In Search of the 5th Attractor
Complexity science thinking about real change for the better
[This essay was transcribed from a talk I gave at The Feast in October 2014. Video of talk]
After a 25-year career building network-based businesses and other tech-intensive stuff, I spent the next 10 years associated with the Santa Fe Institute, the world’s leading research center, studying complex systems. Combining my business and scientific experiences, I’ve developed a strong interest in how complex social systems, especially societies, work and change, and how such knowledge can help us build a better society.
Jerri Chou, founder of The Feast, asked me to talk about “progression.” So I decided to talk about progression from a big picture perspective: how societies and similar large-scale social systems evolve. One important thing to keep in mind is that “progression” doesn’t necessarily mean progress; rather, it just means one thing after another. I forget who it was who said, “History is just one damn thing after another.” (Oh, yeah, it was Arnold Toynbee [one of the advantages of transferring my talk to writing is that I can look up references like that!].)
I’d say “progression” in terms of the evolution of complex systems is the same thing as “history.” It doesn’t necessarily move in a straight line; sometimes developments are kind of surprising. Indeed, one reasonable definition of a complex system is that it should be capable of surprising an observer, at least sometimes. For instance, consider a star that’s been doing its thing quietly for a couple of billion years. After billions of years of being a bright and shiny star, it blows up, because it’s reached a major transition point as a complex system. By going supernova, it’s changed so much as to be unrecognizable. What was once a stable star has now become a rapidly expanding ball of dust and gas that emits more energy over the course of a few months than it did in its entire lifespan as a star — surprising, to say the least.
Another example — and this comes closer to my theme of social system progression — is Rome. It was once the most influential civilization in the world, commercially, socially, and militaristically, and this period of prosperity lasted for more than 600 years. But then a major transition occurred around 470 AD, and down it went. The city that had had a population of almost two million had by 1100 AD seen its population drop to just 15,000. A fall of more than 99 percent! Imagine your favorite post-apocalyptic movie, and imagine 15,000 people in the ruins of Rome — that’s what it looked like after the fall.
So discontinuous events happen, and in complexity science we call them movements between “basins of attraction.”
What are “basins of attraction”? Think of a rubber sheet with some heavy lead balls on it. Systems are stable in the basins, in the places where the weights create a depression in the rubber sheets, and they’re unstable between the basins. Over time, it’s typical that complex systems move between basins.
Another quick example of a “basin of attraction”: here is a two-dimensional view. See the ball in the left side depression? It’ll stay there until something perturbs it, and then with enough energy, it will move over to the next basin.
Another name for basins that I’m going to use for the rest of this piece is “network attractors,” because it’s usually the case that any one basin has other basins nearby that the system can transition to. Once you see these network attractors at work, it’s impossible to ignore them. Let’s take our current society as an example.
In the above image, the yellow circle is our current basin of attraction, and the yellow arrows are a possible set of transitions that we can think of as a network. Thus the basins are “attractors on the network” or, more simply, network attractors.
We can think about our current social-political-economic system, which I like to call “Game A,” as being the bin with the yellow circle. The other bins are other social-political-economic systems — our nearby network attractors that our world could transition to.
Now, our worldwide Game A is showing serious signs of instability. Consider the financial crisis. What should have been a moderate-sized economic mistake — building too many houses for too many people with no money — that could have triggered a “normal” recession instead became a financial armageddon that almost collapsed the whole system. Consider also the state of the “social contract” in most of the West. It used to be if you went to college and did decently in school, worked hard, and were at least tolerably conscientious, you were almost guaranteed a nice, middle-class way of life. Not true anymore. We used to have a political system whose prime aim was to grow and solidify the middle class. Think of the massive increase in the size of the state university systems during the 1950s and ’60s. Think of the GI Bill after WWII and Korea.
The prime value these days seems to be to driven above all by finance. We place the highest value on maximizing short-term money-on-money return. Our financial institutions, which used to exist to channel savings into real investments, are now out-of-control beasts that dominate the economy. In 1960, the financial sector represented about 15 percent of corporate profits. By 2006, it was 41 percent. After a brief fall, it’s back up again to around 38 percent.
What about our government? It used to play the role of defending the interests of the people against the interests of the rich and powerful. Why is government around the world in the pocket of finance and big business? Because money in politics has allowed big money to hack the political system.
We used to have a control mechanism: the will of the people as expressed through political institutions. That served as a restraint on run-away financialization and other forms of exploitation by big money. The system now has no self-restraint; it’s an out-of-control machine only optimizing on short-term money-on-money return. What is the result? Systemic fragility. No one wants to pay for social goods, like robustness and resilience. Our financial system is famously unstable, and I expect to see some great instability again by 2016, and maybe earlier than that. Our infrastructure is very vulnerable; no one is willing to pay to make it robust with respect to an Electro Magnetic Pulse attack (see EMP Commission Report), solar flares, and extreme weather, not to mention the coming environmental collapse.
The unrelenting goal to maximize short-term money-on-money return results is a race to the bottom everywhere. Wages for the average worker have fallen significantly over the last 35 years. Our national infrastructure is in deep decay. We now think unemployment rates of around 6 percent are “normal” — used to be it was 3 percent. It’s now not unusual for people in their twenties to have $100,000 or more of college debt. All this while the master manipulators of money continue to suck up an ever-greater percentage of the economy.
Indeed, our social-political-economic system is working very poorly for a large percentage of our population — the top 1 percent continue to be winners, and the next 9 percent have continued to rise some, but at a much slower rate. The 70th to 90th percentile is basically stuck — flat — going nowhere, while the heart of America, the bottom 70 percent of the American people are worse off than they were 35 years ago. Adherence to the status quo has become a sucker’s bet for the vast majority of people in the United States and in the advanced West.
Taking history as our guide, if things don’t change, we should expect a revolution as people withdraw their support for a status quo that isn’t working for them and will work even worse for their children. That same history tells us that revolutions will most likely be exploited by dangerous fanatics and unscrupulous adventurers — Napoleon, Hitler, that sort — and most revolutions end badly.
So where are we? Well, it looks like we are at one of those unstable places between network attractors. What are the possible outcomes of coming changes?
Let’s think about what some of those transitions might be and what we might be able to do about it.
So again, the idea is that a society is most of the time in a basin of attraction; it will often stay there for a long time. By some measures our current system is maybe 300 years old, but at some point, instability increases, we have big swings, and the system moves to another attractor. What might be some of the neighboring attractors to the current system?
Here are some of the ones that come to my mind:
- Neofeudalism; if the Koch brothers had their way, right? Government goes away, and money controls everything in a very raw sense.
- Neofascism in the Chinese model; kind of a runaway capitalism plus authoritarian government plus militarism plus nationalism.
- Neo-Dark Ages; probably a little bit of an underdog at the moment, but if neo-religious fundamentalists around the world had their way, we’d have something that looked like Europe in 900 AD, when religion was everything, freedom was impossible, and nothing much of interest was happening.
- Environmental collapse
- Endogenous collapse, like financial systems or revolution.
Not pretty, but of course those aren’t the only attractors that are possible.
I’ve been working with some other people on what we call “Game B,” a good attractor. Imagine our society transitioning from its current state to a better state — not to one of those other, worse states. In fact, I’d argue the number one priority for people today should be creating a winning, good attractor for our civilization. We need to steer the inevitable big change to a better place, not a worse place.
The first couple of things that need to be done are to break the power of money in politics. That’s job one; without that, the rest of it’s impossible. And then build restraints back into the economic system. I’m not a person who speaks against the market; the market is actually a brilliant invention that creates many semi-equilibria that interoperate without much top-down decision making. It is the most effective platform found so far for real-time information sharing through the mechanism of pricing. Run correctly, it’s like a furnace that can heat our house. But the way we’re currently operating our economic system, we’ve let the fire out of the furnace, and it’s burning the house down. It’ll probably burn the whole neighborhood down if we don’t do something about it.
So what are some things that need to be done?
Build new values. Imagine if “self-actualization” becomes our number one value instead of “he who dies with the most toys wins.”
Optimize society for real sustainability and quality of life, not money-on-money return. Imagine a financial, economic, and monetary system that works for the people, rather than vice versa. Things like higher education for all who want it and can take advantage of it, and universal health care — both of them at no charge, funded by society.
Take the maintenance of our planetary environment seriously. Enact a large and increasing carbon tax to let the market find the best way to create a world that has both a good standard of living AND is carbon neutral.
So what can you do? What can I do? What can we all do?
First priority, and this is job one, until this is done the other stuff’s impossible: join the fight against money in politics.
He’s a little moderate for my taste, but nonetheless the group doing the best work today against money-in-politics is Lawrence Lessig and his Rootstrikers team.
Next, experiment with new monetary and financial approaches. Bitcoin isn’t the final winner; indeed, dump Bitcoin if you got much of it, it’s going to zero one of these days, but it’s worth playing with. And we need to design a financial system that is an enabler for useful work, not an end in itself. When finance becomes an end and not a means, as it is today, the system is in trouble and the resultant society will be unjust.
I have a video that describes a new and better monetary system:
Start new political parties. I’m done with the Democrats and Republicans.
I agree with what Ralph Nader said: “The Democrats are the pro-abortion Wall Street party, and the Republicans are the anti-abortion Wall Street party.” I think he’s got it right; it’s time for a new political party, someone should go start one. And when somebody does start something new that resonates with you as good, you should support it — not just with money but also with your time and your passion.
Focus at least some of our efforts on deep institutional change, not just surface issues. In fact, it’s part of the sucker game of the status quo to keep people’s political energy used up in surface fights about things like abortion, gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, etc. I believe all of those are important things, but they’re not fundamental; they don’t get to the institutional structure of how our society works. So, again, focus at least some of your political energy on the deep issues, for example, money in politics. Push for a people’s monetary system that privileges citizens over banks. What if, instead of banks creating money for their own profit, the new money that entered the system came as a grant for each citizen per capita? Wouldn’t that be interesting? Also: useful and transparent finance, a serious carbon tax,, and a citizenship wage, where each citizen got, let’s say, $10,000 a year just for showing up, paid for by eliminating means-tested social programs and implementing a small (less than 1 percent) wealth tax. These are ways to substantially redress the imbalance between the people and the money, and it’s within the power of the people to do this. The Constitution allows all these things, but people sitting on their asses have not allowed it to happen; they’ve let the money guys control things.
I’ve been working on ideas like this for about four years now. Here are some bad attractors I’ve seen in the alternative space that seem to time and again derail the building of truly strong alternatives to the status quo:
Some people say that personal change is enough (“I will buy a Prius, and I’ve done my thing”); it helps, but not nearly enough. We need to create collective action on a mass scale to build new institutions.
Some other people say, “Well, I can’t deal with the problems of the world or the problems of my country. I’ll just deal with my neighborhood. I’ll put up a community garden.”
And again, it’s good; it’s a little step. But our real problems and challenges are systemic and global, and engaged citizens must think both locally and systematically. Don’t be afraid to take on the big questions. Local and national and global.
And here’s one — it’s probably a little controversial, but I’ve seen the bad effects myself: “alternative folks,” that is, people dedicated to building a significantly different and more humane world, appear to be disproportionately susceptible to various flavors of metaphysical malarkey.
Probably the most pervasive form of malarkey in the alt community at the moment is “spirituality.” Seems to me that often when the going gets tough for people and it feels like they aren’t making progress, all too many alternative folks retreat into “spirituality.” In fact, I’m going to rephrase Marx and call spirituality “the opiate of the alternative world.” Big change is hard and at times moves slowly. You have to be ready to accept some pain in your life if you are going to make a difference. Resist the temptation of opiates: pharmaceutical or metaphysical!
Speaking of metaphysics: another related bad attractor in our alternative world is a tendency to think that “the answer to our society’s problems” is likely to be found in metaphysical explorations. I enjoy speculation on the underlying nature of reality as much as the next person, but I don’t fall into the error of thinking that metaphysical speculation has any reasonable probability of providing important answers on how to build a better society today. Certainly the last 2500 years of history has shown that metaphysical speculations have never provided reliable truths. Thunder isn’t caused by Thor’s hammer. Zeus doesn’t throw lightning bolts; Aristotle’s metaphysical system of physics was absurd. Nor is some new, magical approach to “thinking” going to produce the society that we want.
Even worse than individuals wasting their time and mental energy on such stuff, tremendous harm is done to the alternative cause when thought leaders propagate the doctrine that any one such flavor of malarkey is indispensable to building a better world. I’m a zealous Jefferson/Madison-style “freedom of conscience” supporter. So while I’ll laugh at and make fun of various zany belief systems, I’ll fight to the death for your right to have those beliefs. At the same time, I’ll also fight to the death against a system that tries to impose one true metaphysical road on everybody. We should all utterly oppose any gurus, swamis, metaphysicians, or “thinkers” who claim they have the one true road and everybody must take it. That road is the road of insanity and evil.
When I speak out against “spirituality” and its metaphysical cousins, people often respond, “What a bleak world, a world without meaning.” To that I say, “You are wrong. Casting away magical thinking is the critical step to humankind truly gaining control of its destiny.”
We now have both the freedom and the responsibility to design our own future. For the first time in the history of humanity, superstitions don’t have to control what we do as a people. Good intentions aren’t enough, “Occupy” being the classic example. “Feel good” isn’t enough. You must be clear-headed, take responsibility, and execute well to build a new society.
Above all else, we need courage and perseverance. This journey to building a new world is not going to be easy, but it’s absolutely critical. If we don’t build a Game B, a “better attractor,” then when the change comes, it’s going to be to one of those bad attractors I talked about before, and I don’t think any of us wants that.
But, working together, working collectively on the big, deep institutional problems, there’s a possibility of creating a new attractor, so as the status quo passes through its final unstable period, we can have a network attractor in place that will provide the human race with a new and better world.
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Top image credit: Jeffrey Pioquinto, via creative commons