Individual vs Collective?

I am noticing that there seems to be a gentle stream of ‘retreatism’ in some modes of thought. The idea seems to be that the ‘crowd’ is bad, that social life is somehow corrupting and, that faced with the world situation, and the Anthropocene in particular we have to move into our own, somehow special individuation.

To me this is a partial truth, and needs expansion. It may also be true that in specific times of life, when aging, or facing immanent death, or in the midst of illness, this may be the best thing for some of us to do. I just don’t think it is a good strategy for a general approach to deal with ecological crisis or political instability. That we recognise that humans affect the world, does not mean we can correct the effects by ‘going away’. All life forms affect the world. At the moment humans are perhaps affecting it disproportionately, and we may not be able to afford retreat from that recognition.

This mode of retreat seems to be based a non-ecological mode of thinking, and in a situation of, shall we say, degrading relationships, it seems to imply that individuals are disconnected, self tending units, and could lead to further degradation.

At the biological level we are colonies, or interactive ‘systems’, of multiple creatures. Much of our body weight, when we subtract the water, contains ‘foreign’ DNA. Even our cells may depend on what were originally external organisms (mitochondria have their own DNA). We are not a single biological being. At the psychological level, depth psychology appears to uncover that we have multiple psyches, and layers of psyche: ‘complexes’, personal unconsciousness, collective unconsciousness, archetypes, or whatever. If you are more into neurology then we have, at least, a hind brain, a mid brain and two hemispheres, all of which may function independently, and communicate with difficulty. Other researchers add neurological centres in the heart and the solar plexus. We are psychologically multiple interactive systems. We are not so much engaged in dialogues, but in ‘multi-logues’.

We are also social creatures. We think with borrowed, badly copied or modified thoughts. We feel with borrowed, emulated and modified feelings and desires. We think with others and in reaction to others. Without singular amounts of effort we cannot live alone, and when young we cannot live alone at all. We are interdependent with others as interactive systems. The boundaries are fuzzy, we blend into each other and are interpenetrated by each other. The same is true of our ecology, we modify it, it modifies us, and that is happening between billions of creatures simultaneously. It again is a set of interactive systems: that is the nature of being.

We are both collaborative and competitive, and are so at many levels, individually, group, nationally etc… Sometimes what we think is working together is working against each other.

Consequently, the individual and the collective do not seem to me to be separate, or even opposing, poles. Certainly, not in the sense that one is enlightened and that the other is ignorant. They work together, and against each other, always. We are always in multi-logues. The question is how to work together as productively as possible. What follows are some suggestions.

First point seems to me to recognise that we are massively unconscious. We do not perceive most of this working together or against each other; we cannot perceive all of it; we probably cannot understand all of it; and we cannot predict it – this is true of both our inner and outer lives (and these lives are not separate; the boundaries are continually fuzzy and porous).

Second point may be that given this unconsciousness, unpredictability and porous boundaries, full retreat is impossible – we are always in the systems whether we like it or not. What is needed is a set of day to day techniques to deal with events we are unconscious of. We may need to fully engage with our senses, fully engage with our symbolic capacities, fully engage with our ability to listen in the widest sense.

Third point. Because we cannot fully understand, we may need to suspend our sense that we do understand. We all think we understand. Often understanding involves blame, condemnation and scapegoating, which are processes which almost automatically stop our ability to listen and understand. (We may even condemn ‘thinking’, or ‘lack of spirituality’, or ‘spirituality’ itself, when humans automatically appear to think, or have some spiritual orientation towards the cosmos.) That is one reason why the techniques are so popular; they fill the gaps, stop us being puzzled and preserve our egos and their understandings. So it could be useful if we recognise that whatever we think is right, could be wrong, no matter how right it seems.

Fourth point. Premature and enforced understanding, automatically produces unintended consequences. It is the order that produces the disorder it fears. It makes things worse. It stops us listening to the world, it stops correction by reality. It nearly always produces action and may sometimes be necessary.

Fifth point. We need to correct our understanding. We do this not just in retreat, although retreat is valuable – everything needs rest – but we do it in interaction with the world. It is only interaction that can give correction or show us the consequences of that understanding (if we look/listen).

Sixth point. While our ego (consciousness) tends to seek repetition and fixed understanding, we can remember that we have multiple and unconscious modes of understanding and wisdom which may see things differently; that may add to our conscious understanding, even if our ego resists. Bad feelings can tell us that we are thinking ‘badly’ or incorrectly. Dreams can give us symbolic representations of reality which include events that our consciousness may not want to admit. The same is true of art and story. A sense of unease can be informative (perhaps it is our heart thinking?). If we really hold to the understanding that things/events/people/ecologies are interconnected and boundaries are fuzzy, and that our orders may not always be good, then maybe we can see more ‘data’ to help improve our understanding. All of these messages and data need evaluation through interaction with reality, but they can potentially add to understanding. We all have ‘inner wisdom’, but it is not just found in retreat, it is also found in an attentive and open daily life.

Seventh point. Response to crisis should probably be an oscillatory process. We go ‘inside’ to our hidden wisdoms, we go ‘outside’ to the interacting or multi-loguing world, we go ‘inside’ again and so on. If we remain isolated or unthinking individuals then it is possible we will be worse than ignored, we will lose some of our internal power as it does not go into the world, we will become complicit in that loss.

This is not a protest against doing inner work, but saying that inner work is part of outer work, it is not separate. I am also not remotely against the idea of multi-logue, but admit it can be difficult and upsetting to our egos, and this can be good.

However, I am suggesting that when we recognise that oppression or destruction is likely to come, or is coming, then people may need to formally join together to protect themselves and protect others. The more understanding we have, gained from participation and challenge, then the less likely that this joining will be violent, condemnatory or exclusionary; the more likely we will be responding to reality rather than to our limited understandings of reality.

Complexity, Uncertainty, Emergence and Creativity

by Esko Kilpi – originally posted on Esko Kilpi on Interactive Value Creation

“If you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change.”

Max Planck

Mulberry-Street-New-York-City1Complexity means a different theory of causality

The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature of all complex systems.

The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “it” to happen. The mainstream approach is that an arrow, or arrows, can be drawn. There is a variable, the “it”, that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. Causality means that X causes Y. If there is more X there will also be more Y. This is the if-then model of management. In organizations, a familiar explanation for success is that a particular manager or a particular culture caused it.

But there is something significant happening today. Scholars are increasingly pointing out the fact that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is much too simplistic and leads to a very limited or even faulty understanding of what is really going on.

Cybernetics recognized a much more complicated causality. In this kind of system the arrows, the links, between cause and effect can be distant in terms of time or place. The system can be highly sensitive to some changes but very insensitive to some others. For the first time, it was understood that it is a non-linear world.

Complexity challenges the assumption of earlier systems theories that movement in time can be predictable in the sense that X causes Y, or that the movement follows some archetypes. The modelling differs significantly from all previous systems models.

Complexity means a different theory of causality.

The most important insight is that it is often not possible to identify specific causes that yield specific outcomes. Almost indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force. And afterwards you can’t trace back, you can’t find the exact butterfly that flapped its wings. There is no trail that leads you to an independent variable.

The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature of all complex systems. It is a dynamic in time that is called paradoxically stable instability or unstable stability. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.

In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how absolutely all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. None of the elements cause the end result independently. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather, the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was just one. In the same way, a rude remark does not start a fight. The argument starts as a combination of an offensive remark and a coarse response.

The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings complex relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these relationships.

Complex relationships cannot be understood through spatial metaphors such as process maps or network charts. Unhelpful or wrong models and metaphors are often a big obstacle to moving our thinking forward after the technological constraints are gone.

We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. There is no inside and outside. An organization is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time. Industrial management was a particular pattern based on specific assumptions about communication, causality and human psychology.

Recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to what mainstream economics would have us believe. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people.

The focus of industrial management was on the division of labor and the design of vertical/horizontal communication channels. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on transparency, interdependence and responsiveness.

Looking at communication, not through it, is what we are creating together.


Emergence and self-organization

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means.

Many people say that open source software developers have the most efficient ecosystems for learning that have ever existed. What is it, then, that is so special about the way developers do things? Is there something that could act as a model for the future of work, or the future of education?

What takes place in open source projects is typically not the result of choices made by a few (powerful) people that others blindly implement. Instead, what emerges is the consequence of the choices of all involved in the whole interconnected network, “the connective”, as Stowe Boyd puts it. What happens does not follow exactly a plan or a design, what happens emerges. It is about the hard to understand process of self-organization.

We still don’t quite understand what emergence and self-organization mean. The problem is that we believe that the unit of work is the independent individual. Self-organization is then thought to mean that individuals organize themselves without the direction of others. People think that it is a form of empowerment, or a do-whatever-you-like environment, in which anybody can choose freely what to do.

But connected people can never simply do what they like. Cooperating individuals are not, and cannot be, independent. People are interdependent.  Interdependence means that individuals constrain and enable each other all the time. What happens, happens always in interaction and as a result of interaction.

According to the present approach to management, planning and enactment of the plans are two separate domains that follow a linear causality from plans to actions. From the perspective of open source development, organizational outcomes explicitly emerge in a way that is never just determined by a few people, but arises in the ongoing local interaction of all the people taking part. For example GitHub “encourages individuals to fix things and own those fixes just as much as they own the projects they start”.

What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning, or management, as pointless, but means that the future always contains surprises that the managers cannot control. The future cannot be predicted just by looking at the plans.

Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

No one can step outside this interaction to design interaction for others.

An organization is not a whole consisting of parts, but an emergent pattern in time that is formed in those local interactions. It is a movement that cannot be understood just by looking at the parts. The time of reductionism as a sense-making mechanism is over.

What we can learn from the open source ecosystems is that organizational sustainability requires the same kind of learning that these software developers already practice: “All work and learning is open and public, leaving tracks that others can follow. Doing and learning mean the same thing.”

The biggest change in thinking that is now needed is that the unit of work and learning is not the independent individual, but interdependent people in interaction. Creativity is the default state of all human work. Even the most creative people are more remixers of other peoples’ ideas than lone inventors. Technology and development in general are not isolated acts by independent thinkers, but a complex storyline.


Thank you Ralph Stacey, Ken Gergen, Doug Griffin, Jim Wilk, Marko Ahtisaari, Katri Saarikivi, Doug Griffin, David Weinberger, and Ken Gergen.

Images: Mulberry Street, New York City,” ca. 1900, Library of CongressPhoto: Felix Pharand Deschenes / Michelle McKinney, artist.

Esko Kilpi explores an intellectual foundation for post-industrial work at Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki. He also shares his time with the Adianta School for Leadership and Innovation in New Delhi and his own ensemble. Esko Kilpi Company consists of a group of researchers and strategists. The focus of the group is on combining the art of interaction, the sciences of social complexity, and the design of digitally native practices. Their theoretical framework comes from sociology, relational psychology, network theory, computer science, cognitive neuroscience, and sciences of complexity.

Lecturer at Aalto University:
Twitter: @EskoKilpi / Email / Phone +358 400 501800

McKenzie Wark: Rethinking the Anthropocene

Tar Sands Mining photo by Garth Lenz

(Social) Theory for the Anthropocene

McKenzie Wark / First published in The Future We Want / Nov 2, 2015

So what becomes of social theory in the Anthropocene? Well, maybe it could no longer be about the social. Maybe it would no longer be possible to take the social as given, as an artifact for thought. It is rather more messy and complicated connections to the non-social might have to be more evident. This might itself be one of the tasks that a non- or extra-social theory might set itself.

I want to make a distinction here between theory and philosophy. I take philosophy to mean a tradition, a sequence of texts and their teachings. Philosophy is what gets taught as philosophy. I want to use the term theory for something else, for something that arises out of situations rather than institutions. Theory is the practice of forming and using concepts in situations that can arise in everyday life.

So what then is theory for the Anthropocene? It might be theory to be used in some fashion in a certain situation. Now, call this situation whatever you damn well like. Call in the the Anthropocene, or the Manthropocene, or the Misanthropocene, or the Chthulucene, or the Capitalocene. Call it metabolic rift. Just call it something. And by calling it something, recognize that one is naming a situation.

That situation is one in which the sum total of social labor undermines its own conditions of planetary existence. There is no longer an outside, a margin, an elsewhere, to dump the waste products of that labor and pretend this disorder that we make has gone away. That disorder now feeds back through the whole metabolism of the planet. It has done so for a while, it will keep doing so, in a sense, forever. There is no ‘environment’ or ‘nature’ that is separate. There is no ‘ecology’ that could be in balance if we just withdrew from it.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views.

Certain basic ways of knowing about such things necessarily come to us only from the natural sciences. The best known example is carbon. Pulling carbon out of the ground and putting it into the air changes the climate. This might be one of the key phenomena of the Anthropocene. But it is only known through a vast apparatus, global in scope, of communication, computation, scientific cooperation.

Just as when Galileo declared in public that the earth goes around the sun, or when Darwin and Wallace declared in public that all species without exception are the products of evolution, once again the natural sciences have something to tell us that challenges existing world views. So one aspect of theory for the Anthropocene is to reopen the question of the relation the natural sciences to power, to culture, and to humanistic thought.

There’s a sort of reflex action via which theory tries to claim a higher ground to the sciences. But I don’t find that a satisfactory starting point for theory in the Anthropocene. We only know about the conditions of that ground in the first place from the natural sciences, in this case earth sciences rather than cosmology or biology.

Theory has to rethink its relation to ways of knowing that are not its own. I think we need to refuse to compete for dominance with other forms of knowledge and figure out how to cooperate with them. Neither resenting the power of the sciences nor pretending to a higher, more spiritual power is a way forward for theory in our current situation.

There’s plenty to be done. There’s worldviews to supersede and somehow replace. Our world is not just a heliocentric, evolving one. It is also one in which the world can no longer be treated as a thing apart, or an equilibrium, or a point of difference that can specify what is human, or historical or social. Our own actions are changing it, have changed it, irrevocably. And in ways that undermine and cancel the conditions of possibility for this life. So: we need other theories for other lives.

My own thinking about this has been about the question of labor in its relation to nature, and what counts as value. What if we defined ‘nature’ simply as that which labor encounters? How does cooperative labor, meshed as it is with an inhuman technical apparatus, present to what is human some knowledge and value about a nonhuman world? Can that ensemble of labor and apparatus value the world differently? Those are questions I have been thinking about.

Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years.

I don’t want to think about the Anthropocene from the point of view of capital. I think that leads to habits of thought in which capital is an eternal and an all-powerful totality. I find that disabling in the current situation. It also leads to the fantasy that if only it were possible to negate capital, then all our problems would be solved.

This is manifestly untrue. Were capitalism to be abolished tomorrow, the Anthropocene will persist, and for thousands of years. And we will still be faced with the problem of feeding and clothing and housing seven billion people. Not to mention doing triage on a multiplicity of webs of life that are in stress and decline.

In any case, it is clear that capitalism as a civilization is already over, and it knows it. The ruling class of our time knows it can make no claim to rule for anyone but themselves. Hence their instinct to hide from us, to spy on us, to arm and fortify themselves, and to plunder and loot like there is no tomorrow. Because there is no tomorrow. So we have to understand, and process the feeling, of living among the ruins. But the work of making another civilization has already begun. The next one will be a diminished one, in some respects.

If we understand that we are living in ruins, then we can understand that we do not have a tradition of knowledge that we can simply continue as if it where whole and intact and passing through an homogenous time. Rather, what we have are fragments, fragments not of a past but of possible futures. Theory for the Anthropocene will be made from a patch work of fragments, repurposed for the current situation, one which will last as far into the future as the western tradition imagines it stretches into the past. The philosophers have only interpreted the Anthropocene. The point however – to set a modest goal to start with – is to grasp how the Anthropocene has negated the possibility of merely continuing disciplinary thought.

But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

An impediment to getting on with the job is a species of denialism. Sure, there are climate denialists, some with extravagant funding from the fossil fuel industries, and so forth. But I am thinking more about the forms of everyday denial one encounters when talking about the Anthropocene among fairly enlightened audiences.

Firstly, there the relentless tendency to critique, but one which no longer has a sense of what the main concepts are that are in need of it. This is critique that loses sight of an agenda for thought. All concepts are fragile things. They are only ever slightly true. Their (weak) power is in their generality.

Secondly, treating the Anthropocene as fashion. Oh, first we were post structural, then we were postmodern, then there was the ontological turn, and so forth. The Anthropocene as an object of thought could become one of those moments, but its causes lies elsewhere. This time it’s a matter of dealing with results from outside social scientific and humanistic thought. It’s a matter of processing results from the sciences, but ones which have far more pressing and immediate consequences than dealing with the fact of a heliocentric universe.

Thirdly, there’s the opposite tendency: oh, we always knew this, nothing new under the sun, and so forth. This is mostly a problem of assimilating some new things to some old things that sound similar, but which are not. Its not the same thing as certain ecological and environmental ideas, although these turn out to be powerful and useful. Nor is it the same as familiar tropes about disaster, trauma or crisis.

Fourthly, a variant which wants to say this was already refuted. For example, Marx showed Malthus was wrong. Limits aren’t natural they are social and historical. Well, that there were ways to overcome limits to agricultural output in the past does not mean there are ways to overcome the rather more systematic constraints that are apparent in our time. This is to fall for an equally asocial and ahistorical argument, in which all constraints are only ever temporary. That past constraints were overcome does not in itself guarantee that current ones also can or will be.

Lastly, one confronts arguments along the lines that since one’s political adversaries are talking about the Anthropocene, it must therefore be only a political idea that belongs to their agenda and should be rejected out of hand. Ironically, both left and right make this same argument. The right rejects it as belonging to those who want to end capitalism and the left reject it as belonging to those who want to perpetuate it.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must.

In short, one has to cut through a lot of strategies of denial even to talk about the Anthropocene. But cut through one must. The question then becomes one of how the various social science and social theory traditions might go through their own resources and find the fragments that might be put to work in the present situation. There are probably resources in any tradition, whether you are a Weberian or an ANT or whatever. It is not very interesting to try to gain advantage for one’s little discursive world at the expense of another out of such a big question about the larger world.

And so while I have worked through the Marxist tradition, I don’t think it has any exclusive claim to useful concepts or results. But still: John Bellamy Foster opened up a way of thinking about the Anthropocene through Marx’s understanding of metabolic rift.

In Molecular Red I interpreted this in a slightly different way to Foster, drawing on the work of Donna Haraway and others. This involves a selection from the Marxist archive that is different to the accepted one. Among the western Marxists, Sartre’s concept of the practico-inert seems to me very powerful. It is a way of thinking about the inertia of social-technical forms, or what he called ‘serial’ forms. Just as one example, that seems to me a useful concept from within a well known literature.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for combing the archive for neglected resources. Foster thinks Marxists have rather overlooked Engels’ attempt to engage with the natural sciences. That attempt had its problems, but was perhaps preferable to withdrawing into the social and cultural.

Here I think the neglected work of Alexander Bogdanov on forms of collaboration between scientific, technical and other kinds of labor might have its uses. One has to lift the ban on this line of thought that unites otherwise disparate figures such as Lukacs and Althusser. The neglected resources include the scientific and technical side of Marxist praxis. Why are Joseph Needham and JD Bernal so neglected as major social thinkers? Or rather social-technical-natural thinkers?

Building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces.

There may well be resources in a more utopian vein as well. Charles Fourier had an entirely hallucinatory idea about how climates could change, but at least he had one. Compared to the realist fiction of his contemporaries, his writings are in some ways even more ‘realist’, in that unlike them he thinks about whose job it is to take out the trash. Here I think one can side-step that tradition coming out of Ernst Bloch that sees the utopian as a flash of the redemptive or messianic irrupting in the everyday. One can instead see the utopian as a speculative discourse on extremely practical matters.

These are just some of the resources that come to mind in the Marxist tradition within which I am familiar. One could find such resources elsewhere. But the project of a non- or extra- social theory for the Anthropocene seems to me to involve a double labor.

Firstly, a labor of selecting from available intellectual resources entirely on the basis of the demands of the situation at hand. Secondly, of building forms of collaborative scientific, technical, intellectual, organizational, affective and manual labor to confront the Anthropocene and find a path through the unstable time in announces. The question of the futures anyone might want has to be thought in the context of the futures that might still be possible.

Ken-Wark - portraitMcKenzie Wark is the author of Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso 2015) and various other things. Wark is professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and of liberal studies at the New School for Social Research, in New York City.

A more social kind of science

To encourage distributed robustness we should encourage exploration of the “adjacent possible” through local innovation, rapid prototyping and “fail safe” solutions whilst building in safeguards and respect for agreed limits. One size does not fit all.
Nov 4, 2015
All systems with any kind of living involvement are “soft” and exact science applied to such systems ultimately fails. As West Churchman pointed out in 1968 we face a “challenge to reason”. Also, I agree with Hannah Arendt: we are not Gods, so an appreciation of uncertainty and a more humble approach to Nature is appropriate. For living systems there are no Newtonian universal laws and no ultimate models. No laws entail in a world of distributed robustness: such “systems” are self-organised from the bottom up and what “laws” exist are encoded in the constraints on the reflexive behavior of the component agents.

For some engineering problems naïve realism and rationalism works (bridges do not usually fall down!) but, we are creating serious problems in disciplines like biology and infrastructure systems by using this approach on life.[1] As is commonly observed, top-down modelling and prediction of self-organised biological and social systems is fraught with danger.

With the rise of social media, of distributed sensing and of information systems giving us access to real-time data about network responses we are dealing more and more with a more social kind of science. (I am sure many scientists will call this a more social “kind-of” science!) Despite our best efforts at naïve realism and our wish that Jonah’s 1st law applies we are stuck with the 2nd law. Instead of structure determining function there is continuous and dynamic reflexive interchange between the two. Such systems are not formally computable.

I have argued that in 2nd order systems there is no system without an observer and that difference and meaning imply boundaries and define the environment. Different entities and agents will see different systems. In human terms this is particularly true in social and institutional contexts where differing mind and value sets defeat inter-disciplinarity (at least until a long process of discussion, alignment of vocabularies and mutual learning has been endured.) Ulrich Beck’s sub-politics make finding any consensus difficult.

A change of the scientific mindset is required to grasp the key role of adaptive localism in action and response. There are no universals in 2nd order systems. Distributed robustness ensures anti-fragile flexibility. Such systems are not optimal or equilibrium systems and we must expect non-stationary and uncertainty. Heterogeneity in design and in function ensures resilience rather than abrupt tipping points.

Such “systems” exhibit unstable and indiscernible cause-effect relationships because of adaptive and reflexive interactions. Distributed robustness gives rise to periods of “free run” between constraints as chance and contingency change components. Evidence is poor because of this. If there are any Bayesian priors they are low-level constraints like the evolved physiology and behaviour of the component agents. This is where we should seek explanations.

Given the importance of local options, chance, contingency and context in both the biological and the social realms, the best we can do may well be to avoid the worst through the management of the “supply side” context.[2] This means acknowledging and encouraging variability – not trying to eliminate it – expecting change and living with uncertainty. Infrastructure projects are usually designed by engineers to eliminate variability rather than work with it.

The rationalists revenge – the approach to systems and complexity via Big Data – can also lead to big error. Resorting to statistical and correlative approaches – effectively theory free science – is no help. We have known for a very long time that correlation does not mean causation and that equifinality disrupts the search for laws. This explains why repeatability is difficult, why there are an increasing number of retractions of manuscripts and “why most published research findings are false”.[3]

Risk cannot be managed in the usual manner – robust distributed systems minimise risk by quickly finding the adjacent possible. Throughout all this 1st and 2nd thoughts (thinking about thinking) are being constantly evaluated by 3rd thoughts. Organisms possess evolved anticipatory models and show intentional behaviour. At the human level the moral stance is becoming more and more important.

Localism in the social/institutional response involves taking into account regional differences in tastes, ethics, values, honour and esteem (even shame). These define the available options and preferences. System and component designs must take local cultures and beliefs into account. This is not an argument for relativism; there are natural and biophysical constraints on human actions. As I have agued for intrinsic and existential value in the ecosystems upon which we depend for our survival then, in various ways, these must be accorded local rights in addition to human interests. Mere monetisation does not suffice.

Accepting the natural variability and only intervening when a threshold is reached has led to progress in environmental management.[4] But, as we would now expect, these thresholds are debatable and set in social contexts.[5] Any such management requires close collaboration and sharing of data, values and intentions between institutions and local communities.

We now have the technology to be able to do this kind of thing in real time. Abandoning the use of universal models for analysis and prediction cuts against the grain of institutionalised science but the received approach is now being replaced by the acquisition of high frequency data combined with rapid social feedback through the incorporation of social media feeds in real time. Data can be obtained from simple in situ monitors.

It seems, in fact, that massive parameterised models – with their associated calibration and validation problems – can often be effectively replaced by distributed in situ data collected in real time. Rather than using a large 3-D hydrological model for flood prediction and warning, it is sufficient to merely have a network of in situ monitors reporting water level and rate of rise at key locations in real time.[6]

Active social engagement can now be encouraged by accessing Twitter feeds and the like in real time – using local residents (with all their values and differing mind sets) as reporters and data gatherers. This has recently been done in Jakarta through the project.[7] By combining data-gathering sensors with local people and their mobile phones, the SMART Infrastructure Facility at the University of Wollongong has effectively constructed one of the first real-time, self-organising socio-technical (SOST) systems.

We actually live in SOST systems, but the feedback (derived from weak evidence) is usually poor and the time lags (due to institutional and social inertia) are long. They have properties that are not amenable to standard scientific methodologies and management. To encourage distributed robustness we should encourage exploration of the “adjacent possible” through local innovation, rapid prototyping and “fail safe” solutions whilst building in safeguards and respect for agreed limits. One size does not fit all. To ensure fairness compensation must be paid locally (and must be seen to be paid). Nothing should be too big to fail, thus avoiding rorts and gaming of the system.

In dealing with natural and man-made self-organised systems we must seek collective solutions to design, management and restoration problems. Solutions between socialism and libertarianism must be found that respect difference and rely on trust, ethics, context and collaboration. Market-based solutions are insufficient because SOST systems are not “efficient”, market traders cannot have complete information and partial knowledge can lead to inequality, herding and other distortions. Market based solutions cannot be applied to intrinsic values either. These are plesionic systems so they must be dealt with on the basis of community justice, equity and fairness.

Massimo Pigliucci has analysed the basis of fairness at length in his “Rationally Speaking” blogs and has concluded that the ethical solution is a combination of virtue ethics and contractarianism – taking both individual and collective values and responsibilities into account.[8] We should remember there are ethical questions that science cannot answer.

Self-organised biological and socio-technical systems do show universal scaling but we must be careful how to interpret these results. The data must not be over-interpreted because many such systems show equifinal central limit phenomena. Where the data are adequate the overall patterns are derived from metabolic constraints on local interactions.[9]

Watersheds and other systems inhabited by people and organisms can exhibit 1/f scaling relationships that may have no stable statistical properties at all; thus making trend detection and analysis a very fraught prospect.[10] Taking averages in these systems is meaningless and destroys information. SOST are nowhere near an equilibrium state; they show non-stationary trajectories and non-normal statistical distributions Nevertheless new information and communications technologies that provide high-resolution data allow us to reveal hidden properties of these systems.[11]

This is a completely different approach from the usual consultant-driven Environmental Impact Statement boondoggle involving naïve realist predictive models with only lip service being paid to community consultation. [12]

The usual approach to EIS fails on both these counts; the assessments and predictions made are often useless because of epistemic uncertainty and, because the project and the solution are defined before any attempt at community consultation, the community feels disenfranchised. Unstructured complex issues, where cause and effect are unclear, suffer from conflicting values and disputes over what constitutes a fact. The technocratic regulatory model is no longer sufficient because the social commons has becoming the de facto regulator. As Esther Turnhout has written “participation creates citizens”.

Only a more social kind of science can address these concerns.

For footnotes go to:

Graham Harris

Professorial Fellow at SMART Infrastructure Facility, University of Wollongong

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