By DeDe Audet
How do events like shootings in Venice relate to the strange migrations of jellyfish or uterine cells in endometriosis? Linear analysis of cause leading to effect does not explain it all. That’s why police investigating shootings look for evidence before trying to figure out causes. Whenever someone says “I don’t understand why X, Y, or Z happened,” there is a very good chance that the causes are complex.
Some of us are studying the nonlinear world of complexity. Since most of our schooling is linear, it is not easy to understand how a given cause does not always produce the same effect.
As John Davis points out in the June issue of The Beachhead, the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission – an organization supposedly committed to environmental preservation – seems to be bent on destroying an environment already in place in order to make work for friends.
A few economists foretold that leveraging and home mortgage securities would cause a huge market drop. Nobody knew when, so investors kept buying the golden eggs, until it happened in 2008. In complexity theory it is called a tipping point. All of a sudden, everyone decided to back off.
No doubt you have wondered at flocks of birds in the sky wheeling and dipping in synchrony and how they all know when to turn, go up, go down. Why do people similarly like to gather together and move in the same way, from armies marching to calisthenics to flash mob dancing?
Consider how a rave occurs and you will have a clue: cell phones and texting. And what an opportunity the rave presents for big, bad persons to show off guns, make big noises, and send people to the hospital. Think how mysterious a rave or flash mob dancing would have seemed in the year 1011.
For many, many years the meteorologists have been making educated guesses about the weather. And they are getting better at it. But they are the first to admit they are not perfect. From satellites they can see circular systems arise in the Atlantic Ocean off of Africa. So what they do is “track” these systems and make educated guesses about where the system might strike. Likewise, where a tornado will hit and what it will destroy is anyone’s guess.
People spend fortunes to know the future. Politicians line the pockets of pollsters. Fear of the unknown is the stuff of dreams and prophecy makes fortunes for fortunetellers.
Theories of complexity now lead us into new views of our weirdly wonderful world. These views do not limit the past, but certainly put a halt to the practice of assuming that tomorrow will be a repeat of yesterday. Humans have learned to adapt to tomorrows that do not resemble yesterday. But the increasing complexity of this world and the speed at which it is arriving is putting a strain on the human habit of survival.
Extrapolations and averages are what drive the old fashioned systems we depend on. Birdwatchers count a few birds at one location and add that sighting to other sightings. From such information, ornithologists extrapolate how many of those kinds of birds may inhabit that range. They do not really know how many. They make an educated guess.
By averaging the sightings over a period of years, the ornithologist predicts how many of those birds can be expected next year. And there is the problem – what period of time is being averaged – ten years, 100, 1000? No one knows when a disaster will strike those birds, a new predator, an old disease, a forest fire that consumes the nesting area. So an educated guess is still just a guess.
It is considered useful to build mathematic models to figure what the risks of disaster are. What the modelers use, though, is the record of disasters in the past in order to predict the likelihood of that same disaster next year. There is a chance that a vehicle driver with a record of two fatal crashes within the past five years will repeat, regardless of whether the driver is responsible or not. However, they cannot predict when a smoker will throw a lighted cigarette out the window while driving through the forest. Or when sparks from a malfunctioning vehicle will light the dry tinder on a dirt road in the forest. Or which forest.
Currently, Californians see their mountains piled high with an overload of melting snow which is filling the reservoirs with water, perhaps flooding some areas. But water companies have been experiencing years of drought conditions and they have not planned for abundance. So people are being told to conserve water and that they will have to pay more for it. Welcome to complex systems.
Groups of us in Venice have been studying complexity theory and how it affects our lives, our jobs, and our homes. Climate change tells us we have to build more flexibility into the systems needed to sustain life and we understand we must adjust.
The challenge is to get these ideas across to everyone. A Canadian professor of English Literature popularized some of these ideas through his study of media. Marshall McLuhan said “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
For more information, check out the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, where renowned scientists and researchers come together to study complex adaptive systems. If you are interested in knowing more about complexity theory in Venice, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.