Falling Into Chaos

Lets get complex. Not complicated. Not chaotic (not yet). Definitely not simple. Complex.

To get a little deeper into why everything is broken, we’re going to need to some kind of framework – here’s one that someone else made earlier. Imagine the world consists of – and also can be thought of as – five different kinds of systems:

  • Simple systems where effect follows very reliably and obviously from cause.
  • Complicated systems also have cause and effect but things are – well – complicated. You need to analyse and investigate – but that analysis and investigation should not effect the system itself.
  • Complex systems consist of lots of interacting actors. Causes and effects are related but not consistent. You need to try something and see if it works. If it does then you need do more of it. If it doesn’t then you need to try something else.
  • Chaos is, well, chaotic. There is no cause and effect. You just have to do something. Tyrants and dictators love chaos because “they alone can fix it”.
  • Disorder? Well, in disorder, you don’t know where you are. So you go with what you know.

Here is a short video by David Snowden (one of the creators of this framework) that explains this better. Pay particular attention to the discussion that occurs at 6:42. And here’s a picture.

The boundary between simple and chaotic is catastrophic. Things are going well, the sun is shining, everything is right with the world. Simple. We stop paying attention to what’s going on (“Oh, look, a puppy, a shiny thing, a nasty tweet”). We neglect to attend. Meanwhile the world is changing. The ground is moving beneath our feet. We look up at the sky unaware of the precipice towards which we inch. And then we fall into chaos.

Another metaphor contains stabilizers and dampeners. The whole point of our social institutions are that they contain, dampen and direct our animal instincts. We are perverted into normality. As these institutions decay, their powers wane and the system starts to tear itself apart. Or to put it another way.

My fear is that we may have already crossed his boundary about 18 months ago. But we may still be on its edge.

What next? Cynefin implies that there are two pathways open to us.

  1. We fall into chaos. True tyrants take control. Large numbers of people start dying. This is not good.
  2. We go complex. We grow new structures or regrow existing ones to enable us to restabilize our societies. Most of these efforts will fail but some will succeed. And we won’t know which ones until we try.

We don’t have much time.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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12 Responses to Falling Into Chaos

  1. johnniemoore says:

    The Cynefin framework (model?) has been really useful. The best part for me is the distinction between complex and complicated, and understanding that is really helpful in figuring out how to deal with life’s trickier issues.

    Dave’s point about the cliff edge between Simple and Chaotic resonates, I can how you might think of the madness around things like Brexit that way. But I’m not sure that boundary really merits special treatment in that way. I think this is because I’m not sure any of the boundaries are ever that clear. How we define any issue/problem/situation will affect which domain we stick it in, and for most of these, different participants will frame the situation differently. What one person experiences as chaos, another will simple see as complex. I think Dave suggests many of us have preferences for one domain over another.. if that’s true, I think I probably tend to see most things as complex.

    You can put a game of tic-tac-toe in the simple domain but only by excluding any description of the mindset of the participants. It’s simple, but what if you are playing against Chewbacca?

  2. innotecture says:

    “I’m not sure any of the boundaries are ever that clear” – I suspect that Dave would agree with you given his comments in this recent post: https://cognitive-edge.com/blog/liminal-cynefin-revised/

    Dave can argue his position better than me but the description of compacency, drift and the catastrophic fold makes intuitive sense to me – for exactly things like Brexit. I suspect that the boundaries are only every fully clear in hindsight. Equally some people are are constantly seeing a fall into chaos (“today’s apocalypse is…”) and some people never do.

    “It’s simple, but what if you are playing against Chewbacca?” And that’s the case now right? We’re all Wookies…

  3. Focusing a bit on the dampeners and stabilizers – in the social/political context you present, I believe we lack agreement on constitutes good or bad ones. I once presented Cynefin to a senior national security type under Bush, and she got it immediately. “We saw things like the situation in Iran (student uprising) as chaotic and thought about what would constitute a restoration of order. Instead, the situation was complex, with several attractors!” Yes, and what I wish I’d said in response: “But there is no agreement on the definition of order.” This applies today in Syria: Some see the House of Assad now as an illegitimate regime, while others believe supporting it is the best path to ‘restoring order.’

    If we can’t agree on what constitutes a more stable environment, then we will not agree on specific dampeners or stabilizers. Stabilizers, by definition, support the status quo more than change. Brexit supporters and some within the current White House seek chaos as a means to an end. They seek change and restructuring of basic institutions (or at least their deconstruction, I do not claim to understand what new institutions are proposed). The use of dampeners (and their counterpart, exciters) imply agreement on what constitutes good versus bad patterns. In many important capitols, for many reasons, we lack that basic agreement.

    There is no such thing as an inoperable tumor. What exists are tumors whereby the only procedures that can remove them will also kill the patient. The current tools are now useless, because they will kill as they heal. If we can’t agree on what tools to use, we are out of options. And possibly time. Rescue operations usually transition at some point to recovery operations.

    • Tonyjoyce says:

      I’m not sure that we can consider dampers as a constraint when we think about the collapse from Obvious (simple) into the Chaotic. Getting back to Matt’s context, the chaotic is unpredictable and doesn’t provide direct cues to our stimulus. If we consider the obvious to be responsive to the much maligned Best Practice, this tells us that if we try hard to do good work (praxis) we can sometimes achieve our desired effect in an obvious context. If this occasional success is the Best outcome we can expect, pray tell what is Novel practice? I suspect in this scenario that the chaotic outcome is something totally unexpected. In another word, the novel practice is a revolution.

      • innotecture says:

        “In another word, the novel practice is a revolution” – exactly. Which is a very risky option but may be the only option left. I’m 50/50 on whether the paths out of this are complex (rescue/rebuild) or chaotic (revolution). I genuinely don’t know how this is going to play out.

    • innotecture says:

      John – I think that this deserves a longer reply than I can probably give it here. I agree that there is basic disagreement about the kind of world we want and the level of chaos we are willing to drop into. My personal belief is that most Brexiteers and Trumpistas want change – they can only dimly articulate what that change is, it’s mostly a feeling, a nostalgia (which literally mean “homecoming pain”). They have a pain that they want to salve. Now I think that in most cases they want to return to a partially remembered history.when life was awesome. Their actions won’t lead to that but they see no other credible options.

      The old stabilizers and dampeners are decayed or broken – possibly beyond repair. What I don’t think most commentators realize is that we can’t go back. Impeaching Trump is not going fix the structural problems that we have.

      So hence I think we need to develop new institutions or radically adapt existing ones. The nature of complex systems means that we cannot sit down and agree a priori what the goals, dampeners or exciters should be. We have to do what we can and see what works.

      To your final point, the metaphor is a tricky one. I think we need to develop new tools and we also need to accept that parts of the patient are not going to make it. What complicates matters further is that we are operating on ourselves and we appear to be blind drunk,

  4. If we’re talking about politics primarily, then the best guide to how to handle such situations comes from studying history. History will give us access to cognitive and conceptual tools that can help to understand current contingencies. If you want a language of power, then history is the best guide. If you want a language that can deal with any level of complexity the world throws at us, then history can help. You need to go back to the source for guidance. Remember: everything comes from the Arts. It’s all words. The words we use determine the quality of the outcomes we are able to achieve. We need to have good words to use to understand today, and to get them we need to look back.

    • innotecture says:

      As Karl Marx wrote: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, third as TV cooking competition reality show, fourth as a clip compilation programme with second rate comedians as talking heads”.

      Or to put it another way, history gives us a set of examples that we can learn from, none of which exactly fit our situation.

      The aforementioned Dave Snowden & crew have written a fair bit about the uses & limitations of history:

      Obviously as a historian, I am a fan of approaches that incorporate history.

    • Not sure I made myself understood very well but we’ll give it another go. I think that mere analogues from history are going to be hard to find but what you do find is that habits of mind deriving from long exposure to the historical method can help you to find stability and peace when confronted by complicated things in the current epoch. You can see trends, identify patterns, and draw useful conclusions instead of just being blown about like a piece of paper in the wind. Many people find the contemporary world hard to grasp in an existential sense, and so can become disillusioned, cynical or despondent. They might find it easier to withdraw from the world rather than engage with it. But if you have been educated in a way that allows you to generalise from particulars – something that writers in general tend to do, not just historians – then you will be better anchored in a reality that still lets you achieve some peace of mind.

      • innotecture says:

        I think we’re actually very close here. History gives you a rich source of patterns that you can generalize, analogize, and make new connections.

        I’d also suggest that science fiction and fantasy can aid this process too: https://hbr.org/2017/07/why-business-leaders-need-to-read-more-science-fiction

        Altho the issue with a lot of sci-fi is that it’s just not radical enough in its breaks with reality (thinly disguised libertarian allegories being particularly common).

  5. Matthew Ford says:

    There is a general sense that the feedback loops between cause/effect have broken: what politicians say will happen, doesn’t translate into meaningful change. That appears to be a function of modern society. My view is that this stretches back to well before 2010, maybe to a point in Moore’s Law where sophisticated modelling became commonplace.

    We can see this in warfare, arguably the very definition of chaos. Armies seek to impose order through technology. The goal is to use the technology to produce a degree of certainty and thus lift the fog of war.

    Unfortunately, however, even despite these best efforts, cause/effect relationships are not always possible and never easy to trace. This is because soldiers report gossip for fact, experiences don’t match and datasets are difficult to reconcile. The result is that planners model for correlations and consequently statistics become proxies for linking factors in a causal manner.

    This inability to identify cause/effect relations creates unease. It does this in the military where stats don’t reflect the infantryman’s experience. This in turn produces social distrust and unease with the technical choices that are being adopted.

    But this phenomena isn’t limited to the military. The disparity between population size group analysis and individual experience produces circumstances that suggest the solution lies in taking control yourself. That impulse emerges because people can see inputs to change but they can’t see the outputs from this effort.

    The technocratic politics of the post-Cold War era has exaggerated this sense of alienation. For at least twenty years, decisions have been taken by those who have the expertise to manage and make sense of large data sets, producing population sized analyses that has clearly produced a sense of victimhood & certainly a strong sense of inertia. This has been very successful at depoliticising decision making which in turn plays into the hands of the technocrats.

    This technocratic turn has produced good governance. However, you can also link the inability to identify cause/effect relations to the rise of distrust in experts & expertise. It is the people who can still frame change and do so without recourse to the masses that are now the distrusted. It is these people who have power and it is these people who must be defenestrated.

    • innotecture says:

      “My view is that this stretches back to well before 2010” – Yes, it feels like it was at some point in the long 1990s (9 Nov 1989 – 11 Sept 2001) but it’s hard to be sure.

      “cause/effect relationships are not always possible and never easy to trace” – I’d go further than this and say that, while data and intel can give insight and advantage, some elements of a battle are ultimately unknowable with our current technology. The fog of war, at some level of granularity, becomes solid.

      “This has been very successful at depoliticising decision making which in turn plays into the hands of the technocrats.” And this has been a massive mistake n the long term even if it has worked on occasion in the short term. Technocracy reflects a fear of democratic politics – some how the magic expertise fairies will solve all our problems for us with their fancy spreadsheets. And they can’t. We find ourselves back to fighting with each other with the technocrats standing on the sidelines, fanning themselves with their policy papers.

      BTW a point that David Runciman makes is that we have different technocracies in the world. The West are dominated by central bankers & financiers. China is ruled by engineers. Xi Jinping has a degree in Chemical Engineering, UK politics has been dominated by Oxford PPE grads.

      There is a post on Fear of Politics coming shortly. Technocrats will play a starring role. N.B. I am not some Gove-ian anti-expert, but expertise needs to operate within a political structure, not above it.

      “It is the people who can still frame change and do so without recourse to the masses that are now the distrusted. It is these people who have power and it is these people who must be defenestrated.”

      I think we’ll see how that goes. As tempting as it would be to “retire with extreme prejudice” the entire ruling class of the Western world, that’s tough to achieve in practice and it may not give up the results that we want. Many of those feeding the groups hungry for change are simply The Establishment in drag. And the bigger risk is that we simply change the faces at the top and don’t tackle the underlying structural issues that we face. So the whole cycle repeats 3-5 years later.

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