Good that we have the radio to listen to, news and weather reports – how convenient it is to hop on a bus to work in the morning – I must post that letter before last collection today – how lucky we are to receive medical care when needed – what an amazing thing to send kids off to school to learn something before bedtime – so convenient to be able to book movie tickets on the Internet – isn’t it a great asset to switch on a light in the black of night and check a window rattling in the wind?
The list goes on
We live within a complexity system called society. What’s listed above is some of what we expect from the place we live in. It’s as if it’s always been there, and always will be. If it collapsed tomorrow, the things we accept, and indeed rely on, might vanish.
This is exactly what happened when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. Apparently it is something that can happen to any society, within any country. It’s only a matter of time.
In a conversation on the radio this morning, someone suggested that efficiency within a society could be looked on as a threat that could precipitate collapse or at least make for a less robust society in the face of possible collapse. Funny enough, less efficient societies tend to be more resilient and more resourceful in crisis, or so mathematicians tell us.
Less efficient societies tend to possess repetitiveness within their makeup. They embody many processes within processes that are duplicated throughout their entirety. This feature of being recursively elaborate appears to be a strength within a society rather than a weakness.
Contrary to expectation, high efficiency makes a society vulnerable. Maintaining efficiency means that the administration of resources is fine tuned, so there are fewer margins for adjustment. When things get financially or operationally tight, high efficiency can become a critical, vulnerable weakness.
Close to crisis
A society always runs close to possible crisis and collapse when it relies on a single provider of essential commodities. The hierarchical nature of the management of these commodities means that the job of managing them becomes more complex. Unfortunately, societies tend to evolve by developing hierarchies of control like this.
Ultimately one person has to embrace the complexity of the whole system, a task that sooner or later becomes impossible and therefore unworkable. A decentralised or distributed network structure for administering such a task would be more vigorous and manageable.
If we look around for a stable, vigorous and safe system built on a distributed network structure, we need look no further than the Internet. It has no central hub. It consists of many independent, yet interlinked nodes. If one node is knocked out, the operation of most if not all of the remaining nodes can continue as before.
From a lay perspective, and not being a mathematician, I look on complexity in a system as something that’s unpredictable, yet recognisable. The collapse of the Soviet Union occurred because of its high degree of complexity - true. My hunch tells me that, perhaps, the Soviet Union contained elements that actually reduced its degree of complexity. High complexity does not necessarily mean vulnerability.
For instance, I wouldn’t consider the existence of monopolies as being a feature of complex systems. Their existence is a feature of how societies have evolved over time. Monopolies comprise complicated engines around which whole systems depend. They represent vulnerable nodes within any system.
Oligopolies contribute to what are recognisable parts of complexity systems. As a group of nodes, they fit one of the key characteristics of a complexity system, that of being recursively elaborate. If one such node becomes extinct, the system can still function comfortably by using the other nodes.
Education as we know it
Might it be that the maintenance and preservation of future society is brought about by tending a degree of recursive elaborateness within that society? It’s what has kept education simmering for hundreds of years. Yet in many countries today, the signs are that education as we know it appears to be reaching a crisis point.
Is there something to be learnt here?