The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems

The four phases of the adaptive cycle-reorganization, growth, conservation, release
The Adaptive Cycle

You can find more versions of the Adaptive Cycle at https://goo.gl/iY3539

Corruption (as a system characteristic, not a moral failing) is inevitable in the life history of complex systems. I am using corruption as a pointer to the use of resources for purposes other than the apparent or first use by the system.

The increased diversity in the use of system generated and stored resources can start anytime in the life cycle of a complex system, but will begin during the conservation phase because of the trade-offs that arise from putting aside resources for some purpose other than the core mission.

It’s easier to think about the phases if we pull them out of the cycle and examine each  in turn:

  1. Reorganization: Imagine an open field, soon after a large fire has burnt over it and seems to have rendered it empty of life. Although it might seem that you could create any system in this emptiness, that isn’t true. The system that begins to form will be one populated by the fast and the furious species. These “pioneers” (start-ups, leaders, initiators, etc.) will be able to quickly grab the remaining scattered resources and use them for rapid growth and turnover.
  2. Growth: While pioneers burn out quickly, they are also preparing the field for longer term residents by mobilizing resources into a form that can more easily be used by others, and, with their individual death, returning their own personal resources to the common evolution of the field. The replacements for the pioneers can last longer, can use the residue of the pioneers, and can create novel relationships that expand their reach not only into the area outside the field but more deeply within the field.
  3. Conservation: At some point, a complex system has enough resources to prevent simple disintegration because of random events. Also, the system is producing resources that last longer, and that don’t disappear after use (say, financial skills).It is at this point that corruption becomes a critical part of the complex system’s dynamic. A simple example is the creation of cash reserves in a small advocacy nonprofit. These reserves serve the obvious purpose of buffering the organization against the unpredictability of outside events, i.e., short-term funding problems, unanticipated opportunities, loss of grants, and so on. But, the reality is that these reserves could just as easily be used for the core mission of the organization. Of course, once the reserves are gone, the organization is once again subject to the political and financial weather.

    This decision point or the tradeoff of short-term mission use and long-term stability produces an easily exploited ground for the expansion of system and personal corruption. A general model for both is the use by staff, managers, and stockholders (or stakeholders) of the organization’s resources for the gratification of their individual desires.  This is so common that most of us tend to think of it as a normal expected part of a corporate or organizational function. It is the reality that this small corruption won’t destroy the system. Think of it as opportunity corruption.

    System corruption tends to expand over time, and while it may stall when someone important is punished for it, the underlying causes of it continue to drive it forward.
    In addition, the resources required for repair and maintenance of the complex system increases over time. Think about your own experience as you have aged. This too is driven and the dynamic can’t be eliminated, though, of course, it can be reduced through careful planning and actions that, nonetheless, suck up resources that might be used for other purposes.

  4. Release: As long as the complex system is growing, it can tolerate a large amount of system corruption. But no complex system grows forever. Because the corrupt dynamics in the system are relatively separated from the larger dynamic of the whole, they are able to ignore the contraction in growth drivers better than the core dynamics. The effect of this (protecting the corruption instead of the system as a whole), is to make the corruption more stable than the core, and an increasing part of the dynamic of the whole. Much like cancer.When the combination of lost growth drivers and expanding corruption reaches a certain point, the complex system disintegrates in whole or in part, and its resources are released into the larger environment for use by unknown pioneers. And the cycle begins again.

Note that this dynamic is inevitable in the long run. You can modify its impact, but you can’t stop it. You can, of course, still think about changing this dynamic by embracing the possibility of beginning again when the cycle has “prepared” that possibility.

But we all deceive ourselves about how easy or possible it is to change an existing complex system that is late in its conservation phase. Say, our current society.

Next Post: The Delusions of System Change

 

 

How Corruption Affects Complex Systems

birch tree with fungi
System Corruption

We usually think of corruption as an individual moral failing, even if several people are involved. Their corrupt behavior was to line their pockets or something similar, and criminal prosecution, if successful, is the proper social balancing for their actions. Which is to say, once the guilty are in prison, the corruption is gone. Except for the social and economic cost of prison.

But in complex systems, corruption has many other effects, and these effects aren’t easy to tie to the moral failings of particular individuals. The other side of the corruption coin, as it were.

Remember, complex systems (say, a forest ecosystem) differ from complicated systems (say, a 787 plane) because the parts of a complex system change when they interact with each other. This makes the behavior of complex systems harder to predict, especially beyond the short run. Simply put, complex systems are adaptive and their future behavior depends on what they run into as much as what they are.

The reason why complex system corruption isn’t easily remedied is because, once corrupt processes are part of the system, they are also part of the way the system continues to reproduce itself. There is no functional equivalent to prosecution and prison for this kind of corruption, even if we get the head of a some cartel, or even if we destroy a particular black market organization.

Example: 30 years ago,black market economies (drugs, weapons, human trafficking, etc.) were relatively distinct from the rest of the economy. Now, the funds created through illegal enterprises are a part of global economic flows, and the capital that results from the black market behavior is embedded in the investment process in a way that makes its origins very hard to distinguish from other economic sources of capital. Bluntly, 4-8 cents of every dollar of your mortgage came from illegal transactions, and there is no way to know which 4-8 cents in your mortgage came from, say, human trafficking. Also, the return on the investment of, say, heroin money, in your mortgage is part of the black market organization’s financial plan, maybe for a sicario retirement plan or organizational expansion of the enterprise, or the rising cost of bad help. Now, even cartels have problems with housing or tech bubbles.

In this way, ordinary economic behavior becomes an important way that black markets persist and even prosper, through mechanisms that require no specific person to be morally culpable.

This isn’t all that corruption does in complex systems. Because all the parts of a complex system are tied together and depend to some extent on each other for their survival, efforts to eliminate system corruption create dependence on the continued existence of the black market. So, in addition to bribes and threats to people who affect the ability of the cartel to do its business, the entire counter-effort to the black markets comes, over time, to need the black market in order to secure jobs, grants, taxes, and other sources of  personal resources.  This dependence is in the vicinity of $100 billion dollars a year in the US and includes far more than drug enforcement jobs. It also includes prisons, rehabilitation programs, etc.

Also, the continuing integration of insurgent terror and black markets expands the financial and moral impact of the original corrupt transactions “down on the corner”.

In this way, the larger ecosystem of black markets, wars of various names on the black markets, and the gradual and increasing use of the resulting money in other kinds of enterprises becomes self-reproducing, and in fact, grows to become a greater part of everyday life for all of us.

Although I think of the above dynamics as interesting in themselves, they have some implications for our future and how we approach survival advocacy for our disability community that aren’t obvious from the discussion above. To get at those implications, we first have to have a deeper understanding of how complex systems age, and why corrupt dynamics like (but not limited to) the big picture ones above are inevitable in old complex systems like me, for example).

Next Post: The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems

All War Is Deception

Wizard of Oz scene exposing the man behind the curtain
Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

“All War is Deception” is a sentiment reaching back to the early days of Taoism and “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. At the time, as was the case in all human cultures at some point or another, war was evolving from ritual combat to a collective action that was entirely deceitful. Even the actions that seemed to be real were shaded, tweaked, exaggerated, and so on, to fool the enemy (and eventually, to fool your own troops). The reason why deceit replaced ritual conflict resolution was because those who stuck to the honorable approach to war lost and died.

This change was not that all war was ritual and suddenly turned into deceit. Soldiers have always tried to fool their enemy about where they were so they could avoid being targeted, even when the soldiers were all marching in formations. The change I’m describing above is that all of war gradually became deceit, through the expansion of the use of lies. Most importantly, war strategy came to assume deceit as a basic (strategic) organizing framework. Such a choice is a complete rejection of honorable conflict resolution in war, and I suspect, comes as no surprise to most modern people.

At roughly the same time that war was rejecting ritual resolution, there was again a Taoist sentiment supported by Sun Tzu that while war had to be deceit, governance had to be honorable, or the balance of the world would break.

When government becomes strategically deceitful, politics becomes war-not metaphorical war, but war. Just as it is unrealistic to expect war to stop being deceitful, it is no longer realistic to expect government as a whole to be honorable. While this is hardly a new idea, the entirely public exposure of the political culture of deceit in the 2016 election by almost every stakeholder in the fight and even some in other countries has demonstrated just how far our governance has drifted toward the “dark side”. Deceit in government has become not just a way of attaining short term goals or preventing “targeting”, as it were, but the underlying framework for all political strategy at all levels of society. Those who insist on maintaining more than a veneer of honor will be and are being culled from the body politic, not with death or gulags, but using the tools of social and political irrelevance.

And what is our collective response to this devolution in political culture? We seem unwilling to give up the idea that honorable people from somewhere will be able to eliminate these deceits and corruption. Much like those soldiers who thought that if they maintained commitment to honorable war, the move to deceit can be remedied.

Those of us who have worked in the disability community over the decades are well aware that policy decisions can cause death in our community. And not just abstract death, but the death of our friends, members of our family, people we love. Individuals who die because a policy change is deemed necessary to support a larger deceitful political strategy are just as dead and just as grieved as if they were shot dead by a soldier. Our brothers and sisters become collateral damage in a war where we have no importance, no political, and therefore, no social worth.

“When elephants fight, the grass gets crushed.”

Next Post: How Corruption Affects Complex Systems

The Harsh Realities Series

Picture of creepy black and white outside hall with statement,
What Future Will We Fight For?

I’ve had some notions about our common future that I haven’t put into posts because I was afraid they would be viewed as too wacky to be useful to our disability community. The election has changed my mind about that, so I’m going to post those ideas under the rubric, “Harsh Realities” over the next few weeks.

The Basics:

  1. The phrase “Culture Wars” is no longer a metaphor and hasn’t been for a while. The underlying framework of war is not the surface violence that we see in games and the news (or in actual combat for that matter). The real strategic framework of war is global deception, and deception is now the purpose of almost all public, and an increasingly scary percentage of private, communication.

    Deception includes lies, misdirection, oversimplification, provocation, and similar propagandist techniques. More importantly, strategic deception has no boundaries that segregate private life from public. Every communication becomes an opportunity for deceit and pursuit of an overarching strategy.

  2.  Closed system approaches, like law enforcement, ethical standards, logical argument, courts, and similar procedural disorder resolution methods that rely on common agreement and common ritual, are far too slow, and are already doing less and less to counter this situation. Instead, consensus conflict resolution is drifting relentlessly toward being no more than a reflection the ideologies of disruption that constitute our political system.

    The militarization of police forces and the rise of market-driven terror organizations like drug cartels are  particularly obvious examples of how we are being pushed toward a universal insurgency that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.

    There are many other examples; universal surveillance and the expanding corruption of organizations, institutions, and communities are trends over which we have no control as well. Deception is the first sign of corruption.

  3. Strategic Deception always creates unintended pools of chaos in communication in addition to the apparent immediate purpose of the deception. This has been most obvious in the financial crashes of recent decades, none of which were “planned”.

    They occurred because corrupt financial forces were seeking short term benefit and lost control of the impact of their more or less successful corruption.  Complex systems are full of unintended consequences, and deception as strategy increases the complexity, range, and reach of such consequences.

    These eddies of chaos arise and die unpredictably and dramatically enhance the overall uncertainty of the future, degrading our efforts to communicate real meaning and value.

    This reality of universal deception has always been accepted as unavoidable in what we have traditionally thought of as war. The so called “fog of war” is now becoming the fog of everyday life.

  4. The best (if not the only way) to think about the ideological insurgencies we have seen globally in recent years is that their goals have been disruption, not persuasion.  That is why countering propaganda memes with truth or rational analysis has had no impact on the belief systems of insurgencies or their electoral support. If disruption is the goal, lies are a great way to provoke it.
  5. There are excellent reasons to think that if our community doesn’t absorb these lessons, our advocacy will go the way that all ritual approaches to war have in the past-that is, our disability community rights advocacy may be rediscovered  by historians (or worse, by archaeologists) in some conceptual dustbin of our future.

Don’t immediately reject these ideas because they seem so strange.

We already have models in our community of how to move our advocacy in the direction of  an insurgency without losing our moral compass. The core of those models are community organizing, mutual support, and peaceful disruption of the increasingly likely retrenchment.

But, before we can actually make use of those models, we have to understand more deeply the necessity of doing so.

Next Post: All War is Deception