“You will never find scientists leading armies into battle. You just won’t. Especially not astrophysicists – we see the biggest picture there is. We understand how small we are in the cosmos. We understand how fragile and temporary our existence is here on Earth.”— Neil deGrasse Tyson
“Our humanity rests upon a series of learned behaviors, woven together into patterns that are infinitely fragile and never directly inherited.”— Margaret Mead
“We live in a much more interconnected world now, and that means that it’s more fragile than we realize.”— Paul Romer
“Our global economy is much more fragile than many of us realize.”— Robert Kiyosak
“Civilization is hideously fragile and there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.”— Carrie Snow
“History shows that nations are more fragile than their citizens think. No nation in history has survived the ravages of time.”— Richard Lamm
“When you ask people, ‘What’s the opposite of fragile?,’ they tend to say robust, resilient, adaptable, solid, strong. That’s not it. The opposite of fragile is something that gains from disorder.”— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fragile means easily damaged or broken. Like our world today. Why should this be so? Our world, physically at least, looks pretty sturdy and robust. The problem here is how we define our “world”. Our world in reality consists of a huge number of semi-autonomous complex systems that are deeply interconnected and interdependent – and inherently fragile. Is our world truly survivable?
Operationally, our world consists of many overlapping systems: political, economic, education, medical, media, water, electricity, manufacturing, energy, telecommunications, transportation, pipelines, and complex supply chains. And of course people, along with other, amazingly diverse, biological entities. Then you probably want to add the technology and knowledge that interconnects and underpins all of this.
Enormously complex world we have here. Sure would be a shame if anything happened to it, yes? (To paraphrase a Monty Python wisdom.)
How can such a complex-systems jumble of all manner of world-stuff possibly be fragile, brittle? Well, it turns out that fragility is an inherent characteristic of complex systems generally.
Complex systems like our world are inherently fragile
Nobody made our world fragile. It became increasingly complex naturally, and this in turn is what increased its fragility. Simple is typically robust and resilient. Complex is typically fragile, and ultimately self-destructive. Just ask science:
James P. Crutchfield, Director of Complexity Sciences Center, Physics Department, University of California at Davis in 2009 published a paper that summarizes the mechanics at work here: “The Hidden Fragility of Complex Systems – Consequences of Change, Changing Consequences”:
“My premise is that truly complex systems, especially the socio-technical systems humans now construct, are inherently fragile. More to the point, they become so as a natural and inevitable product of how limited cognitive capacity, both at the individual and social levels, affects deploying technological solutions.”
“This is a simple, accretive view of the organization of complex systems in terms of a dynamic process through which they are created, either naturally, through human design, or both. The key and subtle step occurs, though, when the structural relationships between the components, specifically their dynamical interaction, leads to a spontaneous architectural reorganization as new levels of pattern emerge. That is, not only are individual components structurally complex and interconnected ‘horizontally’ but, through evolution, they become ‘vertically’ nested. The new patterns represent an increased level of abstraction in the system and reflect increased correlation (more structure) at a new level of organization. This new level can take on its own functioning, stabilizing if reinforced by the system as a whole. I call this process ‘functional pattern formation’.”
“Functional pattern formation raises a difficulty, though. The naive assumption of a system being composed of ‘modules’—in particular, that the modules are structurally or dynamically independent—fails. When correlation spontaneously emerges, the original components no longer need be ‘modules’. They interface in new ways within the system and can give rise to new, unanticipated behaviors and functions that cross the system. Moreover, these new functions can themselves become commandeered by other parts of the system. And, then, the entire process starts over again, with new levels of organization being constructed out of the existing ones. The lack of apparent modularity that results is the main challenge to understanding and analyzing truly complex systems.”
“In short, fragility emerges due to increasing structural correlation that spans system degrees of freedom and system degrees of abstraction. Fragility is hidden from us because it is emergent [emphasis added].”
“The lesson is that dynamical instability is inherent to collectives of adaptive agents.”
No one is to blame for our complex fragile world
Fragile happens. Or, so a recent post argues, “We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us”. Even though major population increases over the past century or so have greatly increased our world’s complexity, the population growth was driven primarily by great decreases in infant mortality. Lifespans have doubled.
More people, coupled with amazing advances in technology, have resulted in a very complex world. Interconnections and interdependence among world systems and subsystems has reached truly incomprehensible levels.
Complexity just happens under this kind of growth process. It really can’t be prevented unless some nasty subsystem decides to nuke us all back into a much simpler world. Like what seems to be taking place today. This, you may agree, is probably not the best way to deal with our complexity and associated fragility.
Do we have any other options here?
As I read the news out there in reality-ville these days, things don’t look particularly hopeful. To say the least.
There are so many powerful people and organizations competing for ultimate power and doing some truly awful things. What can “we” normal folks possibly do about such an incredible mess?
Voting the bums out doesn’t seem to work
Not sure who said this, but there is a saying that pretty much describes voting processes everywhere: “Throw the bums out so we can elect some new bums.” Or, as it works in practice, reelect most of the old bums.
Voting sounds good in theory but, judging from the general persistence of incumbents, doesn’t work so well in practice. Those offered for election and those who ultimately get elected are mostly selected by a wide range of powerful people and interests.
Besides, even if we-the-people were able to elect some truly new, independent, and capable people into positions of power, what could they actually accomplish in reality? As noted above, our complex world is inherently fragile and there is almost always a wide range of things going on that will result in various kinds of damage and/or collapse.
Can anybody – even a real person of immense capabilities – actually manage our now impossibly huge, fragile, and unstable world?
Not likely, but all kinds of global ruler-wannabe’s are trying very hard
This will not surprise you of course. It has been this way forever, and probably much longer. There has never been a shortage of ruler-wannabe’s. Unfortunately. Napoleon, Hitler, Mao come to mind in this respect. Each tried his very best to manage their complex world, but failed horribly in the end.
It seems that managing the complex fragile world is a whole lot harder than ruler-type folks seem to realize. And today we have yet another miserable crop of ruler-wannabe’s out there messing things up very badly. We have, in no particular order of worseness, Putin, Xi, and various of the currently confused Western leadership including Biden, Klaus, Soros, and other Great Resetters.
As always, each of these had or has a specific agenda in mind – none of which seems to be at all helpfully directed toward us normal folks of around 8 billion at last count. They have even succeeded in demoting a sizable part of this population into human genome status, as the prior post happily (or not) explains.
To guide us in dealing with their various agendas, we fortunately have George Orwell’s (aka Eric Blair) historical document 1984, which was cleverly written in 1949. He seems to have gotten many of the more important aspects of our current world pretty much right. Or at least as we proceed so adeptly along his historical paths.
Our leaders, or more accurately ruler-wannabe’s, have almost achieved the Orwellian tripartite polarization (totalitarian superstates of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia) of our complex fragile world. For worse, or likely much worse. And to think that so much of this happened during the short time that we were busy with COVID and its distracting sequel, the Ukraine. At the moment, it appears that the Ukraine mess is rapidly morphing into some sort of world war, which may or may not feature many nuclear explosions and their consequences.
While our complex fragile world so desperately needs effective managing today, we have only a range of catastrophic agendas being aggressively pursued. All leading pretty much to the world that historian Orwell documented so well.
So how do we survive in such a complex fragile world mess?
This is a rather difficult question, as you will no doubt appreciate. Step #1 is probably to define “survive”. Survival as in the Orwellian context is not likely to get many votes, assuming votes count for anything these days.
Nevertheless, our “survival” in some form seems assured, as earlier posts have looked at nuclear war survival, population growth upside, and societal collapse. Us humans are pretty good at surviving even the most horrendous efforts by rulers and their followers to prevent widespread and inconvenient survival.
As noted in the previous post, our goal here is not simply survival but to be among the particular survivors of whatever our complex fragile world is brewing up right now. “Yes, there will be some survivors, but just not us (aka you and I)” is not my idea of a successful survivorship picture.
Fortunately (for us, not our ruler-wannabe’s), complex fragile systems exhibit some quite helpful modes of behavior.
Nathan Gardels writing in NoemaMag.com provides some useful clues: “The Fragility Of Complex Systems”:
“As chaos theory physicist Ilya Prigogine pointed out, in complex systems far from equilibrium, even small inputs can have disproportionately large effects. The black swans of disorder are always waiting in the wings. Stability is never a given.”
“Nassim Taleb has famously theorized the usefulness of random shocks as advancing the efficiency of complex systems. For Taleb, resilience can simply mean the return of a system to its previous vulnerable state. By contrast, the active awareness of what he calls “antifragility” learns from disorder to build back better.”
“Yet, when building back better, the seeds of the next crisis are as often as not planted by systemizing a singular solution to the most recent disruption. Systems that monopolize the response to a given crisis only prepare the ground of a new disequilibrium exposed to the next novel shock from outside of its operational conditions. An autarkic, wholesale shift to a home-based import substitution strategy would be no less of a folly than over-reliance on the wide-open free trade of one-size-fits-all globalization.”
The helpful clues here for us seem to be:
- Small inputs can have disproportionately large effects
- Stability is never a given
- Usefulness of random shocks as advancing the efficiency of complex systems
Taming a complex fragile system in practice
Let’s start with the comforting thought that large complex fragile systems, like our world, are inherently and always unstable. This presents some unwelcome challenges for our ruler-wannabe’s, but it is just what we need to get things moving “in our favor” (more on this below).
The world is always changing, like it or not. What if we (as purposeful wannabe-survivors) could identify some points of instability on which to focus our typically small efforts. The world will provide us with a continuing stream of such opportunities to mess with things constructively.
We don’t need to do anything big if our efforts are cleverly focused, since small inputs can have quite large effects. Us little normal folks are especially good at generating small inputs. Getting a productive focus on the fly may well be the main challenge.
Random shocks being useful suggests to me that our small inputs may not have to be widely coordinated. Individuals and small groups doing their own thing may be just what we need to create a helpful storm of random shocks.
To get away with doing our own thing, we must have a fair degree of freedom. This of course is something that our wannabe-rulers are trying very hard to repress if not destroy altogether. As Taleb observes, we need an “autarkic shift” to get things moving.
What’s an “autarkic shift”, you may ask? Wikipedia gives a sort-of description in the form of an “autarky”:
“Autarky is the characteristic of self-sufficiency, usually applied to societies, communities, states, and their economic systems.”
“Autarky as an ideal or method has been embraced by a wide range of political ideologies and movements, especially left-wing ideologies like African socialism, mutualism, war communism, communalism, swadeshi, syndicalism (especially anarcho-syndicalism), and left-wing populism, generally in an effort to build alternative economic structures or to control resources against structures a particular movement views as hostile. Conservative, centrist and nationalist movements have also adopted autarky in an attempt to preserve part of an existing social order or to develop a particular industry.”
Do we really need to create an “autarky” to survive?
My best guess is “no”. Anything organized and extensive makes an easy target for powerful and wealthy wannabe-rulers. If we are going to mess with things toward our own survival favor, we need to stay pretty much below the radar.
Individuals, small groups, and transient collaborations seem to fit best into our random survival inputs plans. Stay small enough so that we wannabe-survivors don’t get noticed by the big guys who are occupied doing their big things.
What are the random inputs that we might pursue?
Well, maybe the best inputs are simply responses to opportunities. Complex systems inherently generate many such disturbances that can be viewed by clever folks as opportunities. These appear more or less randomly so that responses will be relatively less likely to be noticed.
If you have read Orwell’s 1984, you will recall that poor old history-rewriter Winston made a fatal mistake in his behavior. He bucked the system by unwisely getting together with a very helpful girlfriend, something not allowed and highly likely to be noticed. He and said girlfriend did “survive”, but not in terms that us professional survivors would accept.
One possibility for a somewhat focused messing with plans and efforts of the ruler-wannabe’s is something erroneously referred to as the “Hegelian dialectic” – thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. This is way too esoteric for me, but it has a rather more practical version that we might consider:
“A conspiracy theory postulated by David Icke in which the government (or another higher power) manipulates the population by introducing a problem and then using their own means to solve that problem.”
“Major conspiracy theorists propose that problem–reaction–solution (PRS) functions as a mechanism for constructing and exaggerating social problems to garner populist support for the implementation (imposition) of laws that society would normally deem unacceptable.”
The fact that it has been aggressively designated a “conspiracy theory” is strong evidence in my view that it is an approach that really works. Additional evidence is in its pretty apparent routine use by many of the agenda-driven folks out there in our complex fragile world.
This means that we first come up with a “solution” that is our survival agenda – namely to mess as effectively as possible, anti-wannabe-ruler-wise, with what opportunities the world is providing. You have to create these on the fly in most cases since the relevant opportunities are generally random.
Next step is to create some sort of problem that can be exploited. Our complex fragile world fortunately generates such problems at a truly amazing pace. The trick is to match up our survival solution with an appropriate random problem. This is done through reactions to each available problem. Reactions mostly just happen rather than being generated.
And here we have a very popular and sneaky way to get stuff done that may not be able to get done any other way. Best of all, it is used extensively by the folks who are so effectively messing up our world nastily today.
Okay, so how might we go about this survival approach as a practical matter? The first thing that comes to my mind is already widely practiced but aggressively repressed: communication.
Why just this week Elon Musk, whoever he is, bought social platform Twitter, began firing executives and staff, and proclaiming reopening the platform to “reasonable” messages and comments. Whether this actually works out as might be hoped, it is surely a step in the right direction.
Getting the survival word out as much as possible has to be a part of any survival plan. Hopefully in the form of solidly verifiable facts.
Next up? Well, how about voting. Even though so much of voting today simply executes a selection process by ruler-wannabe’s, it is the process itself that can be used for good purposes. Even if those selected are every bit as bad as those just voted out.
Too much to hope for is more of the unallowed truth spoken, and then clarified and retracted, by Alberta’s new premier – Danielle Smith. Being an Alberta native, I regard this as a good sign despite its immediate quashing. In Alberta, premiers are chosen by parties rather than being elected – assuming that there is any real difference here. The use of this selection-voting happening, which seems random in nature, would be in aggressive participation in the discussion that seems likely to follow.
And of course there is the not-yet-destroyed alternative media. This persistent weed in the garden of our wannabe-rulers remains deeply-rooted and widespread. Some weeds are good.
Might Twitter resume its former role as an open media platform? Who knows? Musk’s involvement may be of value, but he has been and remains pretty much a loose cannon. I am cautiously hopeful here.
These somewhat lame examples may serve to illustrate the sort of opportunism that us survival-wannabe’s desperately need. What opportunity will show up tomorrow, or next week? Another who knows. The point is that many of these will be useful in our good quest to be among the survivors in our complex fragile world.
Can we avoid fulfilling Orwell’s 1984 prophesy?
For myself at least, Orwell’s future doesn’t qualify as “survival”. It seems at best as “existence”. Cockroaches exist. Or so I am informed. Real survival is what people do, if possible.
My sense is that our fragile complex world is going to work well for us folks who place some value on real survival (vs. beast-like existence). This world is unstable and unpredictable. It does things that nobody plans – doing its own thing, you might say. Some of these things are almost certain to mess severely with whatever the current crop of ruler-wannabe’s are up to.
The fragile complex world is in this respect our friend.
Of course, there is still a bunch of crazies out there working very hard to get a nuclear WW III started. Will they succeed? I don’t think so. Maybe some limited nuclear exchanges that will cause all kinds of near-term survival problems for those who manage to avoid the various ground-zero’s involved.
The good outcome in all of this seems to be that the currently-forming tripartite superstate envisioned by historian Orwell is very likely to crash and burn. Orwell’s new world requires complete control over almost everything. The fundamental nature of our fragile complex world virtually ensures that such a convenient outcome for ruler-wannabe’s will never happen.
The world seems to be getting ready to decomplexify shortly
Our fragile complex world seems to be an unnatural mishmash even though it has arisen largely by natural processes. It has its demise already built in. The only question here is timing – probably very soon – and mechanics – probably a minor nuclear WW III.
A whole bunch of “us” are virtually certain to survive in the human sense. Will any particular one of us – such as you and I – be among the survivors? Impossible to tell. As economists are prone to remark – “In the long run we are all dead”. Survivorship is therefore temporary, at best.
It is probably worth mentioning that there is another potential solution to fragility, however unlikely it may be to actually take place. This involves major decoupling – localization – of nations globally. Just the opposite of the One World Order being pursued so aggressively today. What we really need to assure survival is to have far fewer and much weaker ties between and within nations. Fewer strong interconnections and fewer strong interdependencies. Sadly, not a chance in my view.
Our world today is extremely fragile. The reason is that it consists of a huge number of semi-autonomous complex systems that are deeply interconnected and interdependent – which is inherently fragile. Fragility is a natural and inevitable characteristic of complexity. Points of failure arise spontaneously and continually. The odds are very high that one of these will lead to a catastrophic world system failure at some point. There is little we can do to prevent this. The best that we can do is to help reduce interconnections and interdependencies via localization.
- Joseph Pearce writing in The Imaginative Conservative (Note: Orwell was a democratic socialist and atheist) had a look at: “George Orwell: Forgotten Prophet”:
“This was the world [post-WWII] in which George Orwell found himself as he sat down to write 1984. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he did not see a bright future in which man would be liberated by technology but a future in which he would be enslaved by it. In the nightmarish future he envisaged, individual nations would be crushed by globalist empires. And just as national sovereignty would be destroyed, so would the sovereignty of the individual. In Orwell’s vision of the future, individuals would lose their liberty and their privacy as those in power used the latest technology to monitor their every activity. Language would be dumbed down and simplified so that old concepts could not be discussed or even contemplated. History would be silenced or rewritten so that people could not learn from the past or see the present from its perspective. Eventually, so Orwell prophesied, people would be so dehumanized and demoralized, so brainwashed and psychologically reprogrammed, that they would accept and embrace the tyranny that had enslaved them. They would no longer fear Big Brother but would admire and venerate him.”
“Orwell’s dystopian novel was so successful and so influential that he was seen as something of a prophet. 1984 was considered a cautionary prophecy of what would come to pass if future generations ceased to be vigilant in the guarding of their freedom.”
- Leopold Kohr and E.F. Schumacher wrote a seminal book titled “Small is Beautiful”:
“Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered is a collection of essays published in 1973 by German-born British economist E. F. Schumacher. The title ‘Small Is Beautiful’ came from a principle espoused by Schumacher’s teacher Leopold Kohr (1909–1994) advancing small, appropriate technologies, policies, and polities as a superior alternative to the mainstream ethos of ‘bigger is better’.
“Overlapping environmental, social, and economic forces such as the 1973 energy crisis and popularisation of the concept of globalisation helped bring Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful critiques of mainstream economics to a wider audience during the 1970s. In 1995 The Times Literary Supplement ranked Small Is Beautiful among the 100 most influential books published since World War II. A further edition with commentaries was published in 1999.”
“In the first chapter, ‘The Problem of Production’, Schumacher argues that the modern economy is unsustainable. Natural resources (like fossil fuels) are treated as expendable income, when in fact they should be treated as capital, since they are not renewable, and thus subject to eventual depletion. He further argues that nature’s resistance to pollution is limited as well. He concludes that government effort must be concentrated on sustainable development, because relatively minor improvements, for example, technology transfer to Third World countries, will not solve the underlying problem of an unsustainable economy. Schumacher’s philosophy is one of ‘enoughness’, appreciating both human needs and limitations, and appropriate use of technology. It grew out of his study of village-based economics, which he later termed Buddhist economics, which is the subject of the book’s fourth chapter.”
- According to a very recent CBS News poll, people in the U.S. (and almost certainly elsewhere) are sensing that something very serious and bad is under way – a world out of control: