated than the past! Maybe we should conclude that change is pervasive in modern society, and we would be wise to accept and get accustomed to it. International crises and catastrophic events where one has to make quick decisions based on minimal and uncertain information are not new. Still, until the end of the Cold War, the strategic environment was relatively simple: the bad guys and the good guys were clearly identified. Whichever side you were on, you would have a definite vision of the good ( "you" and your friends) and the bad guys ( them and their friends). Since then, the number of actors has been growing dramatically. Multiple actors with various relationships make for a growing and changing number of connections. Understanding the environment becomes increasingly difficult as each player may shift its strategic focus and alliances form and dissolve continuously.

Does this mean there is no chance that our world will rise to the challenges it faces, particularly the climate emergency? Not necessarily, but, as shown in Glasgow's COP 26, we should not rely on world bosses, political or corporate, to adopt the required long-term perspective. The former bet their careers on the upcoming electoral results and the latter on next quarter financial reports. Neither have the mind frame to tackle systemic issues that span decades ahead but require immediate action. Blaming those currently holding economic and political power is undoubtedly justified, but we should probably also look at ourselves. Maybe we should recognise that we are all part of the problem and therefore of the solution, and we can try to reinvent our lives.

To make sense of this complex world, maybe we need to adopt a worldview where agents are not so clearly separate from each other. They are entangled, and their boundaries are fuzzy: effects emerge in a non-linear way and are not predictable.

Even in a classical approach, you cannot predict the behaviour of a system from the conduct of its parts. Take Sodium ( Chemical symbol: Na), for example. Sodium is a volatile metal. As a high school student, one of my favourite pranks was to throw Sodium pieces in a puddle of water in front of a schoolmate. The Sodium would immediately react with water, inflame and explode, scaring the hell out of my victims. Consider Chlorine now. In minimal quantities, Chlorine can be used as a disinfectant or as a way to sanitise water. Chlorine can also be found in the form of highly poisonous gas. I swear that, as opposed to a former President of the United States, I have never ever inflicted a potentially lethal Chlorine-based prank on anyone. You would probably not dream of pouring liberal quantities of Sodium and or Chlorine in your mouth, right? We all actually do it every time we sprinkle salt on our plates. Culinary salt is basically the chemical composition of Sodium and Chlorine ( NaCl). It turns out that the exuberant and harmful properties of the parts transform into harmless, beneficial and actually tasteful properties of the system. Chemistry also offers plenty of opposite examples of harmless components that result in violent reactions when combined.

The world view inspired by classical physics cannot help us understand world trends emerging from the non-linear interactions of multiple agents. We need a more subtle worldview than picturing human beings as mechanical cogs in a piece of predictable machinery. Here, however, we walk a fine line. We say that anything is possible, and science cannot guarantee reliable predictions. In the case of climate science, for example, scientists do not offer firm estimates. They provide scenarios and probabilities of outcomes. When confronted with a confusing set of options and possibilities, one may be tempted to assume that everybody's guess is just as good as solid scientific research. I suspect this reasoning is behind the dismissal of scientific opinion that is becoming common in the public debate. It also provides a fertile ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories or denials of evidence, from anti-vaxers to climate sceptics. In reality, science is well equipped to address complexity and chaos: it's just not the science that was the base of the mechanical representation of the universe. The traditional worldview was inspired by classical physics. In an upcoming post we will see how modern concepts like quantum physics can inspire a new worldview more fitting to understand current complexity.


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Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

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