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Posts Tagged ‘complexity

“These are the times that try men’s souls”*…

Last January, (R) D looked, via Adam Tooze, at the concept of the Polycrisis: “I know it is relentless. That is also a feature of the polycrisis we are in. It comes from all sides and it just doesn’t stop.” He’s developed his thinking, summarizing in a recent Financial Times piece…

Pandemic, drought, floods, mega storms and wildfires, threats of a third world war — how rapidly we have become inured to the list of shocks. So much so that, from time to time, it is worth standing back to consider the sheer strangeness of our situation…

Of course, familiar economic mechanisms still have huge power. A bond market panic felled an incompetent British government. It was, you might say, a textbook case of market discipline. But why were the gilt markets so jumpy to begin with? The backdrop was the mammoth energy subsidy bill and the Bank of England’s determination to unwind the huge portfolio of bonds that it had piled up fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

With economic and non-economic shocks entangled all the way down, it is little wonder that an unfamiliar term is gaining currency — the polycrisis.

A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality. Is the mighty Mississippi really running dry and threatening to cut off the farms of the Midwest from the world economy? Did the January 6 riots really threaten the US Capitol? Are we really on the point of uncoupling the economies of the west from China? Things that would once have seemed fanciful are now facts.

This comes as a shock. But how new is it really?…

Welcome to the world of the polycrisis” (gift link)

Then, in his newsletter, he goes more deeply into the concept and its roots…

Polycrisis is a term I first encountered when I was finishing Crashed in 2017. It was invoked by Jean-Claude Juncker to describe Europe’s perilous situation in the period after 2014. In the spirit of “Eurotrash”, I rather relished the idea of picking up a “found concept” from that particular source. On Juncker check out Nick Mulder’s wonderful portrait of “Homo Europus”. It turned out that Juncker got the idea from French theorist of complexity and resistance veteran Edgar Morin, who is a whole ‘nother story…

Polycrisis – thinking on the tightrope

Both pieces are fascinating and useful; both, eminently worth reading in full…

* Thomas Paine, The American Crisis


As we ponder profusion, we might recall that it was on this date in 1898 that an American institution was born.

The University of Minnesota football team (for our non-American readers out there, I’m of course referring to the kind of football where you’ll get a penalty for using your feet) was playing their final game against Northwestern University. The U of M’s team had been having a lackluster year, and there was a general feeling on campus that this was due to lack of enthusiasm during the games. So several students, lead by Johnny Campbell on a megaphone, decided to lead the crowd of spectators in a chant: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” The crowd went bananas, as they say, and an energized Minnesota team won the game 17-6.

That day Johnny Campbell and his (presumably drunk) friends became the first cheerleader squad.


Johnny Campbell


“We are a species which is naturally moved by curiosity, the only one left of a group of species (the genus Homo) made up of a dozen equally curious species”*…

… and one thing that curiosity might lead us to wonder is where evolution might take humanity from here. As Nick Longrich points out…

Discussions of human evolution are usually backward looking, as if the greatest triumphs and challenges were in the distant past. But as technology and culture enter a period of accelerating change, our genes will too. Arguably, the most interesting parts of evolution aren’t life’s origins, dinosaurs, or Neanderthals, but what’s happening right now, our present – and our future.

He reasons to some fascinating possibilities…

Humanity is the unlikely result of 4 billion years of evolution.

From self-replicating molecules in Archean seas, to eyeless fish in the Cambrian deep, to mammals scurrying from dinosaurs in the dark, and then, finally, improbably, ourselves – evolution shaped us.

Organisms reproduced imperfectly. Mistakes made when copying genes sometimes made them better fit to their environments, so those genes tended to get passed on. More reproduction followed, and more mistakes, the process repeating over billions of generations. Finally, Homo sapiens appeared. But we aren’t the end of that story. Evolution won’t stop with us, and we might even be evolving faster than ever.

It’s hard to predict the future. The world will probably change in ways we can’t imagine. But we can make educated guesses. Paradoxically, the best way to predict the future is probably looking back at the past, and assuming past trends will continue going forward. This suggests some surprising things about our future…

Meet our future selves: “Future evolution: from looks to brains and personality, how will humans change in the next 10,000 years?“– @NickLongrich in @ConversationUS.

* Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics


As we ponder the possible, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Richard Dawkins; he was born on this date in 1947. An evolutionary biologist, he made a number of important contributions to the public understanding of evolution. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he popularized the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. In The Extended Phenotype (1982), he introduced the influential concept that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can stretch far into the environment. And in The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he argued against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the complexity of living organisms; instead, he described evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker, in that reproduction, mutation, and selection are unguided by any designer.


“He said that there was death and taxes, and taxes was worse, because at least death didn’t happen to you every year”*…

There are lots of questions that surround taxation: how much? on what? for what? Scott Galloway (@profgalloway) explores a couple of others: how efficient? how fair?

* Terry Pratchett


As we ruminate on returns, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case on the constitutionality of the income tax for the second and last time (so far). The Income tax had been authorized by the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, and created later that year via the Revenue Act of 1913. In 1915 stockholders filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, which arguing that the Sixteenth Amendment covers “many taxes other than on income”; in 1920, the Court affirmed the constitutionality of an income tax. Then came a second suit…

The United States Supreme Court last decided a federal income tax case on constitutional grounds in 1920, a century ago. The case was Eisner v. Macomber , and the issue was whether Congress had the power under the Sixteenth Amendment to include stock dividends in the tax base. The Court answered “no” because “income” in the Sixteenth Amendment meant “the gain derived from capital, from labor, or from both combined.” A stock dividend was not “income” because it did not increase the wealth of the shareholder.

Macomber was never formally overruled, and it is sometimes still cited by academics and practitioners for the proposition that the Constitution requires that income be “realized” to be subject to tax. However, in Glenshaw Glass , the Court held in the context of treble antitrust damages that the Macomber definition of income for constitutional purposes “was not meant to provide a touchstone to all future gross income questions” and that a better definition encompassed all “instances of undeniable accessions to wealth, clearly realized, and over which the taxpayers have complete dominion.”

In the century that has passed since Macomber , the Court has never held that a federal income tax statute was unconstitutional. This behavior of the Court constitutes a remarkable example of American tax exceptionalism, because in most other countries income tax laws are subject to constitutional review and are frequently ruled unconstitutional…

Reuven Avi-Yonah, “Should U.S. Tax Law Be Constitutionalized? Centennial Reflections on Eisner v. Macomber (1920)


“Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences.”*…

In 2013, a philosopher and ecologist named Timothy Morton proposed that humanity had entered a new phase. What had changed was our relationship to the nonhuman. For the first time, Morton wrote, we had become aware that “nonhuman beings” were “responsible for the next moment of human history and thinking.” The nonhuman beings Morton had in mind weren’t computers or space aliens but a particular group of objects that were “massively distributed in time and space.” Morton called them “hyperobjects”: all the nuclear material on earth, for example, or all the plastic in the sea. “Everyone must reckon with the power of rising waves and ultraviolet light,” Morton wrote, in “Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World.” Those rising waves were being created by a hyperobject: all the carbon in the atmosphere.

Hyperobjects are real, they exist in our world, but they are also beyond us. We know a piece of Styrofoam when we see it—it’s white, spongy, light as air—and yet fourteen million tons of Styrofoam are produced every year; chunks of it break down into particles that enter other objects, including animals. Although Styrofoam is everywhere, one can never point to all the Styrofoam in the world and say, “There it is.” Ultimately, Morton writes, whatever bit of Styrofoam you may be interacting with at any particular moment is only a “local manifestation” of a larger whole that exists in other places and will exist on this planet millennia after you are dead. Relative to human beings, therefore, Styrofoam is “hyper” in terms of both space and time. It’s not implausible to say that our planet is a place for Styrofoam more than it is a place for people.

When “Hyperobjects” was published, philosophers largely ignored it. But Morton, who uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” quickly found a following among artists, science-fiction writers, pop stars, and high-school students. The international curator and art-world impresario Hans Ulrich Obrist began citing Morton’s ideas; Morton collaborated on a talk with Laurie Anderson and helped inspire “Reality Machines,” an installation by the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. Kim Stanley Robinson and Jeff VanderMeer—prominent sci-fi writers who also deal with ecological themes—have engaged with Morton’s work; Björk blurbed Morton’s book “Being Ecological,” writing, “I have been reading Tim Morton’s books for a while and I like them a lot.”

The problem with hyperobjects is that you cannot experience one, not completely. You also can’t not experience one. They bump into you, or you bump into them; they bug you, but they are also so massive and complex that you can never fully comprehend what’s bugging you. This oscillation between experiencing and not experiencing cannot be resolved. It’s just the way hyperobjects are.

Take oil: nature at its most elemental; black ooze from the depths of the earth. And yet oil is also the stuff of cars, plastic, the Industrial Revolution; it collapses any distinction between nature and not-nature. Driving to the port, we were surrounded by oil and its byproducts—the ooze itself, and the infrastructure that transports it, refines it, holds it, and consumes it—and yet, Morton said, we could never really see the hyperobject of capital-“O” Oil: it shapes our lives but is too big to see.

Since around 2010, Morton has become associated with a philosophical movement known as object-oriented ontology, or O.O.O. The point of O.O.O. is that there is a vast cosmos out there in which weird and interesting shit is happening to all sorts of objects, all the time. In a 1999 lecture, “Object-Oriented Philosophy,” Graham Harman, the movement’s central figure, explained the core idea:

The arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of “access” to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines…

We are not, as many of the most influential twentieth-century philosophers would have it, trapped within language or mind or culture or anything else. Reality is real, and right there to experience—but it also escapes complete knowability. One must confront reality with the full realization that you’ll always be missing something in the confrontation. Objects are always revealing something, and always concealing something, simply because they are Other. The ethics implied by such a strangely strange world hold that every single object everywhere is real in its own way. This realness cannot be avoided or backed away from. There is no “outside”—just the entire universe of entities constantly interacting, and you are one of them.

… “[Covid-19 is] the ultimate hyperobject,” Morton said. “The hyperobject of our age. It’s literally inside us.” We talked for a bit about fear of the virus—Morton has asthma, and suffers from sleep apnea. “I feel bad for subtitling the hyperobjects book ‘Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World,’ ” Morton said. “That idea scares people. I don’t mean ‘end of the world’ the way they think I mean it. But why do that to people? Why scare them?”

What Morton means by “the end of the world” is that a world view is passing away. The passing of this world view means that there is no “world” anymore. There’s just an infinite expanse of objects, which have as much power to determine us as we have to determine them. Part of the work of confronting strange strangeness is therefore grappling with fear, sadness, powerlessness, grief, despair. “Somewhere, a bird is singing and clouds pass overhead,” Morton writes, in “Being Ecological,” from 2018. “You stop reading this book and look around you. You don’t have to be ecological. Because you are ecological.” It’s a winsome and terrifying idea. Learning to see oneself as an object among objects is destabilizing—like learning “to navigate through a bad dream.” In many ways, Morton’s project is not philosophical but therapeutic. They have been trying to prepare themselves for the seismic shifts that are coming as the world we thought we knew transforms.

For the philosopher of “hyperobjects”—vast, unknowable things that are bigger than ourselves—the coronavirus is further proof that we live in a dark ecology: “Timothy Morton’s Hyper-Pandemic.”

* “Several thousand years from now, nothing about you as an individual will matter. But what you did will have huge consequences. This is the paradox of the ecological age. And it is why action to change global warming must be massive and collective.” – Timothy Morton, Being Ecological


As we find our place, we might send classical birthday greetings to James Clerk Maxwell; he was born on this date in 1831.  A mathematician and and physicist, he calculated (circa 1862) that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light– kicking off his work in uniting electricity, magnetism, and light… that’s to say, formulating the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation, which is considered the “second great unification in physics” (after the first, realized by Isaac Newton). Though he was the apotheosis of classical (Newtonian) physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for modern physics, starting the search for radio waves and paving the way for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics.  In the Millennium Poll – a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists at the turn of the 21st century – Maxwell was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein.



“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it… Geniuses remove it.”*…




World War II bomber planes returned from their missions riddled with bullet holes. The first response was, not surprisingly, to add armor to those areas most heavily damaged. However, the statistician Abraham Wald made what seemed like the counterintuitive recommendation to add armor to those parts with no damage. Wald had uniquely understood that the planes that had been shot where no bullet holes were seen were the planes that never made it back. That’s, of course, where the real problem was. Armor was added to the seemingly undamaged places, and losses decreased dramatically.

The visible bullet holes of this pandemic are the virus and its transmission. Understandably, a near-universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been to double down on those disciplines where we already possess deep and powerful knowledge: immunology and epidemiology. Massive resources have been directed at combating the virus by providing fast grants for disciplinary work on vaccines. Federal agencies have called for even more rapid response from the scientific community. This is a natural reaction to the immediate short-term crisis.

The damage we are not attending to is the deeper nature of the crisis—the collapse of multiple coupled complex systems.

Societies the world over are experiencing what might be called the first complexity crisis in history. We should not have been surprised that a random mutation of a virus in a far-off city in China could lead in just a few short months to the crash of financial markets worldwide, the end of football in Spain, a shortage of flour in the United Kingdom, the bankruptcy of Hertz and Niemann-Marcus in the United States, the collapse of travel, and to so much more.

As scientists who study complex systems, we conceive of a complexity crisis as a twofold event. First, it is the failure of multiple coupled systems—our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems. Second, it involves solutions, such as social distancing, that involve unavoidable tradeoffs, some of which amplify the primary failures. In other words, the way we respond to failing systems can accelerate their decline.

We and our colleagues in the Santa Fe Institute Transmission Project believe there are some non-obvious insights and solutions to this crisis that can be gleaned from studying complex systems and their universal properties…

The more complicated and efficient a system gets, the more likely it is to collapse altogether.  Scientists who study complex systems offer solutions to the pandemic: “The Damage We’re Not Attending To.”

See also: “Complex Systems Theory Explains Why Covid Crushed the World.”

* Alan Perlis


As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronmer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, the newspaper did not issue a retraction.

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)


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