A lot of systems theoretic disciplines have seemed wholly useless because we took them as a set of tools with which we could rule over nature. Now I’m wondering if the insights from these sciences are just revelations FROM nature to teach us about our very tiny place in the grand scheme of things…
If so, the intended lesson of humility still does not sink in. Instead of assuming a godlike viewpoint, fawning over our pretty visualisations of dense networks spewed out by expensive color plotters, perhaps we should be trying to understand the place of each tiny pinprick… the world of each dimensionless point, ripe as it is with possibility and potential, yet seeming to signify nothing by itself.
We are the tiny dots on the printout.
The accretion of our petty actions may induce seismic discontinuities, phase shifts and yes, even the throbbing dullness of inconsequence.
We read of things like the butterfly effect and we want the power of being able to manifest or tame “THE EFFECT” at will, like gods. But perhaps the butterfly itself is the message. As in, ‘butterfly-being’, or, the ‘buddha-nature’ of the butterfly is not to create some “awesome effect”. It is simply to be a butterfly.
The problem with system-theoretic disciplines might just be that they are too consequence-skewed / phenomena-skewed. (Of course, that was a foregone conclusion – we got here mostly thanks to consequence-skewed wiring). Nevertheless, armed with mathematical proofs as to the pointlessness of the corpuscular constituents of the nonlinear dynamical systems that interest us, we go on to only seek understandings of the multidimensional patterns at higher scales. It becomes convenient to ignore the dimensionless points underlying the interesting phenomena.
Except that we are precisely such things: dimensionless points (though, I don’t care for the term ‘dimensionless’. Zero itself has something of the infinite about it after all, and we should remember that).
No matter how much you crank up the zoom, you and I are just bombing around in near-brownian confusion. On a good day, we try to do the right thing, and we personally stack the odds in favour of the right kind of local consequences, and we just hope that the laws of emergent phenomena will scale up the relevant effects, if good, to the “glocality”. Sometimes we even find that we have done something that seems to have mattered. We, as particles, matter… even though we can be modeled as not mattering. This is a core duality that we haven’t quite come to grips with, at the heart of complex systems theory – in particular chaos theory.
The matters/does-not-matter duality isn’t the only one we struggle with: the whole/part duality, dimensionless/dimensioned duality and, for all I know, several others probably hamper our ability to find real-world, useful applications of systems theoretic knowledge. Some of the best applications of complexity insights are probably not even technological at all in nature: anyone who remembers their first brush with chaos theory can attest to the mind-altering properties of that event. Perhaps this alone is enough – this restructuring of perception. Perhaps this expansion of the collective perception of what it means to be linked to each other… what it means for anything to be linked to anything, is all there is to it. Perhaps it is simply a fable that we need to tell to others who have not heard it yet, and the telling and retelling, as with all good stories, is enough.
In the meantime, we have been seduced away from such icky person-scale things as personal responsibility and personal motivation and personal choice… by patterns, trends and phase transitions.
Isn’t it interesting that such an individualist culture as we have in the West pays less and less attention to the motivations and actions of the (unique) individual, preferring instead to model them as members of whole demographics at one extreme, or at another, as dumb particles?
You know, those things that turned out to be whole damned universes unto themselves.