Complex Systems Defend Themselves

I’ve talked on here about the importance of taking seriously the notion of agency as it applies to systems other than biological.  In reading a recent Wired retrospective on what they called wrong, I was struck by feeling that their error was the same in all three cases, and that is underestimating the degree to which complex systems will defend themselves in the face of attack as if they were living, breathing organisms.

Recalling some of the ways systems defend themselves, it is interesting to see how the socio-technical agents discussed in the Wired piece do so:

  • Extreme Ideologies: “Wired failed to see how a new generation of fanatical geeks would use the Internet in their effort to take over the world. Instead of ending, history looped back on itself, and we are now confronted by a recrudescent and particularly virulent religious ideology straight out of the Middle Ages.”
  • Old Media: “…we underestimated how slowly Old Media would auger in — and how irresponsible it would become in its death throes….  Faced with fierce competition for those eyeballs, Old Media is hawking the apocalypse: The world is inundated by war, poverty, destruction, fascist Republicans! It’s about to be swept away by tidal waves unleashed by melting polar ice caps”
  • Political Systems: “So instead of spending a decade rebuilding civil society — reinventing how we resolve conflicts and build consensus — we got MoveOn and Daily Kos and Soros-funded 527s that divert immense energy into the mud of politics, all in the naked pursuit of political power.”

One of the general principles I’ve observed is that the more head-on and forcefully you attack a complex agent, the more immediate and powerful its response will be.  The fastest change comes from setting up an alternative system which is demonstrably superior, and recruiting resources from the old system at the margins where it is weakest and least self-aware.  By the time the old system musters a response, it is substantially co-opted by the the new, which now may be strong enough to defend itself and finish off the job.  There are no shortcuts.  The head-on attack either leaves the old system stronger and the new system dead, or it’s a path to mutually assured destruction.

For the would-be revolutionary, it may be frustrating to see no visible progress, but massive change can percolate slowly and invisibly before a speedy deathblow.  It took nearly 30 years of no apparent change, but in the end, the Berlin Wall fell in a relative blink of the eye.