A radically unpredictable future

Last night the BBC screened a film called The Secret Life of Chaos which you can see here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEpZFEIDHdc . It draws on scientists less traditionally famous in the canon of complexity research such as Turing, Belussof and May, as well as some who are, such as Mandelbrot and Lorenz. Apart from the presenter’s continuous insistence that everything is reducible to simple mathematical rules (Jim al-Khalili, an astrophysicist from the University of Surry) the film’s message is that order and chaos are paradoxically connected, that self-organisation needs no outside designer or interference, and that small differences in starting points can bring about radically different outcomes over time. The future, argues al-Khalili, is radically unpredictable.

The film makes an argument for self-organisation taking place within evolutionary environments, so that some self-organising processes are more likely to succeed than others. At the same time, the process of evolutionary selection is likely to impact upon the dynamic of self-organisation. If self-organization is an inherent property of even simple forms of life which then takes place within the complex inter-patterning of evolutionary environments, it is possible to appreciate how complex life can become, complex processes taking place within other complex processes, which nonetheless produces order and patterning.

The danger of the message that everything is reducible to simple mathematical rules is that some organisational theorists take this up as an invitation for managers to identify these simple rules and ‘apply them’ in their organisation. Of course, even if it were possible to do so, the result would be the same, that from the continuous non-linear feedback where the next iteration is informed by the data from the last iteration, processes would still move beyond the manager’s ability to predict or control the outcome over time.

This film is very interesting and worth watching.


3 thoughts on “A radically unpredictable future

  1. Ivan Webb

    It seems to me that the danger is in assuming all complex adaptive systems are equivalent, and then attempting to treat human organisations as if they were equivalent to ant colonies. While it is true that a few simple rules may well foster emergence within a context (eg, trade or parenting), the emergence remains largely unpredictable because any context is also within a context… in human terms we are not dealing with closed systems.
    It seems to me that in recent times we have become so familiar with the use of various kinds of systems thinking that we have lost touch with the ‘thinking’ part and now act as if the systems we ‘encounter’ were real.
    Perhaps, it would be wise to keep in mind one of the original ideas underpinning the development of systems thinking, viz, that when dealing with a situation it may (or may not) be appropriate to approach it “as if” it were a system. The “as if” part can be very important in minimizing errors.

  2. Chris Mowles Post author

    I couldn’t agree more, Ivan. Would love to know of any simple rules that work in parenting – this is clearly something I have missed out on!

  3. Emily Gerrard

    Mmm – simple rules that may well foster emergence in parenting. Be there & get out of the way? And forget to once in a while.


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