Anyone who watched the tumultuous 2012 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race would be forgiven for viewing my last post on Predicting the Future with a degree of skepticism. Who could have predicted the trifecta of unusual events: a lone swimmer disrupting the event, a broken oar within a few strokes of a controversial restart, and the collapse of one of Oxford’s rowers after their battered boat crossed the finishing line in an undeserved second place?
Surely our hypothetical reader would be well-justified in arguing that this sequence of events underlines a chaotic and inherently unpredictable model of reality?
My response is that in fact, it supports the essential thesis of my last entry: that complexity paradoxically reduces unpredictability by reducing the scope for an individual’s directed action to influence larger scale societal events. The Boat Race, like any sporting event, is a very simplified reduction of reality. It imposes strict and arbitrary rules on the flow of events and therefore creates a simplicity that is altogether lacking in real life. It is for this reason that sports are enjoyable to participate in or watch. They offer a glimpse into a simpler time, where one man – or small group of men with common purpose – could change their fate simply through concerted effort. Of course, as in those simpler times, the trajectory of those men’s lives in sport is much more prone to events; a lone swimmer can disrupt a race between two boats on a narrow stretch of the Thames, but cannot so easily simultaneously disrupt all global shipping routes.
Complexity and globalisation create systems so fundamental to society that they have immense redundancy. Competition between providers of these systems ensures this. Where the systems are narrowest – simplest – vulnerability is highest. Returning to the example of global shipping, blowing up the Suez Canal would have significant impact and it is possible to construct a hypothetical scenerio where this could be done by relatively few people. Staying in the Middle East, the global diplomatic attention focused on Iran is in part down to their ability to (transiently) disrupt shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.
If complexity is an ally of predictability through creating redundant systems, this creates significant implications for good government. The historical guiding principle behind good government is that it should manage events. By anticipating and managing global events to national advantage, it is supposed to create conditions allowing its citizens to thrive. I would suggest that as the world becomes more complex, it should become increasingly easy for governments to predict the long-term future regardless of short-term fluctuations. For instance, globalisation is making China increasingly corporatist (and thus eventually capitalist) by forcing it to invest the large capital flows that its exporting creates. It is only when a country is isolated from the impact of global events that its behaviour becomes more unpredictable: North Korea being a prime example of this.
The implications of this for the (lack of) efficacy of sanctions are interesting, suggesting that the best way to manage countries like Iran would be to drown them in global capital and make it impossible for them to act independently as they’d be slitting their own throats. This theory is not dissimilar to MAD – the Mutually Assured Destruction of the Cold War – except that the embedding of a nation in the interdependent system is done through chains of gold rather than fear.
A counter-argument would be to highlight the financial crisis of the past few years; surely that proved beyond doubt that complexity creates more risk, not less? Certainly, the complexity of the collateralised debt market created an unexpected outcome. However, the underlying trend is little changed. Individual people (and countries) have been ruined, but the overall trajectory towards an increasingly globalised world has not budged. If anything, it has been strengthened by forcing countries like China to acknowledge their increasing responsibilities in that world of globalised capital, forcing them to act in ways that support the system. The beauty is this increasing enmeshment is done voluntarily, out of national self-interest. Would we have seen China allowing the yuan to appreciate to the extent it has in the past year without the financial crisis causing them to import inflation due to US quantitative easing programmes? I think not.
If it is becoming increasingly impossible for national governments to significantly make long-term differences to a nation’s path because of the effects of increasing complexity, what should a government actually do?
We are already seeing the effects: governments are becoming more like advertisers than managers. The role of government is to sell an image of the nation to its citizens, sufficient to make them content to carry on, almost regardless of what actually happens. Of course, this has always been true to some extent. But it’s not surprising that the nature of politics has accelerated in this direction over the past 20-30 years as it is over this period that the rate of globalisation has accelerated due to increasing technological, logistical and financial sophistication.
For those unhappy with the government-as-advertiser model, there is an alternative. Government can act as national life coach instead. It can work to reframe and reconceive reality in a way that is palatable for most of its citizens and encourages them to adopt a positive attitude to maintaining a role within the system. In some ways, this is little more than a minor difference to the advertiser model, but it does at least encourage a focus on broader measures of contentedness. This is the reason we see increased attention being given by governments to concepts like national happiness indices. They are ways to measure and influence the debate around national contendedness without actually having to make significant long-term differences in outcomes. Remember, under this model the government is life coach to the nation NOT to individual citizens within it, and the best interests of the nation do not always coincide with the best interests of all its citizens.
For the individual, the lesson from the impact of complexity remains similar. If you cannot escape the complexity, it will be easier to manage your attitude to events rather to manage the events themselves. But if you can work to reduce complexity in your life, you can diminish the impact of wider events on you personally, and increase your ability to manage your personal future. It’s becoming increasingly hard for countries to do this, but individuals – for now – still have far more scope to act.