Society at the Edge of Chaos
A deep dive into the patterns beneath the modern world, and how to change them
It’s no secret that the unstoppable force of modern Western society is driving hugely chaotic and complex challenges across the planet. Challenges that pose mounting ecological, economic and even existential threats. But despite this apparent chaos, it is rare knowledge that there is a core set of human behaviour patterns driving almost all the change. Underneath the complexity, there is order. If we can identify this order, we can disrupt it with an eye for positive change.
Through the lens of the physics concept of entropy, this post explores the order beneath the chaos of the modern world: the behaviour patterns of individuals, institutions and societies, and how we might create more sustainable ones that work in the interest of all.
We’ll start by looking at how life does some incredible entropy magic before scaling these ideas up to our society and economy. We’ll trace our collective behaviours down to their psychological roots, and see the dawn of a worldwide movement planting radically new ones.
Entropy and the Edge of Chaos
Overlooking technical definitions, entropy is a synonym for disorder, and you can take it to mean that throughout this post. A high entropy system has lots more “going on” than an ordered one. On the one hand this disorder can lead to chaos (unpredictable, seemingly random behaviour), but on another it can lead to emergence (complex patterns that occur when elements of the system spontaneously come together in certain ways).
Emergence can occur in high entropy systems because there are more elements in the system, with a wider range of relationships, allowing new structures to emerge from the richness and diversity of the system. In this way disorder can be a doorway to creativity and evolution. Think about the difference in complexity and creativity between a violin duo playing classical music, and a 5-person jazz band improvising. The violin duo are low-entropy: they play a set piece with pre-planned, predictable melodies. The jazz band, however, have higher entropy: there are more instruments in the mix, and the musicians know how to use this higher disorder to catalyse spontaneous creativity. The saxophonist might hear a line by the pianist and repeat it with some variation, which inspires the guitarist to do the same. A minute later, the band might be riffing on some totally new melody, which nobody planned or foresaw — it emerged spontaneously from from the disorder! Crucially, to achieve this, the band will use a backbone of order— like a chord sequence that everyone is following — to guide their disorder towards interesting new melodies. They don’t want too much entropy, either, or they’d all be playing different things — so there must be a sweet spot between how ordered and how disordered they are that makes for the best spontaneous improvisation. This is the edge of chaos principle: the most complex patterns emerge when the system is not too chaotic, but not too ordered either.
There’s another extremely interesting point about what happens to entropy in living systems. The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that, with time, all systems will tend towards a state of maximum entropy, or maximum disorder. Consider how the structure of a sandcastle naturally disintegrates into formless mulch. But it is an incredible and unique characteristic of organic systems that they can actually reverse this process and minimise entropy, creating order out of chaos. Hold anything organic up to the inorganic matter that it came from — compare an apple to a handful of soil — and it is clear that the most special characteristic of life is its ability to create and preserve order, structure, and pattern in a disordered universe.
So organisms are pockets of low entropy (and they actually “account for” their ordered state by creating disorder around them, for example by heating up their surroundings, so as not to violate the second law of thermodynamics — but don’t get hung up on the details). The tendency to decrease entropy can be seen across a vast hierarchy of organic systems, from cells and organisms to entire ecosystems, economies and cultures. It also helps us see how adding entropy can help us make changes where they are needed.
Let’s take a human example. A depressed person has very predictable, repetitive thoughts and emotional states. Her worldview will continually revolve around feelings of unease, doubt, or anxiety; her mind is in an ordered, low-entropy state. But (in the case that her symptoms are purely psychological), this insight tells us that adding entropy to her life — think variation, diversity, new experiences — might break her out of the rut of repetitive thinking, and give her new ways of seeing herself and the world. For example, discovering a new friendship group might disrupt her repetitive view that the world is set against her. So disorder can disrupt order — and we can intentionally exploit that principle in order to change repetitive but destructive patterns in the world.
Now life has one more trick up its sleeve. Not only does it wiggle its way towards low entropy states: once there, it is very good at staying there. A bird stays a bird — it doesn’t disintegrate into a mess of carbon, oxygen, water and so on. Organic systems are resilient and robust in the face of change; their ordered state is hard to budge, and they achieve this by using feedback loops. These are the dynamics of many interacting elements which drive a system like a cell, brain, or private company towards a certain state. Strictly speaking, they come in two kinds:
- Negative feedback loops, which constantly bring a system back to a fixed point. An everyday example of negative feedback is riding a bike. You continually correct any imbalances to bring the front wheel back to a forward direction. In this way the imbalance is “fed back” into the system (the bike) as it determines the adjustment you make with your hands. The more imbalance, the more correcting force you apply in order to decrease the imbalance — negative feedback. This is the kind of feedback loop that life uses to maintain a steady low-entropy state — like a biological cell continually regulating its internal chemistry (homeostasis), or a society maintaining a set cultural code, as we will see.
- Positive feedback loops enhance or amplify small changes and drive a system towards higher disorder, making it more unstable. The butterfly effect is the classic metaphor for this kind of feedback.
The point I’m making about our global society and economy is that they minimise entropy like all organic systems. As a result we have fallen under the spell of some very powerful feedback loops, which keep us locked in to low-entropy behaviours despite their destructive effects. If we can identify these loops, we can change them. So let’s run through some important examples:
- At the base level of a capitalist economy, it’s no secret that once you’re rich, it’s a lot easier to get richer. You can re-invest your money and use it to make more money, and you could argue that this is the fundamental feedback loop that drives our capitalist world. The flip-side of it is that the poor stay poor, and are kept that way by the money-lending, interest-demanding rich. So this feedback loop automatically rigs the system for inequality. Take the game of Monopoly, which was actually designed to highlight this principle. Everybody starts equal and with a shared interest to obtain some property. What could go wrong?! Well, in the course of everybody going about their personal business, the equality is broken when somebody gains a little bit more money than others. That puts them in a position to dominate over other players and get even richer — a feedback loop which causes a monopoly to emerge from the interactions of self-serving parties. And the monopoly is a low entropy state of affairs which is extremely hard to break, as we all know. That’s because there’s a negative feedback loop in place: the richer you get, the more resources you can use to protect your interests, which makes you even richer. As a result, the monopoly turns friends into enemies, incentivising competition and betrayal over cooperation.
- We can see the principles of Monopoly reflected in today’s world which is driven by profit-motivated corporations, who are themselves driven by the desire of their shareholders for personal profits. The corporation is an ingenious mutual benefit system — but there can be too much of a good thing when such corporations get “locked in” to profit-chasing mode, even when this behaviour begins to have serious negative consequences. But like all organic systems, they are simply following life’s tendency to minimise entropy, and to stay ordered — resisting change! There are many feedback loops in place to maintain that ordered state: individuals working for these corporations, and the shareholders themselves, have “low entropy” lives — 70% of their waking lives are spent at work or thinking about work (i.e. making money). Workplaces reinforce profit-driven thought patterns making it difficult to break out of them. Corporations fill public spaces — and even homes (through TV, computers, and phones) — with advertising, incentivising consumers to accumulate wealth to be spent on material goods, which makes the corporations richer, and in a position to deploy more advertising. The cycle repeats and the corporations get richer in a self-serving feedback loop. Similarly, a wealthy corporation is able to lobby governments to prevent policy changes that would harm its profits, meaning that it has more money available to lobby governments, and so on.
- Cultural feedback loops make this system even stronger. By judging and denouncing those who act or live differently to us, we reinforce a set cultural code of what is acceptable, or “normal”, and what is not. The result is an ordered and predictable — i.e. low entropy — repertoire of socially acceptable behaviours and lifestyles that most people abide by. 9–5, car, house, kids. Simple. Living in a negative feedback loop like this means that when you try to break out and do something different, the system responds by trying to pulling you back in.
- Politics gets sucked into these economic feedback loops, too: consider how conservative governments (who take a predictable, low-entropy approach) generally dominate over creative and progressive ones: by collaborating and supporting wealthy corporations they gain the resources to use self-reinforcing feedback loops which keep themselves rich and powerful.
- Social media’s selective news feeds sets up feedback loops in our beliefs by showing us media that we already agree with. As a result our values become solidified (low entropy!), and so political stances like left and right become more polarised and out-of-touch with one another.
- Corporations, parties and even entire nations enter into automatic competition, even when cooperation would be favourable. This is another self-reinforcing low-entropy state that is hard to break out of: “I don’t want to switch to renewables if nobody else will”; “I don’t want to disarm my nuclear armoury if nobody else will”. The system gets locked in, despite the negative consequences for everyone involved.
Taken together, these feedback loops mean that our society and economy pursues profit — growth — as number one priority and resists all change to that state of affairs (a negative feedback loop). This loop has very serious consequences when coupled with the following two things:
- Exponential technology. Technology changes so fast that our ability to understand it and use it for good can’t keep up. As a result, it gets used for our “default” number one priority: profit, even when this is damaging to people and ecosystems.
- Extractive behaviour: we use far more resources than we create or recycle. If our drive for profit goes unchecked, they will simply run out. You cannot have infinite growth on a planet with limited resources!
So what we have on a global scale is a situation of self-destructive lock-in: when a system repeats a certain ordered behaviour despite the fact that it is damaging the system itself. We’re like the alcoholic who reaches for another drink despite her failing liver. We need a global intervention. That means breaking our addictions to money, energy and possessions— which is not easy because of all the feedback loops in place to keep us addicted!
To get of this low-entropy slump, it makes sense that we should simply add entropy to climb out of it — and approach the edge of chaos where creativity and complexity can naturally emerge. Imagine a global system that could dance, weave and improvise its way through crises, spawning beauty and novelty at every turn — instead of blindly and automatically turning the crank on an insatiable and destructive money machine.
So — let’s shake things up a little!
“Whoa — stop!! The world’s going crazy already! Look at the rise of Trump, ISIS, mass immigration, climate change! Isn’t the world chaotic enough?”
This is very true, dear reader, and it tells us that we need to be more precise — we can’t just add disorder willy-nilly, but have to do so at particular points in the global system. We will call these generator functions.
Generator functions are the ordered processes which begin the feedback loops that create — or affect — the larger system. Every feedback loop needs an initial “push” or “input” to get it going, and that’s what generator functions are. They help us to see that many chaotic situations are generated by an underlying low-entropy process.
A historic example is the Mandelbrot set, an infinitely detailed fractal image generated by a single line of code:
The one line of code used to produce this pattern is the generator function. See how it would be way easier to understand that line of code than all that crazy complexity? Well, we can do this in the world around us if we look for generator functions!
Let’s take a real-world example. An epidemic like Ebola wreaked havoc in West Africa. Disorder all around, you say — just look at the economic and political fallout! But wait. Zoom in — a little more — and there it is: the highly ordered process of a virus that infects human cells, spreads, and repeats. The low-entropy generator function of a global panic. What’s more, we addressed the crisis by preventing that generator function from continuing its feedback loop — by quarantining infected patients, stopping the virus from spreading — not by large-scale political or economic solutions! That intervention was — from the point of view of the virus — a highly disruptive bit of disorder. We broke the Ebola feedback loop by cutting if off at the source.
So identifying generator functions tells us where to inject entropy for positive change — we can see the underlying order that needs to be disrupted to the change the whole system. So — let’s try and uncover the generator functions driving today’s global challenges — then we’ll know where to aim our entropy gun. This is kind of fun, isn’t it? Ebola down. Let’s tackle consumerism.
The Desire Loop
In the case of today’s world, perhaps the most important generator function is our beloved profit-motive, which drives individuals, corporations, governments to create all of the feedback loops mentioned above. This desire for more money — which is used to gather material wealth, status, influence, but mostly just more money — is the psychological generator function of the profit-chasing feedback loop which gives rise to an international, industrial, consumer-capitalist economy.
Because this desire drives the economy, the economy strengthens itself by driving the desire. We saw above how that works. So consumers are not empowered by materialism. Conversely, they are psychologically exploited and restricted by a self-serving negative feedback loop.
But now we can see that destructive economies are not inherently evil or malicious, as so many people believe. They are simply patterns that emerge from millions upon millions of misguided, confused and alienated individuals who are trying to assuage their personal desires and fears by pursuing the material wealth that they have been told, all their lives, is the path to happiness. This allows us to enter the struggle against them from a place of compassion, understanding and solidarity — instead of anger and resentment.
Remove the desire for money, energy, and possessions — the generator function of today’s economy — and we’ll get a different system. How can entropy help us do that?
It starts with lifestyle: how do we spend our time, and why?
Just think how low-entropy, how routine our lives become in the modern world. Same people, same activities, bars and clubs, same thing week in week out. Same mindset, same story about our lives and where they are going. There’s so little variety, diversity, or new experiences. And that mean’s there’s no chance to break out of the order of the desire loop. So we need to inject entropy into people’s lives in ways that disrupt their desire for material wealth.
An example of such an “entropy injection” could be a festival. If someone in a rigid-thinking, rigid-behaving job attends a no-commerce festival, like Burning Man, and subsequently has more fun, experiences more emotional intimacy, self-expression and freedom than they’ve had in years, then when Monday morning at the desk job comes around, they might have a few… doubts. The “post-festival blues” are a symptom of re-adjusting to a fundamentally boring and unrewarding life. But that does tell us that the chaos and creativity — the entropy — of festivals are doing something right, doesn’t it?
It is these experiences that sow the seeds of disorder and doubt, at the individual level, in the profit-driven generator function. They might provide glimpses of higher states and new ways of interacting and thinking:
“Experiencing higher states leads to a profound shift in perspective about the purpose of our lives. Having ‘communed with the universe,’ one rarely draws the conclusion that we should be working 40 hours a week for 40 years in order to become a material success. The more likely conclusion is that we should be discovering our unique gifts and being of service to humanity. ” — Ronan Harrington & Emil Ejner Friis.
Crucially, these “lifestyle entropy injections” can contribute to intellectual, emotional, spiritual, existential and creative development (and exploration). Taken together we might call these “inner development”, as opposed the “outer development” of somebody focussed on financial and material wealth.
Our deep and sensitive needs for inner development are so unaddressed by the current socioeconomic system that many people do not even realise they have them. But once people find ways of fulfilling these needs their commitment to the profit-motive function usually weakens, because they have found a far more rewarding, interesting and meaningful life outside of it. This explains the West’s yoga and meditation boom, for one thing.
Imagine a global system that facilitated these kinds of development as its number one priority—one that served people and not profit. To build that kind of system, we need new generator functions. This is the only way we can inject some much-needed entropy into the world-system, and build a new one!
We’re about to get a whole new set of lego blocks to play with!
New Generator Functions
An important example of a radical new institution is the social enterprise: for-profit companies with a humanitarian mission. They are based on a psychological generator function of contributing to humanity’s problems. They operate within the current economic system, “playing the game” with a vision for change. This allows them to scale faster, and have more resources to innovate, than non-profits who rely on donations. But while extremely valuable, their generator functions aren’t very robust — because money-hungry individuals can easily tweak them to feed the desire loop and the profit-over-everything model of regular corporations. This is essentially what happened to Facebook, which started out as Zuckerberg’s philanthropic mission to connect the world but got distorted into an advertising company of unprecedented manipulative power. True, he still connected the world, so social enterprises can be something of a double-edged sword.
Ultimately we will want to move beyond for-profit organisations and towards new models based on giving, volunteering, offers, sharing, and exchanges. Crucially, such models can allow us to change our psychological generator function from self-interested, desire-driven and material focussed to contribution-oriented and focussed on inner development. Then the whole system that emerges from the generator functions will contribute to human flourishing!
An example. The ten principles of Burning Man are one example framework for a new set of psychological generator functions — and just look at the creativity, connection and general awesomeness that happens when you allow a system to emerge from such generator functions!
That’s just one festival — imagine an entire planet with this kind of mindset. What we might create together is literally beyond the individual imagination — but collectively, we can find out.
Burning Man highlights that what we need to do is help communities to self-organise around wholesome psychological generator functions. It speaks to the difficulty of doing that in mainstream society that the “burners” have to go the middle of the desert to get the freedom and space for this kind of experiment.
Our challenge is to learn how to build these communities in the midst of the current operating system.
Meetup.com is a great example of a digital platform which allows like-minded groups to do just that — and it is changing the world. These groups self-organise to run events — which can go on to catalyse festivals, political parties, government petitions, startups, and charities. People might well consider a Meetup group the highlight of their week — finally something awesome to do, with an awesome group of people! Entropy injections right there in your hometown, baby! Value placed on material wealth goes down, and the system begins to shift...
Similarly we can see ecovillages, digital democracy platforms, art collectives, meditation centres, transition networks, political parties, co-working and co-living spaces, alternative schools and colleges, and radical think-tanks sprouting up around the world. Regional burning man festivals are popping up everywhere.
These communities work to serve humanity and the ecosystem. This already sets us up for a positive feedback loop, as acts of altruism are actually proven to spread through human networks in positive feedback loops! Additionally they can use exponential technology with a motivation to serve people and not profit, and build closed-loop, sustainable production cycles. They reflect a move towards decentralisation as they gain greater financial, cultural and organisational independence — ultimately decreasing their dependence on, and integration with, the current operating system.
Increased automation will aid the people power these communities can draw from, while a universal basic income could provide the economic support. Provided with physical and digital spaces, these communities will self-organise like any organic system!
Self-organising communities walk the edge of chaos where complexity and creativity naturally emerge. When this collective creativity is serving inner development, in all its myriad forms, we are on track for a radically new operating system — not only do we have the disorder needed to catalyse system-wide change, but also the underlying stability (the new generator functions) needed for a new system to take its place.
This “worldwide entropy injection” of communities with new generator functions can provide the diversity needed to create a more creative, sustainable, and innovative society — one that is “life-enhancing not life-destroying” (Fritjof Capra). Where the majority of people are exploring their true loves, curiosities and passions, where we are emotionally connected and ecosystems can once again flourish. In the hands of communities the entire global system will be able to evolve and adapt to the demands of a rapidly changing world.
Such a society is already visible across the world in embryonic form. More than ever, we have the chance to nurture this embryo. That’s the “phoenix” we are building together. The task is more pressing than ever, but presents opportunities for creativity and flourishing beyond our wildest dreams.
You don’t want to miss this — get involved!