Tuesday, 6 October 2015

First draft, first chapter.

Chapter one.

The first sign of trouble came with a small, red, flashing light illuminating the cold, metal corridor that had remained dark for several years. It was joined by a dull green glow as screens lit up from their hibernation. The first noise for several years quickly followed; a hissing cacophony from a row of pods whose bottom edges slowly protruded from the opposing wall, joined moments later by the sound of an alarm. Consoles kicked into life, turning the green to a warm, white light as the front panels of the pods slowly opened.

Of the five pods, the occupant of the middle one was first to stir. Despite the soft lighting and relatively low volume of the alarm, designed to minimise sensory overload in such situations, the face revealed by the clearing vapours scrunched it's eyes and slowly raised a hand to shield the light. The alarm was harder for the subconscious to ignore however, and within seconds the training kicked in. Stretching and bending his legs, the man emerged from the pod, unclipped a variety of tubes and sensors from the hood-to-toe, skin-tight, outfit, and turned to help the others wake from their long slumbers.

He didn't hang around. Unclipping the others, he gently but firmly slapped their cheeks, bringing the sound of the alarms to their senses. Sickness and disorientation was to be expected, and he quickly gave two who were struggling a shot in the neck to bring them round. It took a couple of minutes for everyone to become functional, in which time two of the personnel were already at the screens, trying to ascertain what could have happened that required them to be brought out of deep-sleep and into a world of flashing lights and alarms. Why couldn't the ship handle this?

All five personnel, four men and one woman, almost identical looking except for their exposed faces, were now frantically working the touch-screen consoles. Something was very wrong, that much was clear. They appeared to have no access to the computers AI, which would explain why they had had to be thawed, and were having to diagnose the problem themselves.

They didn't have to wait long to get a major clue as to what was up. A console turned red, warning of a hull breach in sector 7G. Worse, the hull breach extended as far as sector 7D, a cargo hold, meaning the breach extended through four layers of the ship.

“Have we been hit by something?”

“Shields are operational, no indication of damage.”

So what the hell was happening? Yes, they were going fast, very fast, but between the AI, the sensors, the offensive capabilities, and the shield, the ship was designed to bare practically zero risk from unexpected asteroids. Some sort of attack, perhaps? Yet, despite the AI apparently not being operational, the shield appeared unaffected.

“The hull breach came after we were already awoken. Had it been an attack that had caused it, what had happened previously to warrant the emergency protocol initiation? Jones, you work thought the ship's log, find an answer. I'm going to try and find out why we can't communicate with the AI. The rest of you, manually initiate containment and repair. Go.”

Jones was already doing just that. It appeared that the first indication of trouble had come from sector 7D: atmospheric changes, temperature rising, breach. Followed by the same indicators in sectors 7E, F, and finally the hull breach itself.

It looks like whatever happened, it happened from the inside-out, originating in sector 7D. Sir, do you copy? Sir?”

The commanding officer, for without the AI that was he was, at least temporarily, was silent. He was staring, confused, dumbfounded, at the screen before him. He was completely locked out.


“It's useless. I can't even begin to diagnose the problem. All the ships read-outs are consistent, but the AI's completely inaccessible.”

He checked on the progress of the automatic contingency protocol, which, for by now obvious reasons, operated separately from the ship's AI. Every pod on the ship was by now primed for evacuation, just in case things got critical. Which they did.

“We have more immediate problems, sir. The hull breach is getting worse, and without the AI, I cannot say for sure what is causing it.”

“Best guess, Jones?”

“Best guess? Given where it started and the time between each floors atmospheric changes, something from the cargo hold is eating through the structure; acid, or something similar”.

“No way something like that would have got on board. Too big a risk for something we can easily synthesise.”

“Well, whatever it is, it was onboard, and it was a risk. Or a hope.”

The commanding officer looked at Jones, and quickly thought through the implications. It couldn't have been an accident. Significant resources had been committed to working through each and every risk, and to mitigate them to incredible odds. That meant that whatever was going on, it was most likely hidden, complex, and worse of all, intended. And no one would intend to only do localised, repairable damage. What's more, it was likely tied to the reason the AI was out of commission.

“If this is intended, then this is likely about to get much worse than it currently appears.”

“Initiate evacuation, Sir?”

“Do it. We can always pick them up when we are done. It's not like they would even know.”

Jones ran along the gangway at full speed. The full speed his legs could manage after years in the freezer, anyway. The echoes of his steps rang out in rhythm with the alarm, his mind taking a moment to recognise the synchronisation. Moments later, he came to a halt in front of a control panel, lifted a protective shield, and placed his hand against the screen. Nothing happened. Jones shouted down the corridor.

“Sir, we have a problem! The controls are dead!”

“We have more than a problem; two more cargo holds are reporting atmospheric changes!”

Jones could see the commanding officer frantically hammering on the controls. He moved quickly, and was already at the nearest pod when he heard the officer shout.

“Start manually ejecting the pods, now!”

Jones yanked open the manual ejection mechanism next to the pod, pulled out the pin, and pulled down a large, red lever 180 degrees. A hiss of air made him step back, and without waiting to see if the pod ejected, was on to the next one. Twice more he went through the procedure, all the while calculating. Six thousand pods. Roughly ten seconds per pod, no doubt slowing with fatigue long before the end. Even assuming the other four joined him, that was well over 5 hours work. Not nearly enough.

“Sir, we need more hands!”

The officer nodded, turned, and started methodically moving along the line of pods directly next to those they had themselves emerged from. Engineers. Security. The expendables. Jones hurriedly joined him. If they could get enough people un-thawed, they might be able to get everyone off the ship in as little as half an hour. They didn't have half an hour.

A new sound gave the two men pause for a moment. Then another. More alarms. The officer turned and looked at the displays. Two more hull breaches. Red, flashing warnings everywhere. The increasing damage was relentless, the cause still unknown. Jones and the officer looked at each other, each searching the other for an answer. None came.

“What the hell is going on here?”

One of the newly awoken crew was trying to make sense of the noise and the lights. Others started to stir. Jones looked at them, looked at the screens, and started to cry.

“I'm sorry. I'm so sorry..”

The situation was hopeless. He knew that. All along the ship, the computer was reporting atmospheric changes consistent with those before. Whatever was happening, it was happening everywhere, all at once. All he had done by awakening his colleagues was to allow them to experience their final moments.

He looked along the gantry. About two hundred yards away, he could see the empty spaces that had formerly been the home to free pods. With any luck, they might be able to harvest enough energy to keep going until they found somewhere hospitable. But even if they didn't, they were still guaranteed a better death than the people he had awoken. He would even pick eternal slumber than experience the certainty of death first-hand.

“We might be going to die, but that doesn't mean we can't save some. Everyone, start ejecti...”

He got no further. Gravity failed, pressurisation failed a moment afterwards, and the entire ship was shaken and blown apart. For what is was worth, their deaths were quick.

Speeding away from the explosion, three pods were adjusting their trajectory and powering away from the ship. Not fast enough to completely escape the resulting explosion, but enough to survive it. Whether surviving meant anything at this point, only fate would decide. Fate, and the on-board computers that charted a course for the nearest star cluster with known potential for life-sustaining planets.

Introduction to Complexity Resources


The Complexity of Hayek:

Greg Fisher, Synthesis, February 2012
There are a number of similarities between complex systems and Friedrich von Hayek’s work  fleshed out in this blog.  For those who want to build on Hayek’s broad approach to social systems, they need look no further than complexity theory.

Life Before Earth?

Cornell University Library, March 2013
This study suggests an extrapolation of the genetic complexity of organisms to earlier times suggests that life began before the Earth was formed. Life may have started from systems with single heritable elements that are functionally equivalent to a nucleotide. The genetic complexity, roughly measured by the number of non-redundant functional nucleotides, is expected to have grown exponentially due to several positive feedback factors: gene cooperation, duplication of genes with their subsequent specialization, and emergence of novel functional niches associated with existing genes. Fascinating idea to consider.

Want simplicity in leadership? Then embrace complexity first

Bettina von Stamm, Guardian, June 2013
If you want to thrive rather than just survive, understanding and embracing the principles of complexity theory can be extremely valuable, and by embracing and living by those principles you will be able to achieve what everyone is yearning for: simplicity.

What to make of the complexity paradigm?

Ben King, Synthesis, October 2013
With so much at stake – global warming, resource depletion, growing complexity etc – it is vitally important that we understand the dynamics of paradigm shifts, so that we may both effectively communicate this new paradigm and have realistic expectations of the challenges ahead.

How science is telling us all to revolt

Naomi Klein, New Statemans, October 2013
Is our relentless quest for economic growth killing the planet? Climate scientists have seen the data – and they are coming to some incendiary conclusions using complexity and systems theory.

Stop trying to save the world; big ideas are destroying international development

New Republic, November 2014
Fascinating article about the risk of unintended consequences and negative path dependencies in international development, and the need for the field to embrace complexity theory.


Franz contemplates complexity

ContemplateThisDotOrg, April 2011
I am not ashamed to say that by the end of this video I was crying actual tears. Extremely beautiful short video about complexity theory and complex adaptive systems.

Trial, error and the God complex

Tim Harford, TED, July 2011
Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems — and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes.

Complexity theory and panpsychism

Dr N. Theise, 2013
Dr. Neil Theise, LIver Pathologist and Stem Cell specialist, explains complexity theory, and how sentience could be a function not only of human brains, but of all life, and indeed, of all existence. Sentience, according to his view, is the very interaction that creates all patterns in the universe, including all matter and space. This is the closest thing I have found to someone else explaining what I also concluded; that consciousness is a spectrum stretching from the very small to the very large.

Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory

Nicolas Perony, TED, OCtober 2013
Animal behavior isn’t complicated, but it is complex. Nicolas Perony studies how individual animals — be they Scottish Terriers, bats or meerkats — follow simple rules that, collectively, create larger patterns of behavior. And how this complexity born of simplicity can help them adapt to new circumstances, as they arise.

Complexity, Culture & Consciousness

Minds.com panel discussion, January 2014
On the intersections of complexity theory, cultural studies, and the evolution of consciousness, this google hangout features Neil Theise, Complexity Researcher; Richard Doyle, Information Scientist; Erik Davis, Religious Scholar; Michael Garfield, Evolutionary Philosopher; Mitch Mignano, Cultural Historian; and Bill Ottman, Open Web Activist. Incidentally, it was nice to see a bit of derision towards the skeptical communities inability to deal with politics.

Complexity theory: an introduction

Complexity Lab, April 2014
A short introduction to the new area of complexity theory. For those not familiar with the technical aspects already, the short film below may be better.

Complexity Theory: A short film

Complexity Lab, June 2014
An inspirational short film about complexity theory and the shift in paradigm from the Newtonian clockwork universe to complex systems, produced by Complexity Labs.


LSE Complexity Group

The LSE Complexity Group has been working for over 20 years, with organisations in the private and public sectors to address practical complex problems. In the process it has developed a theory of complex social systems and an integrated methodology using both qualitative and quantitative tools and methods.

Complex Care Wales

An example of complexity as applied to healthcare, in 2010, a multi-agency network was established across Wales, bringing together practitioners from a range of disciplines and services to form the Complex Care Forum. The purpose was to explore and develop practice, aimed at supporting people who live with complex needs. This article is intended to describe a new understanding of demand and capacity with in healthcare, through work undertaken within Hywel Dda Health Board – an integrated health organisation based in West Wales.

Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is a private, not-for-profit, independent research and education center, founded in 1984, where leading scientists grapple with some of the most compelling and complex problems of our time. Researchers come to the Santa Fe Institute from universities, government agencies, research institutes, and private industry to collaborate across disciplines, merging ideas and principles of many fields — from physics, mathematics, and biology to the social sciences and the humanities — in pursuit of creative insights that improve our world.


Synthesis is a think-tank devoted to using the emerging paradigm of complex networks in the social sciences to tackle social and public policy concerns.


Aid on the Edge of Chaos

Ben Ramalingam, Oxford University Press, 2013
An excellent expose on the follies of international development sans an understanding of complex systems.
“This excellent book does three important things. It provides an informative tour of the reductionist thinking and over-simplistic approaches that characterise so much current development policy and practice. It draws on the ideas of complex adaptive systems research to show that such flaws are neither inevitable nor incurable. And it presents a series of powerful cases of how these new ideas are beginning to make a real difference to the way we think about and work in aid. A must-read for anyone interested in development, its current discontents, and its future potential.”
– Ricardo Haussmann, former Chief Economist, Inter-American Development Bank and Director of the Centre for International Development, Harvard University

Online training and e-learning courses

Complex Systems Theory: An Introduction

Complexity Lab
This course is an introduction to the core concepts of complex systems theory, an exciting new area that is offering us a fresh perspective on issues such as understanding our financial system, the environment and large social organizations. The aim of this course is to bring the often abstract and sophisticated concepts of this subject down to earth and understandable in an intuitive form. After having started with an overview to complex systems this course will focus upon five of the core concepts. It costs £16 to take, includes 17 lectures, and is intended for a broad group of people but will be particularly relevant for those with a background in a technical domain such a some area of math, science, engineering or business.

University of Surrey Complexity Workshop: Rearranging the theoretical deckchairs.

This week I attended the fourth workshop of the Constructed Complexities series, organised by the University of Surrey.  The theme for the workshop was ‘Socially constructed complexities, institutions, and power’, a theme that has been at the heart of my philosophising on complexity for the best part of a decade. That said, I have never really delved into any established academic theory on the topic, and so I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to finally immerse myself into how the complexity field is progressing within academia.

It didn’t surprise me therefore that I had never heard of 90% of the people referenced by the guest speakers, nor the majority of the established theories covered. That said, much of the material felt like familiar ground; generally what I would have expected from the application of complexity theory to institutions and power. The first day saw talks on the complexities of water management in New Mexico, the nature of (and need for) social ontology, and the normative implications of complexity for politics. Day two focused on various frameworks of institutionalism (historical, sociological, rational-choice, critical, etc), with a particular focus on historical-institutionalism. The speakers were, without exception, top-notch, and the discussion, like the food, was both delicious and nutritious.

Since so many of the concepts and terms were new to me, I won’t attempt in this blog to critique the various modalities that were presented; a lot of great minds have been debating the various forms of institutionalism for two or three decades now, and I wouldn’t deign to think two days of talks would be enough for me to do justice to them. Instead, I want to provide an outside, critical perspective on the overall endevour at hand, placing it within a wider, global, un-academic context.

Complexity is that rare beast; a framework pursued by multiple disciplines that constitutes a paradigm shift in the way we see the world, a la post-modernism and modernism. It is not surprising therefore that much of the academic process has involved a) a lot of effort going toward finding common terminology, and b) a continuous process of changing focus, as new theories seek to emphasise elements neglected by previous concepts. At various points, rational-choice theory, sociology, the state, historical context, and others have been made the focus of how to best view institutions, resulting in decades of publications and a number of tools and frameworks to use in analysing institutions and power.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I am grateful for all of that. Such discourse is the raw material for inspiring paradigmatic change, and while academia may not itself be first unto the breach, so to speak,  it is nevertheless a vanguard of sorts. However, it is apparent that it is not for me. Allow me to explain.
For me, I see the implications of complexity theory on institutions and power as being really very simple. Yet clearly this is not reflected in the myriad of institutionalisms emerging. So what, I thought, is the cause of this disparity. Am I overly idealistic in my ideas? Was there more nuance for me to find? Or was it something else; were we in fact comparing apples and pears?

A thought occurred to me on the way home that I felt wrapped up the dissonance I had been feeling: I use complexity theory to critique power, while academia uses complexity theory to critique theories of power. This is a crucial difference. Theories of power emerge from study, from the examination of the existing processes and dynamics of institutions, laws, behaviours, and relationships. Naturally, this is going to result in a whole raft of ideas about ‘how things work’, a process that is potentially endless, and almost impossible to quantify with any conviction. The cynic in me cannot help but chime that here is fertile ground for the replication of academia’s own historical institutionalism; the numerous niches and nuances facilitating a production line of publications that can nevertheless safely avoid what for me is the central implication of complexity theory on institutions and power.

See, if you take out the theory, the bottom line is this: complexity theory utterly de-ligitimises almost all manifestations of institution and power that exist in the world as of today.
This was, I felt, something of an elephant in the room. While there was ample evidence of a general disdain for neoliberalism and conservatism on display, the bulk of the workshop could legitimately be described as an effort to make existing structures better. This throws up a quandary that I was at pains to subtly introduce in my questions; can institutions and power actually use this complexity theory discourse to reform itself from within, and within the timescales necessary to avoid a) revolution, and/or b) catastrophic impacts from ideologically-based path dependencies?

My experience from studying history tells me that not only are the two potential consequences just stated all too likely to recur given enough time, but also that they tend to come about precisely because power very, very, very rarely makes significant ideological u-turns once path-dependencies have been established. Once we take this into account, it gives a somewhat pessimistic perspective on the capacity for directly inspiring real-world change via the academic process. At best, it can hope to achieve lagged baby-steps of progress, yet I cannot escape the feeling that, for many a reason that the various institutionalisms could no doubt describe when applied self-referentially to questions of funding-, sponsorship-, and publication-systems, such discourse will always be constrained in its ability to directly critique power itself.

This is a big problem. The wider, global context is such that to examine complexity in this constrained manner is akin to re-arranging theoretical deck-chairs while a very large, distinctly non-theoretical iceberg is baring down upon our shared ship. Climate change, biodiversity loss, inadequate pandemic mitigation and management, the threat of future bio- and nano-technologies; all present very real, existential dangers to billions of people within the next three decades.

Another simple implication of complexity theory I consider to be true; that new modes of top-down power transition from adaptive to maladaptive over time, as a result of the difference in cultural evolutionary speed between institutions and the society they govern. Furthermore, this dissonant gap exhibits exponential growth that results in bottom-up, system-wide phase transitions (revolution) unless the pressure is adequately released. This is certainly possible in some contexts – civil rights for instance – but is highly unlikely, even when faced with existential threats, when the required reform means voluntarily letting go of central tenets of power’s ideological underpinning.

I have read hundreds of sustainable development reports, yet I could count on one hand those that have even mentioned the eternal growth doctrine, neoliberalism, and the intentional creation and reproduction of consumer identities, despite the central role they play in climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation. We all have a duty, no matter how difficult the institutional, relational, and systemic contexts we find ourselves in, to keep pushing, keep challenging, and to never let go of our human context in the work that we do.

It is my great hope that the work done by those at the workshop, and the many influential thinkers they referenced, has been doing enough in the background to quietly inspire and influence a broader coalition of people who are less constrained in their application of complexity theory to power; artists, musicians, activists of all shades. Certainly, academia has a crucial part to play in the process of paradigmatic change, but history tells us that rarely is it considered the focal tipping point. Indeed, it is often one of the last to defend the status-quo. Personally, I see myself as operating in something of a mediating role; always trying to provide formalised weight to activism, but equally motivated to agitate amongst academia.

Time is short, the stakes are high, and power is at the heart of the problem. Perhaps then it is time to move away from describing what is happening using complexity theory, and more toward utilising that expertise to judge what is happening. Sure, it won’t be for everyone, and there is always a need for theory. Let’s just not forget that there is a growing number of people suffering out there who see in academia an un-mobilised and potentially powerful ally, and would really appreciate us moving away from the deck-chairs, and focus more on helping to wrestle the steering wheel from those too ideologically blind to change course.

Complexity and Vaccines.

Complexity is hard. It is hard because each and every one of us develop in a cultural system, with the same pattern-finding brains, conditioning us to identify cause and effect. Yet in sufficiently complex systems, without computers to aid us, identifying causality is simply impossible without the creation of, and attachment to, a subjective narrative drawn from our own personal experience and mental schemas.

A consequence of this is the sustained phenomena of ideology, where particular narratives are continually reinforced within a powerful, sub-cultural sphere, pontificating on highly complex social issues with an authority and certainty that complexity theory objectively denies them. This holds true at multiple scales, whether its a village council, an online forum, or Westminster.

And so here we complexity theorists sit, witness to opposing forces shouting at each other with stunning conviction, often needing nothing more than a few cherry-picked quotes from a single, possibly self-interested, source. Every time we hear an economic forecast stretching two, three years into the future, every time we hear a prediction on how much a 20 year infrastructure project will cost, what do we propose? Are we to just sigh wearily while the opposing groups have their turn reading the tea-leaves and proclaiming Truth? It’s seriously getting boring shouting at the Today programme on BBC Radio4, “but complexity!”.

Now, I’m not saying that beliefs and values should have no part in our collective self-organisation. By all means have idealism, I encourage it highly, but it has to be recognised as a goal to aim for, the objective of the strategy, and not the strategy itself. Almost by definition, blanket, immediate reform shaped from an ideal tends to emerge from initial conditions that were so crap that they inspired the mandate for idealistic, radical change to begin with. Initial conditions are important, really important, and history has shown what happens when they are disregarded. It aint pretty.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Once you get past the conditioning, complexity is by definition intuitive. But damn, that conditioning..

Case in point: the vaccination debate.

Take vaccinations. Recently, vaccination rates in the U.S. have declined to dangerous levels in some areas, resulting in outbreaks of measles such as that which occurred recently at Disneyland. Some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, with many citing the low but real chance of side-effects, and others going so far as to claim the whole thing is a Big Pharma based conspiracy. More people still are hung-up on the issue from a question of personal freedom, the immorality of being compelled to do something, and think that there should be a choice, perhaps together with education.

These people do not understand complexity theory, on a number of levels. Primarily, I think the major problem is an inability to switch between scales of reference, due to the cognitive dissonance that it might entail. In this case, personal freedom is enshrined at the scale of the individual only, with the systemic scale ignored, or else presumed to emerge according to a bottom-up process only. It’s easier to discern cause and effect at the scale of yourself, and more tempting to elevate the risk factor, when viewed selfishly. It also signals a lack of understanding regarding the potential for bottom-down emergent forces; the way in which systems influence people. Conversely, the more extreme anti-vax crowd impart the kind of cause and effect seen at the scale of the individual – intent, control, homogeneity – onto the system, personified as an evil there to fight, a powerful and well-established narrative to cling on to.

Where cause and effect is relatively simple to confabulate narratives for at the scale of the yourself (it’s actually just as hard, objectively, hence relying on epidemiology in pharmacology), resulting in numerous anecdotes spread with personal belief, the systemic scale is something of an abstraction. Time and distance conspire to hide cause and effect from us, leading us to rely on those actively looking and reporting back. Most do a good job, but it only takes one for enough people to latch onto, with their worries and confirmation bias, to suddenly create doubt in the public’s mind; a mind manipulated with fear for the sake of click-bait headlines and newspaper sales. Whether doubt is good or bad is not an inherent trait, it requires contextualisation, and with vaccinations, doubt has a death toll.

This is why it is particularly emotive for me – I can think of no other area of research where so much effort has gone into satisfying people that have made names for themselves through constant criticism of proven work. I feel for the parents whose fear has been manipulated, but I am also angry that so many can disregard the majority of people in their community, and demand the right to bring back diseases that should have been eliminated by now.

I cannot imagine that their choice really is to usher in another age plagued by avoidable, devastating illnesses, killing thousands of children. But if you do understand that risk, and you still want both sides given attention and respect, even for idealistic reasons, then sorry, you’ll get no respect from me. And if you don’t care and actively profit from this fear, than shame on you.

You aren’t allowed to drive on the other side of the road, but no one whines about losing their freedom because of it. I know vaccines feel more invasive, but its the same deal. We all have to do it; we all have to make sacrifices for the good of the whole. Order doesn’t just magically spring from the rational self-interest of one scale of emergence, whatever Ayn Rand might have you believe. So vaccinate your kids, please. We collectively earned this opportunity, and no individuals can claim the right to impose themselves, and take that away.

Its the best that we have, but it can be better

Any form of governance, whether it’s politics, health systems, education, etc, has no choice but to manage the complexity by applying the same rules to everybody. That is how how the nation state and it’s laws (should) operate, and that is how we practice medicine (to a degree). It is far from perfect; having to rely on the use of averages, probabilities, catering for the lowest denominators, and not having the capacity to tailor rules to the scale of the individual, governing a whole system will inevitably, unintentionally, screw individuals occasionally.

We just have to accept that, for now. We have no other choice. With any controversial area, the alternative is to introduce chaos into terrible initial conditions. As I said, argue for your ideal, but before that ideal can touch decision making that affects all of us, first it must be granted space to influence the scientific consensus. Not until individualised decision-making is actually plausible will it start to become immoral not to utilise it, but until then, we have to accept this is the best we can do. You don’t have to like it, and you wont always get what you want. Personally, I’m happy to listen to thousands of passionate experts that have spent their lives trying to understand that which I accept I am, objectively, personally blind to.

Incidentally, if we do want individualised governance within self-organisation – making each individual as free as possible, removing the one-size-fits-all approach of age restrictions, drug prohibitions and the like – we would need so much data available that it is hard to imagine it not going terribly awry without a radically different political economic structure than today. As I said, initial conditions are vital to consider.

My/A conclusion

It’s imperative that the limits of knowledge, and the absurdity of conviction, revealed by complexity theory is pummeled into all levels of culture and governance. Shift the focus from ideology to methodology, learn what constitutes good evidence so you can hold authority to account without succumbing to frauds like Andrew Wakefield, and stop being so selfish when it comes to accepting consensus, especially in cases where the stakes are so high (climate change is another one).  Recognise the importance of the systemic scale, and learn to love synthesising the dissonance that comes from incorporating the two scales together.

And yes, I do feel conviction in speaking of the absurdity of conviction, and no, that isn’t hypocrisy. Belief and conviction is not inherently bad, it’s the imposition of said conviction on others that is bad. And when complexity applies as it always does in heated debates, showing that conviction to be inherently unknowable, be it in anti-vaxers, economists, politicians, whoever, that’s when I have to clench my fist, sigh, and try not to feel too downhearted. Its a necessarily slow process, this alternative to imposition – the gradual accumulation of wisdom and knowledge – and I for one have no problem using conviction to protect those gains. Join me in continuing to speak out about these many abuses of authority, fellow complexity theorists, so that we might get to a better place sooner rather than later.

A glance at transhumanism via the augmented pianist.

A few weeks ago, I downloaded an app for my android tablet called Magic Piano. Like most other instrument based games, it works through the visual representation of coloured orbs descending the screen; hit them as they cross the illuminated line and viola, the right notes are struck at the right time. Partly due to how expensive the in-app purchases of new songs is, and partly due to how much Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen rocks, it has pretty much monopolised my time on the app. It didn’t take very long to become relatively proficient at tapping the various combinations, and soon I was able to play the whole song in a kind of flow state, subtly providing variation as I felt fit and gaining a real sense of relaxation.

This got me thinking. To what extent is the pleasure derived from playing this app, and that derived from playing a real piano, different? Both enter a flow state; could one flow state be more significant than the other? And what if you tried to close that gap by making the app experience as “real” as possible? What if you had an augmented reality device that transcribed the music as descending orbs, but overlaid on a real piano?

This creates an interesting little thought experiment. Imagine this entirely plausible, relatively near-term scenario whereby augmented reality is provided by contact lens, or even a neural interface, and is connected to smartphone and mic that can, after one listen to a piano piece, transcribe the music onto the piano in a gamified format. What could potentially result is a “pianist” that could trick others into believing he can memorise and play any piece of music on the piano after just one listen.

Now, the real interesting question is this: is the punctuation in that last sentence justified? Has the user actually learned to play the piano? Is the user now considered a pianist?

One way to approach this question is by first asking what is the difference between this user – the ‘augmented pianist’ – and a ‘classical pianist’, and then asking if that difference is an integral and inherent part of learning.

The main difference that I can see is that the augmented pianist has essentially outsourced two things to an external device: identification, and memory. Software can recognise which notes to play and when, while the device is also taking the role of memory; the augmented pianist doesn’t have the memorise the notes before he plays them. This memorising, be it in terms of conscious, sub-conscious, muscle memory, etc, could easily be interpreted as integral to the concept of learning. Yet many things have been considered integral to concepts, only to be left behind in the historical dust. The question is then, can learning be considered to occur without the identification, and more importantly, memory elements?

The augmented pianist still learns some important stuff; on first try with the Magic Piano app I was awful, and found it very difficult. Over the course of a few days, I found that my coordination was massively improving, getting much faster and dealing well with brand new combinations of notes first time around. Obviously in the case of a tablet app the experience is greatly simplified, but even if projected onto a real piano, I don’t doubt that a similar experience could ensue, only even more immersive with a genuine sound and environment.
A brief look at the younger generations, and a basic historical grasp of how cultural trends work, can easily lead one to argue that in an augmented future where skills such as pattern recognition, note recognition, memory, etc, can be out-sourced, the very definition of learning may be about to change. No longer will one have to spend tens of thousands of hours to appear proficient, or even possibly prodigal, to an audience. This will significantly remove the barriers to playing music, to experiencing a flow state that is, potentially, every bit as immersive as the ‘real’ thing.

This reminds me of the philosophical ideas on consciousness, the so called ‘hard-problem’ of consciousness. Theoretically, everyone could be zombies simply acting in the same way someone with real consciousness would act; in the same way, everyone in the future could be pianists with outsourced skills, a mere power-failure away from simply not being able to play the piano. That said, a classical pianist is a mere falling brick to the head away from not being able to play the piano as well – is that really any different?

And so I see it going many ways: there will be the classical snobs insisting that augmented pianists are not pianists at all, and that use of augmentation should be viewed like performance enhancing drugs in sport; what is left of the record industry will be free to choose the prettiest or most showman-like people instead of those that spent years learning properly (I know this is already happening, but really no music-related job, from bar-room pianist to the school play, will be under threat); second-hand markets of cheap pianos and instruments will thrive and a new market of ‘dummy’ instruments will appear that don’t even work without external devices (much to the chagrin of classicists, no doubt); and millions of people will get the joy of playing instruments in an immersive and accurate feedback loop experience which allows for people to enter flow states, and play any style they choose.

As a little glimpse into a transhumanist future, I found these questions really satisfying to mull over, and would love to hear any thoughts you might have on how this impacts what it means to learn, where else drivers are going to produce similar classicist/augmented conflicts, and how excited you might be, or not, about the prospect of bringing down the barriers to enjoy playing music. I’d like to think it will usher in a new creative renaissance, especially as AI gets incorporated even into creative design processes. In fact, I can think of few better reasons for the introduction of a universal basic income than to facilitate the explosion of creative possibility that is about to hit.

UK Election: Complexity perspective.

With the UK election upon us, it is a fitting time to take a look at the offerings from a complexity perspective. It is also a fitting subject matter; complexity theory is as fundamental to politics as it to climate science, or any other study of complex adaptive systems. Unfortunately, unlike climate science, participants in politics have yet to fully grasp the implications of this fact.
Rather than examining each of the parties policies and methods to find areas compatible with complexity theory, it will be a lot easier to briefly summarise what I believe are some core facets of complexity theory that are relevant to today’s political environment, before outlining their relevant political implications. Then we can see how the parties match up.

Here then are some core facets of complexity theory, and how I think these they should roughly translate into political policy:
1. Complex adaptive systems, be they society, economics, finance etc, are inherently unpredictable, proportional to the specificity and time-span involved. That is, the more specific the prediction, and the further you predict in time, the less likely you are to be accurate.
Political policy should not be solely determined by, or legitimised by, confident assertions concerning specific predictions and time-frames. This is most commonly found in the influence economics has on political economic policy, with targets for revenue collection, cuts, and growth figures creating a budget relying on what amounts to a vast accumulator bet. If an economic prediction included all of the disclaimers it should rightly give, people would be far less happy about trusting the policy it supports.
Put it this way: if all you have to support economic policies that will inevitably have massive negative impacts on vulnerable people’s lives is some cherry-picked forecasts from a sub-section of economists, don’t be surprised if you get ever more blow-back as awareness of complexity seeps ever more into the public consciousness.
2. The more homogenous a system is, the more fragile it is, and the more susceptible the system is to rapid change (a cascade). Conversely, the more diverse a system is, the more resilient and adaptable it is.
The question of homogeneity versus diversity isn’t found at one level or institution alone. Within politics as a whole, one could apply the dichotomy to the press, MP’s, the civil service, the voting public, governmental institutions at all levels, access to power, etc. Yet the answer will always be the same; the more homogeneous a system is, the more vulnerable it becomes. Issues such as proportional representation, donor transparency and accountability, and the centralisation of power (see point 5) therefore come to the fore.
Between Labour and the Conservatives, the two dominant parties contesting the election, there is a general consensus in terms of political economy. Both broadly accept the neoliberal model, to the extent of agreeing that austerity is a necessary component of future economic policy. While it is encouraging to see alternative views being expressed by minority parties that are slowly gaining support, we are a far cry from the two party ideological dichotomy the UK experienced for the majority of the 20th century, and so is more homogeneous.
This homogeneity will have two consequences, I believe. One, on inherently uncertain matters that receive undue cross-party support, maladaptive path-dependencies will (and have, I would argue, with regard to austerity) emerge that will cause increasing tension. Two, and in reaction to the prior dynamic, the system will succumb to rapid change. If we are lucky, this change will be in the form of a new political movement unhindered by established power. If power resists however, the only thing that will be accomplished is an ever decreasing likelihood of our being lucky.
3. Given the inherent uncertainties involved in complex adaptive systems, it is best to avoid potentially long-term path dependencies, and seek to maximise agility and adaptive capacity.
Path-dependencies represent risk. Therefore it is vital that decisions with the potential to lock-in massive resources for a long period of time be taken very carefully, transparently, and with clear accountability. Additionally, path dependencies that feature modern technology should simply be laughed out of the room at this point in time. I’m looking at you HS2 and Trident, for which both points apply.
Technology is progressing at such a pace that the idea of spending tens of billions of pounds on a rail systems that wont be ready for 20 years simply should not be entertained, especially I would argue at a time when cuts are so vigorously being sought in areas of social policy (I’d respect ideologues more if they were at least consistent). There is every chance the country will be serviced by a fleet of flying autonomous, hydrogen and solar powered vehicles by 2035. This kind of long-term thinking and scenario building is vital to consider in politics, and where once this was relatively simple, today’s world of parabolic technological advance demands adaptability, not 20 year turnaround times for yesterday’s technology.
4. Also due to inherent uncertainties, the management of complex adaptive systems requires an iterative process of planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation to identify potential maladaptive pathways and adjust/reverse policy where necessary. This is important in order to identify unforeseen feedback effects early, before they accelerate out of control.
It is easy to form the impression of politics today that policies are introduced to great fanfare and promise, only to not work, be counter-productive, and either require yet more reorganisation, or else be allowed to slip into obscurity never to be mentioned again (ahem,
A cynics (justifiable?) view of policy implementation
A cynics (justifiable?) view of policy implementation (click to enlarge)
Big Society). Rarely are policy failures the mistake of those designing and implementing the policy; it is all to easy to view complex adaptive systems subjectively and come up with any number of unforeseen problems that were entirely beyond his or her control. Failure is not only unavoidable, it should be welcomed. Failure done right, with adequate monitoring, assessment, and sharing of information, is data that everyone can use. Only through accepting and embracing failure and uncertainty, rather than the traditional misplaced confidence and bluster of ideologues, can we hope to advance.
Instead of a linear process of guess, impose, and take credit or shift blame, we need a circular process, an evolving dynamic that focuses on predictable means, not unpredictable ends. It needs to constantly monitor policy holistically, and be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Politicians
5. Our inability to confidently model highly complex adaptive systems means an experimental approach is required. Without data rigorous comparative data, prediction is simply fancy guesswork.
To embrace failure in as productive way as possible, we need to be able to experiment. While it would be ethically dubious and highly problematic for a central authority to impose different policies on different people at random, one could get the same effect through maximally devolving our political system. Subsidiarity therefore represents what I think to be the most compatible political model with complexity theory. This is the optimal way to generate the much needed comparative data, mitigate the risks associated with centralised, top-down, system-wide policy implementation, and maximise opportunities to find, share, and amplify successes.
In conclusion
For politics to be compatible with complexity theory, policy and practice would need to: ensure devolution of powers to a subsidiarity model, and promote experimentation and information sharing; practice iterative policy planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation cycles in a transparent and participatory fashion; substantially increase the diversity of actors and perspectives influencing policy, across multiple lines such as race, gender, class, etc.; take into account the place of our political system within the wider, global system we are a part of; and to promote diversity and civic freedom at all levels, and in all sectors of society, particularly the press.
It is clear then that the established parties are far from anything approaching this ideal. After all, the AV vote referendum alone was touted as a once-in-a-lifetime change, and even that failed. Certainly some of the smaller parties are attempting to go in the right direction, be it over devolution, anti-austerity, or renewing participation through the use of social media. However, at least this time around, there appears little chance that significant change of the like I have outlined will result from this election, regardless of whether Labour or the Conservatives win. Even if Scotland were to get independence, the end result would merely be greater homogeneity for both Scotland and the rest of the UK!
In my opinion, the most likely best-case scenario would be the sudden rise of a brand new political party in England, a la Podemos in Spain, or a sudden surge in support for one or more of the smaller parties, such as the Greens, a la Syriza in Greece or the Pirate Party in Iceland. It is certainly a better scenario than what might cascade should neoliberal hegemony still reign in British politics in the aftermath of another financial crash.

Individual versus collective? Stop being so 20th Century.

There was a fantastic article in the Guardian on Sunday, the 9th of August. ‘The mistake we all make, and the simple experiment that reveals it’ may sound like Buzzfeed click-bait, but it was actually a fascinating and hugely important argument by Richard Nisbett about the difference between individualistic and holistic thinking.  The trick, sorry, experiment, in question featured this picture:

“One of my favourite experiments, conducted by the social psychologist Takahiko Masuda, asks Japanese and American college students to rate the expression of the central figure in a cartoon where he is surrounded by other faces [see the Observer Magazine’s own version on page 21). Japanese students rate the central figure as less happy when he’s surrounded by sad figures (or angry figures) than when he’s surrounded by happier figures. The Americans were much less affected by the emotion of the surrounding figures. (The experiment was also carried out with sad or angry figures in the centre and with happy, sad, or angry faces in the background, with similar results.)”
Although I hadn’t heard about these studies, I am not at all surprised by the findings. It has been clear to me for a long time that much of Western philosophy and culture struggles with the object/context relationship regarding self and identity, and that Eastern philosophy is far more compatible with complexity theory for not having this issue.
“Easterners tend to have a holistic perspective on the world. They see objects (including people) in their contexts, they’re inclined to attribute behaviour to situational factors, and they attend closely to relationships between people and between objects. Westerners have a more analytic perspective. They attend to the object, notice its attributes, categorise the object on the basis of those attributes and think about the object in terms of the rules that they assume apply to objects of that particular category.”
This is the unintended path dependency that underlies so much of what is wrong about the West, in this new, 21st Century context. It is also the one criticism I have for following a scientific skepticism way of thinking, and the reason I left that community. Reductionism can be (arguably always) arbitrary in complex systems when describing emergent characteristics. This can create unfalsifiable interpretations of the same phenomena that, even if pointing in the same direction, give the illusion of incompatibility to those who speak different cultural languages, or who have drawn different arbitrary divides. This is also why the 21st century belongs not to the West.
When a cultural artifact is so engrained into a society that it has actually changed the way we think, it is incredibly hard to adjust quickly. We have thousands of years of cultural capital all around us founded on this lack, even rejection, of holistic thinking.
I suspect that it is far easier to add science to holism, than it is to add holism to science.
This is because for science, you have set rules – trust the evidence. use the scientific method for everything. For complexity, as with social science, the evidence is always interpretable, and so a whole new way of thinking is required, one that does not have the certainty of evidence showing clear cause and effect.
As the world continues in a whirl of exponentially scientific advance, the East will have thousands of years of their own cultural capital to draw upon to understand it, tradition that is inherently compatible with the networked, complex, world we are creating. To not view the whole in the 21st century will be seen as backward, heretical, dangerous. A deficiency, a virus the Earth will be figuratively trying to sweat out.
We’ve done the reductionist swing to the individual for hundreds of years now. It has gone too far. Now we need to slow the compartmentalisation, the specialisation, and the arbitrary barriers (IP, borders, money) that deny us emergence of new ways of living. We need to understand that *we* are the system, the system is us, both important, both needed to be included.
Not extreme capitalism that denies the system. Not extreme socialism that denies the individual. That is the 20th Century talking. We need to collectively decide what works best, where and when, free from ideologies demands for hegemony, free from ancient institutions that have lost all trace of imagination. And I think we will need Latin America and Asia to lead the way.