All complex systems age. Even the universe ages, though I suppose we won’t have to worry much about the effects of that. We all tend to think such aging has no relevance to us. Our society is so big, and our concerns are so local.
In a sense that was true in the past, but no more. Our larger system affects our lives in important ways every day, and the impact seems to be expanding and accelerating.
We have to understand the contours of this aging in order to make reasonable choices about our future and to preserve our flexibility for those parts of our future that we can’t predict or control.
Once we give up the idea that complex, adaptive systems are machines, we must confront the reality of system aging.
Deep down, there is in the substance of the cosmos a primordial disposition, sui generis, for self-arrangement and self-involution. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Mostly, we think about evolution as though it is trying to create the perfect organism. I suppose this reflects the importance that we humans place on reputation, social status, and power in our society. 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.
Selection (what we tend to think is the important part of evolution because it is important to us) is automatic anywhere there is a scarcity of any kind of resource.
It is the variation that “drives” evolution. Selection works locally, variation works throughout the complex system of life.
Evolution is about continuing on despite uncertainty (the universe is a very uncertain place), and variation is the best way to be ready for what you just can’t predict.
Since the two most consistent forces in evolution on this planet have been gravity (a fulcrum for all movement that shifts in its impact with every movement) and the day/night cycle (framing the cycling of all processes in every complex system), change is constant.
Disruption is rooted in life itself…Life’s essence lies in accidents and interruptions, in conflict and tension. Jean-Marie Dru
Complex Systems Are Not Machines
If I were to ask most people if they thought their pet dog or cat was a machine, they would likely say “no”. I certainly agree with this having had, now, 5 dogs over the years. 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. We describe the problem we are trying to change as though it were isolated, like a broken part in a machine. Our problem solutions are all of the sorts, “This is what is broken; we can put a new part in place of the broken part. That will take care of the problem”.
This approach doesn’t work for complex systems like our society any better than it works for your pet. Every time we replace the “broken” part with a new one, we create new problems over time, called “unintended consequences”.
The unintended consequences are experienced as new problems, entirely separate from the one we “solved” earlier, so we try to replace those new broken parts as well. And so on……..
Because we focus on fixing parts, we keep making new problems for ourselves. Worst of all, we think we are actually improving the system by fixing the part.
I’ve made my last post in the FutureStrategy Overview. Obviously, the posts from the Overview will remain available for review if the going gets tough with the deep framework posts coming next.
The full presentation of the deep framework is 56 slides long and each slide is packed with notes, resource links, quotes and what have you. I’ll be reformating the slides so they work better in a blog post. If you have questions, you can put them into the comments and I’ll answer them.
Although I would be happy to do presentations on the ideas in this deep framework, the reality is that it is a long slog as a whole, and I divided it into a number of parts, each being a presentation in itself and running about two hours per part.
I hope some of what follows will prove useful to you and our community in the years ahead.
Some ways to think about how we might create useful change:
Within the Shell of the Old: We don’t have the option of either taking over control of the levers of society or starting from scratch to assure our survival as a community. The disability community’s dependence on the health care system and our sensitivity to small changes in our ability to access our community mean that whatever we do, we will need stability in supports every second of every day for the near term. We must build what we need within the current system of supports.
Getting Good at Change: We can get good at change by practicing change in small ways as an ongoing part of our self-support and advocacy. Often, it is so tiresome to simply get through the day, that we default to dependence on systems of support even though we know those systems can and will change without notice. This habit means, though, that we will not be able to respond to the truly unpredictable because we will have no experience of creating successful change on the fly. This means that we must build our general ability to accept and act on the necessity of change long before all hell breaks loose.
The Commanding Beliefs of the American People: These beliefs were a part of the assumptions that Americans made about what change could mean. In many ways, we no longer believe them, and the erosion of these assumptions increases a little every day:
Everything is Possible.
Vast problems can be solved if broken up into pieces and addressed one by one.
Ordinary men and women contain within themselves, individually and collectively, the constructive genius with which to craft such solutions.
Personalism: For at least the last 7,000 years, we have lived with the good and the bad of the institution of states that control the creation and distribution of those resources we need to live. Over the millennia, there has been an ongoing battle at every level of society between the value of each person in themselves and the use of each person by the elites in the various states.
Personalism is the philosophy (sometimes religious, sometimes not) that society should support the freedom and choice of each individual to craft their unique lives. We don’t actually need a philosophy or ideology of personalism (in fact, I think that would be a repetition of the errors mentioned earlier), but we do need to internalize in ourselves and build into the future we create, the values that the disability community has discovered to be the basis for freedom and choice. This model is the idea of using accommodation to each of our individual characteristics to expand the possibilities of our futures.
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.
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.
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.