Meanwhile, There Are Other Turkeys Dropping from the Sky

Poster saying As God is My Witness,I thought Turkeys Could Fly-Arthur Carlson

Making Choices in An Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 2)

Any genuine surprise triggers the same response from us:

  • Deny that it is a surprise by continuing to do what you normally do.
  • Tweak what you normally do to see if that helps.
  • If you become desperate enough, do something new.
  • When something new actually helps (what helps, incidentally, will be as novel as the surprise), it will outcompete what you normally do.

You would think that we would learn to skip the early responses and get to creating and using a novel approach, but we don’t. For humans, that seems to be because we have a lot invested in what we normally do (a lot invested in our past), and actually trying to do something as novel as the unexpected surprise warrants, seems to mean we’ll somehow lose our investment.

We are only gradually absorbing the basic and long term impact of the contagion right now; and, we are significantly behind in absorbing that. Our pandemic-specific numbers are always out of date when we see them, and we are still making choices based on obsolete and inaccurate data.

This problem of always being too slow to respond in regard to the impact of the pandemic applies to everything else that has changed in the last five months, and all that hasn’t. Other turkeys are falling from the skies and, as demanding as the virus is in terms of our immediate choices, we need to find a space for those others that are on their way down or being pushed to the edge of the helicopter door almost ready to drop into the complex adaptive system that is our common wicked problem:

  • The Confluence of Disasters: Just because we have a pandemic doesn’t mean that we somehow get relief from other disasters. Even if our altered behavior and self-isolation reduce some of the impact in those other dangerous events, we still can expect tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, fires, and a host of more local and personal disasters. But, because of the pandemic, our ability to respond to these will be reduced and disorganized, much like our early responses to the pandemic.
  • Medical Ableism: Triage systems that explicitly see people with disabilities as disposable and less than human have publically surfaced recently and are being effectively countered through advocacy. But, all of us in the disability community know that this more obvious strain of ableist eugenics bubbles below the surface in many parts of our lives, nowhere more clearly than in medicine. There will be a great deal of implicit and occasionally explicit euthanasia of members of our community in the course of this pandemic because it seems obvious to the healthcare system and insurers that younger, or healthier, or less obviously disabled people deserve life more than we do.
  • The Financial Psychopathy of Our Social Lives: For the last half-century, there has been a deliberate global effort to convince us that the only important lever for every decision we make, from the most to the least important, is to ask how it affects our wealth, reputation, and power. After all, our worth as a human being is clearly no more than these social and financial indices of our status, right? So embedded is this framework in our ongoing social and cultural communication, that even when our decisions will result in the emotional destruction and death of those we claim to hold dear, we can’t stop ourselves from sacrificing them to gain some meaningless additional increment.
  • Political Incompetence: The reduction of everything human to wealth, power, and reputation, has the unavoidable consequence of making our political elites and our political system generally incapable of anything more than a short-term pursuit of “victory” in some current short-lived meme war, whatever might be surfacing at this particular moment. This deep lack of governing competence leads to a surprising common assumption under the surface differences in political ideologies.  We actually have a political culture that believes that any reality can be entirely changed by merely making an effective political argument, stated over and over again. This is the modern form of the belief in magic; the political meme as a superstitious chant to appease or defeat some always temporary ideological god or demon. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the governance approach of our political elites to the Covid-19 virus.
  • Social Reconfiguration: Don’t kid yourself. Our political, social, and financial elites will continue to organize and appropriate more wealth, power, and reputation for themselves. They are simply incapable of thinking about the world in any other way. Opportunities for the rest of us lie outside our explicit and implicit support for that compulsive and unending search of theirs.

We need to look to ourselves, not our elites, for our future.

In the next, and last, part of this series, I’ll try to see some current possibilities for our community that will help start the long and difficult process of “distancing” us from those who see us as worthless and treat us as disposable.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Pandemic As A Fractal Disaster

A clipart image of a woman running with her hair on fire, tormented by various demands that she can't respond to effectively. They include email, Re:Re:Re:, 90, 17,Hey! Nobody told me that, How was I supposed to know that, Who has it?, and a polycom talking nonsense.

Making Choices in an Ocean of Uncertainty (Part 1)

The pandemic resulting from the spread of a novel virus, Covid-19, has pointed out many of the failures of not thinking, planning, or acting with an awareness of large systems and how they dynamically change over time. These failures occur every day in every system of support for people with disabilities, and they occur throughout the larger global complex adaptive system (CAS) that is our world. But we don’t normally see the failures except as small drops of irony. That is, we don’t see the ocean of uncertainty that is the reality of living out our lives in a Complex, Adaptive, System.

I don’t believe that any event in my life (over 7 decades) has shoved our collective face into these realities the way this virus has.

And in less than 3 months.

Much of this “in your face” quality of the pandemic is due to our “connected” world if connected is the right descriptor for experiences that can’t be avoided except in a sensory deprivation chamber, in a deep valley, underground, in Antarctica, with a face mask.

Pandemics always end, but while they are going on, they act like slow motion volcano eruptions, raining down ash on the just and unjust, rich and poor, and every other distinction we make among ourselves about our personal and social worth. Social, financial, and political choices that are usually buried or disguised become obvious. In the disability community, devaluing and destructive choices and matters of life and death become far more obvious and less hidden behind the walls of institutions and programs.

Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare. We need to reach out to everyone with words that inform, but not inflame. We need to encourage everyone to prepare, but not panic.” — Michael O. Leavitt, 2007 From Telliamed Revisited

The dilemma that Leavitt describes is certainly a real one, but it is also a dilemma not just because of the impact of a pandemic, but also because those who have taken on the authority for telling us about an appropriate response have long-standing, deeply political, and financial reasons to pretend that they are in control of the pandemic and that their simple, mechanical (maybe these days data-driven), operational policies will win the day. Messaging to communities that have always believed that every problem can be solved through an operational plan, a bigger version of replacing a leaky faucet through a DIY video, makes it easier to massage away the cramps that result from economic, social, and political failure and those pesky long term consequences when they inevitably occur.

The “message is the massage”, as it were.

Pandemics have lots of explicit characteristics that make them difficult to manage using the mechanical, operational planning, and contingency planning that passes for prevention and safety these days:

  • The dynamic process of a pandemic emerges from the relationship between people. Each and every contact has the capacity to spread the virus, but there is also no guarantee that the contact will, and in the immediacy of the contact, no way to tell what happened. There is no way to calculate the probability that any single contact will result in the spread, except over group and population averages that are nowhere near granular enough to track the actual dynamics of the pandemic. Your “track” of a pandemic is always well behind the reality because bugs are faster than we are and have a much longer track record of undoing our best plans for safety than we do for stopping them. This means that the evolution of the pandemic is, among other things, Fractal (everywhere at every level) and inherently uncertain.
  • You can’t negotiate with a virus. You can’t intimidate a virus. A virus is like a tiny Terminator. That means that none of the standard political memes and longstanding manipulation techniques available for everyday use will actually permit social, political, and financial elites to manage pandemics the way they manage everything else of importance to them.
  • Our society ordinarily uses the concept of Risk Management to deal with failure and disaster. Because the dynamic of a pandemic is a CAS, its actual path of destruction will remain uncertain until the current pandemic is over. Real Uncertainty is very, very different from calculable risk. In an uncertain ocean of possibility, every published Risk is wrong and is being used for some additional purpose besides authentically managing the actual pandemic.
  • As Italy has discovered in Lombardy, being supremely confident of your individual and community’s economic strength, high health status,  and social superiority doesn’t stop the corpses from decomposing in their homes, or the stereotyped social worth calculus of global medicine from throwing whole communities under the train.
  • So, in the rollup to the pandemic maximum (number of people affected, the peak of the Bell-Shaped Curve), all the numbers you are being told daily are underestimates (obviously). But it seems to me that most of the time people make decisions about their behavior on the numbers with which they are presented. How many people have been diagnosed today, and should I go to the store and buy food, or drop my child off at daycare one more day, or get drunk at the bar with my friends one more time? Our decisions are almost never made using an actual appreciation of the potential impact. Instead, we are conditioned to make choices that don’t match reality by the very efforts to educate us about what and how we should choose.
  • Although this should be obvious, it isn’t the lethality of Covid-9 that is the greatest threat. Although this virus is somewhere around 20 times as lethal as the annual flu, it doesn’t come close to our ancestral pandemics.  The problem is that our healthcare system is designed around the industrial notion of Just-In-Time supply, treatment, and disposition. If everyone who got the virus had the mild version, we would be able to manage the number pretty much no matter how many there were. But 15-20% of those who become ill (some estimates are as high as 40% for risk of complications) need more than basic illness care. We are all in real trouble if that population shows up in the emergency room on the same day. If the critical care system collapses, it won’t just be people with Covid-19 complications who will die. People with other conditions that ordinarily would have gotten competent treatment aren’t going to get it.

This is why the strategy for managing the pandemic is to first contain, then mitigate the results, as in #flattenthecurve. The goal is to avoid completely overwhelming the healthcare system, under the motto, “Flatten the Curve”; it is not an attempt to prevent death, which can’t be done, but to spread it out so that system failure doesn’t dramatically increase the number who die.

#flatten the curve is a genuine strategy. It is a framework for making decisions about the two things we can never control:

  • The unpredictable future;
  • The eternal scarcity of resources.

#flattenthecurve creates a space of possibilities where we can build and implement operational plans that are consistent with this strategy. Many such plans are being rolled out now. Because the pandemic is fractal, the operational plans resulting from the strategy have to be fractal as well. At every level, there are things we can do to support the strategy. We don’t necessarily need to wait to be told what to do, as long as what we do in our own lives and with those about whom we care is driven by the constraints of the #flattenthecurve possibility space.

If we avoid the collapse of healthcare, we will not only minimize death in the short term, but we will create a timeframe for the longer term that allows for better choices.

Because, like all strategies, #flattenthecurve isn’t a complete answer to a pandemic (there is no complete answer to a novel pandemic).

If we minimize the total number of people who actually get the virus this time around, we leave open the possibility, in fact, the inevitability, of an annual/multi-year cycle of recurrence, much like the annual flu season. But we also will have time for a genuinely effective vaccine, drugs that interfere with the ability for the virus to enter lung cells and cause damage, improved access to (hopefully) more sophisticated and cheaper ventilator systems, and a much deeper experience of acute and long term clinical care for the fallout from the virus.

If everyone on the planet had gotten the virus in one bell-shaped curve, we might have 140 million dead, and be treating the long term effects for many years. And there would be no resources for the mitigation and management possibilities mentioned above.

A well-chosen strategy doesn’t eliminate the reason for its necessity. Rather, it enables you to manage the current and future states of the original trigger for the common good.

We have lost touch with the idea that we should think about the long term together, instead of simply maximizing our individual gratification in the short term. I hope this pandemic proves to be a tonic for our social foresight about our common threats.

Because, as bad as this virus will be, there are far worse novelties that could arise, and we don’t have any idea which one will surface next.

Working together to build real safety and flexible response must be the lesson we take from this evolving experience that we all share, and we need to use this experience to dramatically improve how we manage our uncertain future.

(P3): Advocacy Organizations (Good Times and Hard Lessons)

An infinity sign colored like a rainbow

In our time, advocacy is organized around networks of advocacy organizations. This networking through organizations was a natural result of both the problems and successes of individual advocacy and the ongoing struggle for disability civil rights.  Advocacy organizing brings with it its own strengths and weaknesses, and it won’t surprise any reader of this blog that I view this understanding of advocacy organizations through the lens of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS).

Any advocacy organization (or for that matter, any system we might focus on for advocacy) has at least three Governing Constraints:

  • The organization Mission (why it exists)
  • The organization plan for Reproduction (how it keeps the doors open)
  • Its framework of Hierarchy (how it controls)

To understand why advocacy organizations have their ups and downs, and how advocacy organizations age, you must understand how these Governing Constraints both cooperate and collaborate for the organization’s work over the course of time. Each of the Constraints creates its own possibility space, and the actual trajectory of the organization is a complex interweaving of collaborative and competitive choices in real-time.

The various parts of the organization’s infrastructure (Board, financing system, staff morale, network relationships both positive and negative, who is defined as a threat or competitor, etc.) also reflect this multi-constraint dynamic.

In modern organizations, even non-work time can reflect this dynamic to a varying extent.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Why you shouldn’t destabilize Strong Constraints

A collapsed bridged over a river in the summer

The effort to destabilize social groups and their relationships is currently everywhere, being used at every level of every human Complex Adaptive System (CAS) of any size. Mutual destabilization has become the way various parts of CAS politically relate to one another at a scale that was ordinarily reserved in the past for plagues, wars, and large-scale natural disasters.

Such destabilization is often justified on the grounds that once the destabilization is successful, a new era of prosperity and social value will automatically blossom. In psychology, this is referred to as magical thinking.

The only way a brittle CAS becomes simpler and more humanly useful (oriented to a valued human purpose) is through a collapse, though the collapse need not be total (apocalyptic). The real problem with using any method of destabilizing the governing constraints in a CAS is that there is no way to predict or control the actual outcome of successful destabilization since the whole point of WTA (winner-take-all) constraints is the way they allow creative exploitation to run wild. The social relationships that enabled successful outcomes will become competitive one person at a time, and there is no way to see how that breakdown will spread and change the CAS. Think of a novel infectious disease and how poorly we predict its spread (say, for example, tick-borne diseases).

There is no automatic rebooting. There is no way of assuring that the “better angels of our nature” will drive the dynamic of recovery, and many reasons to think it won’t be those “angels” that drive the resulting change. Instead, the recovery will reflect the second by second interactions of what remains, not what we think should replace the past system.

It took millennia for humanity to evolve enabling social/physical systems that reflected significant support for the system’s members. It took all this time to build individual social relationships that were oriented toward general social improvement (enabling). These relationships were hard to build and hard to maintain. Destabilizing them (which is the point of the methods described in the last slide and this one) will destroy those enabling weak constraints, and there is no telling what will result.

If you review the links above, you’ll find that all recovery from collapse always takes much, much longer than the collapse itself.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P3): Destabilizing Strong Constraints

a balloon being pricked by a person's hand and collapsing

I have touched on these ideas earlier, but it is important to reframe them in the context of strong constraints. What follows is a story about how constraints develop and how they are destroyed.

For large CAS (like a state-organized society), the general pattern of strong constraint development can be thought of as starting from an authoritarian control system over subjects (think Egyptian Pharaohs). Over time, social relationships develop that make the CAS more efficient but undermine to totalitarian control that originally unified the state. This process in states used to take centuries to occur. This aspect of system aging has been sped up dramatically in the last couple of centuries.

These social relationships gradually become the central driver of the state society, and they become ensconced in meta-ideas like democracy or community. These relationships are “enabling” constraints because they allow groups of people to network in order to accomplish more complex, sophisticated outcomes.

Once the day to day operations have become more entirely dependent on local social relationships, the CAS is about as stable as it will get, and aging of the CAS will continue. Elites come to see the CAS as not allowing them to exploit it as easily as they once could (this perception has nothing to do with the number of assets they control). Which is to say that the increasing brittleness of the CAS as it ages is viewed as a loss of freedom by the subjects and a loss of power by elites.

In twentieth-century modernism, the idea of macro-change of an entire societal CAS evolved from the modernist belief that social reality was a machine and the arrogance that powerful superior human beings could control anything, reconstructing it to their liking. The early approaches  to manipulating governing constraints (strong constraints) clustered around two approaches:

  • Elites could take control of government power and restructure society to their liking.
  • The society could be entirely dismantled and rebuilt from scratch.

The Soviet system under Stalin is an example of the first, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia is an example of the second. Mao tried to blend both methods in his effort to remake China.

None of these approaches worked. They annihilated, each in their own way, the underlying social network of enabling weak constraints in the CAS they attacked and replaced enabling constraints with winner-take-all constraints. The outcomes were appalling.

Today, elites in nation-states and insurgents are once again trying to increase their control. The method they are using might be described as modernist lite. Actors have developed a wide range of destabilizing techniques that can be used to undermine a target and replace enabling constraints with winner-take-all (WTA) constraints.

One technique is to delegitimize the current leader. Any group who can get lots of people out in the streets over a relatively short period of time to call for resignation can likely accomplish that. This technique doesn’t guarantee that the replacement will support the insurgents, or that someone who does support the insurgents and replaces a current leader can change the CAS for the better.

A second technique (with an astounding number of variations) is to disrupt and destroy existing social relationships to undermine the political structure that currently exists for personal or political gain. Examples include:

  • Eliminating tolerance by demonizing cultural, ethnic, religious, and political beliefs.
  • Exaggerating the impact of targeted “enemies” to social order regardless of their actual impact.
  • Making a social difference of any kind illegal in law, culture, or policy.

And so on……

The point of these disruptive actions is to replace enabling relationships with WTA ones. These techniques are political weapons that ignore the reality of the loss of enabling social relationships that took, in some cases, centuries to build, and will revert the target of destabilization to a kind of competitive anarchy in which it is much more difficult to build stabilizing social relationships. Chaotic low-level war results, leading to one or another form of authoritarian control, and a dramatic loss of social, political, economic, and environmental action effectiveness, and personal freedom and choice.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P1): Why the Obvious Problems are the Hardest to Change

A political cartoon from a paper in Massachusetts in 1812 showing a Gerrymandered district just like the ones we have today.

We usually approach change by focusing on the most apparent problem in our environmental horizon (what is called a pain point in customer service). Note that the slide image is a gerrymandering cartoon from 1812, and, in my mind, gives pause to the idea that we can deal with current gerrymandering through normal problem-solving (voting, passing laws, constitutional amendments, getting the right people into office, and so on).

The most obvious problems for us are usually the ones best supported by the operation of the current CAS. There are more diverse forces supporting our obvious problems, and mechanically organized problem solving will miss most of the supporting forces in its quest for changing the obvious. So our problem solving will fail, often in the short run, but eventually in any case.  This can be true even when there are powerful forces supporting change.

Often, our most obvious problems in a complex adaptive system are the core of its strength as a system and support its resilience to meaningful change efforts.

At the same time, the CAS is constantly generating new and sometimes old trends that have been gone for a while. These variations of process are small scale, and we almost never pay any attention to them. No one ever says, “Let’s stop ignoring the flea in the room”.

But the potential for long term change in a CAS lies precisely in these small variations, or in systems theory, “weak signals”. The weak signals are the indicators (not guarantors) of where to look for levers of change.

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

(P4): Problems with Assessing Future Risk and Uncertainty

A swampy marsh with a fog making it hard to see any distance.

  • There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. -Donald Rumsfeld

Human beings are notoriously poor at estimating risk in the real world. We are bad at it even when we are not affected by bias.  But, we are all affected by bias:

  • Confusing Uncertainty and Risk: We often assume that the risk of uncertain events can be calculated or intuited. That isn’t true in most of the real world. And, to the extent that we use risk calculation to make decisions when dealing with uncertainty, we will make bad decisions. Think Fukushima.
  • Eliminating versus Mitigating Risk: Especially in nonprofit and public organizations, there is a belief that by eliminating the possibility of risk through an HR policy or some threshold limit, that we have actually protected ourselves or the organization. For-profit organizations tend to look for ways to mitigate rather than eliminate risk since they have a better appreciation of how difficult a challenge any uncertainty actually is.
  • Bias in Driven Behavior: Assessing risk and uncertainty when the person or organization is using driven behavior (sex, drugs, and rock and roll for people, hyper-focus in organizations (or cults) as a way to deny uncertainty, fear of liability or some other unseen threat) is guaranteed to give you a false sense of actual uncertainty.
  • Prospect Theory: This is the name for the bias that increases commitment to an already losing strategy. Endless examples……
  • Behaving as though the nonlinear world is actually linear. Examples are the belief in single causes, that effort is proportional to an outcome, that starting points that are close to one another should have closely linked outcomes. There are many more.

Knowing that risk and uncertainty are not the same and that we tend to bias our estimates of them is not enough to prevent the problems mentioned above. We have to actually build our ability to overcome the bias and reflect on our inability to estimate uncertainty in our strategy and our planning.

(P3): Functional Psychopathy

A political cartoon with a large rich guy eating children.

One of the trends that results from growing corruption of an aging system’s purpose is what I call Functional Psychopathy. This is an unavoidable consequence of relentlessly increasing complexity, though it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way.

Forget the clinical syndrome of psychopathy. This process isn’t about someone’s personality.  Instead, examine a basic measure of psychopathic behavior. Such behavior is anytime we treat a person, an animal, a plant, or a thing solely as a vehicle for the gratification of our needs, with no thought to the impact of our actions on the person, animal, plant, or thing.

Think of stepping on ants while walking in the woods on a nice summer day.  Or eating anything. Or laying off 1,000 people. Or using drones that kill civilians while targeting a terrorist. Or protecting yourself with a civilian shield while operating as a terrorist. Or auctioning human beings as slaves. Or purposefully addicting people for personal income.  Or cutting personal supports to people with significant disabilities to make the money available for a market purpose. Or any one of 10,000 other acts we do in order to get through the daily circumstances of our lives.

Functional Psychopathy increases relentlessly as complex systems age.

(P3): The Corruption of System Purpose

A slide about Systematic Corruption (or endemic corruption). Factors listed are, Conflicting Incentives, Discretionary Powers, Monopolistic Powers, Lack of Transparency, Low Pay, and Culture of Impunity.

There are many more signs of system aging than the reasonably obvious ones I’ve discussed so far. The next few posts will identify some, especially those which trigger “solutions” that don’t actually “solve” the targeted problem. The first is that systems can be corrupt, not just people.

We tend to think that corruption is an ethical or criminal matter resulting from a moral failure. As a society, moral and law enforcement solutions are the only ones we actively support to such problems. This is a mistake in our thinking because there is a larger impact of such moral corruption on the complex system in which the corruption occurs. Additionally, the aging of complex systems creates a type of corruption of purpose even if, somehow, we are able to stop all criminal and moral corruption.

On its own, typical moral corruption gradually taints every transaction of a complex system, even when the people involved in the transactions are not participants in the moral corruption.  This is obvious in financial corruption but also occurs when values and ethics are corrupted.

Also, complex system corruption occurs as a result of the aging process arising as system resources increase and are stored for later use. These resources (regardless of type) begin to be used increasingly for maintenance, repair, personal gratification, and personal power, undermining the purpose of the system.  This process also creates an affordance that permits more extensive corruption, creating a vicious feedback loop.

(P2): Relentlessly Increasing Complexity Undermines Everything

Various interacting fields around a mythical planet in brown to white colors.
Too Complex To Grasp

As I will describe in more detail later, one of the ways that complex systems age is by becoming more complex. This increase in complexity is unavoidable and is in the nature of system aging. It can be slowed and rationalized, but the direction can’t be changed except locally. Even when local simplification is optimized, other parts of the system become less than optimal.

One of the results of increasing complexity is increasing uncertainty. Uncertainty is not the same thing as risk. A risk is a measure of the likelihood that something will happen. A roulette wheel allows the calculation of risk, and risk is something associated with systems that are machine-like.

You can’t calculate the probability of an uncertainty, even though people keep trying to do just that (think about the Fukushima nuclear accident). There are automatic and unavoidable unintended consequences to using risk calculation as a proxy for real uncertainty. We are largely oblivious to this reality.

Adding to this, because imperfect cycling is built into every complex system, even when things seem to be going smoothly, they are always a little off and get more off as time goes on.