How Complex Systems Age

elderly couple dancing in vaguely European Clothing
Everything Gets Old in the Same Way

How do Complex Systems Age?

Think of how a forest grows after a fire removes the previous forest. The cycle has 4 phases:

  • Fast Reorganization (Pioneer Exploration-First Weeds)
  • Fast Exploitation (Entrepreneurial Expansion-Most Successful Weeds)
  • Slow Conservation (The Evolving Ecosystem-The Forest Developing).
  • Slow Degradation Followed by Fast Release (Collapse due to brittleness, the end result of ever-increasing complexity).

This final phase of collapse creates the circumstances for the next complex system, whatever that collapse might specifically be.

These cycles are not entirely predictable. But the larger phases can be recognized if not foretold by simple observation. At least if you are looking for them.

Some Problems of an Aging Complex System

As complex systems age, they produce other problems for a community like ours:

  • A General Corruption of individuals, and more importantly, corruption of the original purpose of the complex support system.
  • A Civil War between the original purpose and maintaining the system.
  • Functional Psychopathy which values human beings less and less over time as a direct result of the aging of the complex system.
  • A kind of Compounding Error as poorly made fixes create unintended consequences, which become new problems.

The fact that all complex systems age doesn’t mean that we can’t improve parts of the system. If I have arthritis in my hip and it gets bad enough, my pain and reduced mobility may seriously interfere with my normal activity. Perhaps I choose to have hip replacement surgery. If the surgery is successful, my ability to engage in my activities can be dramatically improved.

But, I’m still aging.

The same is true for all complex systems.

Basic Assumptions of Future Strategy

color images of lader and helix DNA
How Can We Think About Our Common Future?

1. Our society is not a machine: 
If I were to ask most people if they thought their pet dog or cat was a machine, they would likely say “no”. Most people get that the larger world does not consist of a bunch of machines. But….we continue to try to solve problems by using models that are based on machines.

2. Change (i.e., Evolution) is not about creating perfection.
Mostly, we think about evolution as though it is trying to create the perfect organism. But evolution doesn’t care about our social values. Evolution is about continuing to evolve, and the key to that is creating variation. As much variation as possible.  This is important because we tend to use whatever model of evolution we have internalized as our default model of how we change complex systems.

3. We can’t predict the future well.
It is dawning on most of us that the world seems less predictable than it has in the past. Every day brings events that are surprising. In trying to gain a foothold on this ever-changing reality, we bundle the surprises and give them some abstract name, like terrorism or disease or natural disaster. But there are many flaws in trying to bunch very different things under a single term. The most important flaw is that we try to fix them using the same response for all of them.

4. We must actively steward all resources. We never have enough.
We are beginning to become used to the idea that something (a constantly changing something) will always be in short supply. We just don’t know what it will be until it is in short supply. For example, there was a shortage of IV bags because the most important source of them was a factory in Puerto Rico and the factory stopped producing because of Hurricane Maria and our failure to respond to the devastation in a timely way. There are now chronic and ever-changing shortages of medical treatments and supports of all kinds. And shortages aren’t restricted to healthcare.

5. Driven behavior always misreads risk and uncertainty.
Risk and uncertainty are not the same. Risk applies to closed systems like gambling games. Uncertainty means that we not only don’t know, but we can’t estimate risk. Adolescent males reliably do very dangerous and stupid things that violate common sense. All driven behavior, whether toward or away from something, reliably produces errors in assessing risk and uncertainty and severe underestimation or overestimation of risk. The Fukushima nuclear disaster is a great example of confusing risk and uncertainty.

6. Ideologies will not save us, only hard creative work.
An ideology is nothing but a complicated set of assumptions that has the same flaws in the complex, rapidly changing, and unpredictable world we now all inhabit as all the mistakes in thinking I have described earlier. All belief systems are like membership cards for participation in some human community, with the accuracy or consistency of the beliefs being a low priority concern. Belief serves social but not predictive purposes.

7. Skin in the game is more important than expertise.
We have been trained to simply accept the decisions and opinions of experts all of our lives. On the other hand, people with disabilities have commonly learned that expertise does not assure respect for our lives and our choices. The larger the system, the higher the decision level, and the more distant from you, the more that decision or opinion reflects their interests, not yours.

Where Do We Go From Here?

PPT Slide with picture of ADAPT and Justin Dart rolling in protest through NYC, with sign that says, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere-MLK Jr.
What Should the Disability Community Be Doing Now to Survive?

The larger society within which our disability community lives is stagnating and past its peak, no matter how long economic growth continues.

Our community is more like the “canary in the coal mine” than most, and each small increase in complexity, degradation of supports, and corruption of social relationships generally affects us faster and more deeply than most other large social communities.

We can’t afford to wait and see if things will get much better than they are now.

This isn’t because some things won’t get better. They will. But we don’t know what they will be or how they will affect our personal and community independence. We also know that as some things get better, others will get worse.

We need to act on our community’s behalf, and on our own behalf, right now.

But how do we actually do that?

This current set of blog posts is an overview of a much deeper and longer work on the issue of how our disability community can act to preserve itself and expand our independence and freedom of choice. I will be posting this overview as a series of posts on this blog for some months to cover the basic ideas before I move on to those deeper ones.