Cracks in the Rear-View Mirror

Imagine you are driving along at a comfortable speed, maybe 50 or 60 mph, when suddenly a loose tarpaulin flies through the air and completely obscures your forward view!

If you are lucky you will be able to see something of the other vehicles traveling on either side of you – but that won’t help for long. Of course, you could try steering by looking in the rear-view mirror – just think about that for a moment.

If you are able to really feel what that might be like, you will know how scary and out-of control it is. You would have to stop and take stock – even driving slowly would be dangerous – both for yourself and others.

That is the position we find ourselves in today. The rate of change in society, industry, science, warfare, technology, media and economics is enormous and accelerating. Yet our rules are made by looking in the rear view mirror.

We take pride in laws which have emerged over hundreds of years to safeguard individual rights. Precedent is important, as is case history – all entwined with the idea that what has gone before is our guide.

Yet those very laws and case histories arose during earlier periods of relative calm and typically much slower rates of change. A simpler world. Today we find ourselves trying to shoe-horn our experiences into yesterdays context.

For example, laws of ownership and property are all based on notions derived from the physical world – not the cyber-world. Piracy invokes the idea of stealing: you now have something which was formerly mine; rather than sharing, where what was one (and mine) is now many (ours).

Similarly (but in reverse) large corporations are taking out patents on human genes. Patent laws were originally designed to protect individual inventors, so that they might benefit from their creativity. Now they are being used to gain commercial advantage by mega-corporations taking knowledge from public ownership (ours) into private ownership (the corporate mine).

We are at one of those points in history when it is abundantly clear that our old rules just do not work any more. But it is more serious than even that implies. Our very ways of thinking about our world and our experiences are inadequate.

Most of us have been trained to think linearly and rationally – our schools and universities channel our thinking thus. And, in so doing, cripple our ability to comprehend our complex, non-linear, irrational world.

Some would make a Malthusian argument that most people do not need to understand – the poor are always with us and can not be helped. Just so long as the leaders of society make the right decisions.

But our so-called leaders and decision-makers do not understand either – they too are the product of linear thinking. Look at how they talk about economics and the need for austerity – as if they really know what will happen.

A recent conference in Berlin attempted to bring aspects of Complexity Science into the field of Economics. A thankless task. Although economics is essentially about human desire, it has no understanding of human nature, interaction or communication. Any attempt to take into account the complexity of human beings simply makes current standard economic assumptions unworkable.

We have created a world of machines, gears and cogs – brought forth from our own imagination. A world which does not exist in nature – a cold world of straight lines, squares, linear behaviour, simple cause and effects. Literally – an unnatural world. But a world that works for us.

At least, that’s the idea – that it works for us. The problem is that increasingly we work for it. We work for the machine. We no longer work in harmony with our natural world, savouring the rhythms of the seasons, welcoming each new moon or the joyous vitality of Spring.

Now we work to the relentless, twenty-four hour beat of the machine – neglecting loved ones – driving to meet deadlines – sweating for fifty weeks a year so that we can escape for two weeks and experience a brief taste of the natural world again.

We have created a mechanical world into which we now keep bumping, painfully. Having created this machine world we look at it and say “Aha, that’s how the universe works!”. Then we try to apply rules from that machine world back onto the natural world!

We take comfort that our knowledge of mechanical things is proof of our wisdom. We say “look at our wondrous achievements – surely we can do anything – even the stars are attainable”. But we forget. We forget that the apparent complexity of a hydro-electric damn is infinitely simpler than the apparent simplicity of giving birth.

In our vanity and ignorance we make rules and laws intended to control ourselves and nature. But nature, like all complex systems, is out of control. It is uncontrollable – as are human beings, ultimately. We can fool ourselves for a while that we are in charge – but it is just not so.

The apparent obedience of nature or people is just an illusion, a trade-off viewed through a temporary prism. If someone does as you tell them, it is because deep down they choose to; if nature obeys you, it is because it was going that way anyway.

As we attend to complex systems we can begin to learn how the world really works. There are indeed natural laws – but they do not derive from any central government, nature is really rather anarchic, in the true sense of the word. To describe natural (and very effective) laws we must use words like: understanding, patience, harmony, resonance, appropriateness, rhythm. We have much to learn.

We can learn from Complexity Science, which enables us to recognise and describe the real world more completely. It gives us a better perspective on ourselves as a complex system inhabiting a natural world which is itself composed of many interwoven complex systems.

Like the person suddenly blinded while driving the car, we need new rules, derived from a new perspective. A perspective which embraces our place in the natural world. That distinguishes between complex human systems and linear business systems. That includes other perspectives as a safeguard against isolation. That interprets laws as intelligent guides rather than dumb prohibitions.

The good news is that we all innately and intuitively know about and work with complexity all the time. It is not a difficult subject ‘beyond the grasp of everyman’. On the contrary, every time we look in the mirror, experience a thought or a feeling or say hello to someone – we are dealing with a complex system.

We just need to remember that that ‘other person’ is no more a machine than we are. So, welcome to the human race. It started a long time ago, and we are not even close to the finish line. But if you look around you will see a lot of good people, just like you.

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