Commenting on the latest Bracken work, a reader notes:
I just found the time to breeze through “Alas, Brave New Babylon”. That suggested something to pass along to you.
Several years ago, my son…took a class called Chaos and Complexity. I got interested, read his textbooks, and a bunch more books on the subject.
We’ve long know that there are complex systems all around us – weather, the power grid, ecosystems, the human body, the stock market, and many more. We’ve never had a way to study complex system dynamics until the advent of the Internet. Since the Internet, those who study complexity have learned some interesting things, including what is unknowable.
Those who study complexity speak of an analogy, the Sand Table Game. This is called a game because it is a thought experiment, run under artificial rules. It works like this:
Imagine a table, say a 4 X 8 foot sheet of plywood, sitting on sawhorses. Imagine you rig a device to trickle grains of sand from four feet above the table, onto the center of the table. You watch to see what happens.
The first grains of sand will hit the table and bounce around in random fashion. Eventually, the grains will come to occupy the center surface of the table. Falling grains will hit and dislodge other grains. The sandpile will grow. As the sand pile grows, once in a while one grain will dislodge a bunch of other grains and cause a sluff on one area of the sand pile. The sides of the sandpile will grow steeper and the top taller.
Eventually, one falling grain of sand will cause a cascading, catastrophic rearrangement of the entire sandpile. Eventually and ALWAYS.
This catastrophic rearrangement, the thinkers say, always happens in every complex system. It’s one of the characteristics of complex systems. It is impossible to predict which grain of sand will cause this catastrophe – only that it WILL happen, eventually, with every complex system.
Think, for example, of the Archduke Ferdinand’s driver taking a wrong turn in Sarajevo, a wrong turn that coincidentally placed the Archduke in the path of an assassin’s bullet, triggering, probably, two world wars.
Back to the sandpile analogy. Although it’s impossible to know exactly which random grain of sand will cause the catastrophic rearrangement of the sandpile, we can observe the growing potential for disaster as the sides of the sandpile get steeper and the top gets higher.
As you express in “Alas, Brave New Babylon”, I see the sandpiles of our economic, social and technical complex systems getting very steep and tall.