Tuesday, 6 October 2015

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.

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