Applied Complexity Newsletter - August 2020


Inaugural Newsletter
First things first: thank you for subscribing to the Applied Complexity Newsletter! Given the uncertain and fragile nature of any and all centrally held social media outlets, email looks like a robust way to keep in contact.

I’m certain how I use this newsletter will evolve over time. And in the future I will invite guests to offer commentary in addition to myself. To begin, I will simply offer commentary on large-scale issues once a month with the hope of adding some clarity.

An Integrated Strategy Employs Tactics Dynamically
The politically polarized discourse around our (lack of) pandemic and epidemic strategy, like everything else these days, tends to cluster into binary certitudes. This can be witnessed in the tension over “lockdowns” and their effectiveness: “Lockdowns don’t work and harm more than help” vs. “We need lockdowns until we’ve eradicated this thing”.

These general assertions imply a static picture, either lockdowns are “good” or they are “bad. Period.

This is of course nonsense. It is true that lockdowns (whether voluntary or government-imposed) are not sustainable. However, that they are not sustainable does not imply they are never appropriate.

We missed crucial windows early on in the Covid-19 pandemic. To the extent that we performed “lockdowns” in the USA, we performed them too half-heartedly and too asynchronously to snuff out the virus. Thus, we’ve ended up with prolonged semi-lockdown states that don’t halt the contagion and don’t allow us to return to normal social behavior.

Our tactics MUST be dynamic. A sharp and short lockdown on the front-end of an emerging epidemic gives the opportunity to orient to the challenge, better understand the nature of the contagion, and prepare for next steps beyond lockdown.

This can be understood as a failure of linear assumptions: a little lockdown over a long time is not equal to a strong lockdown over a short time. Will we learn?

Self-fulfilling Prophecies in Human Systems
We know that a virus can be eliminated. There are a few complementary tactics that can get us there, including sharp initial “freeze” upon detection of an emerging pandemic, mass testing, wearing masks when gathering, and spatial “green and red zone” tactics for resuming normal behavior. There are numerous examples of combinations of these working to eradicate the Covid epidemic locally: New Zealand and Taiwan come to mind.

Nevertheless, throughout this global event there have been many voices claiming such a feat is “impossible”. In the sense that no one could achieve this, it is clearly false. But it is not false in the usual way.

In this case, the belief that it is impossible produces conditions that make it impossible. It is circular. When we claim something is “impossible”, does this claim include the conditions of the belief of impossibility? If so, then it is true that is is impossible.

We don’t have a clean way of discussing such self-fulfilling prophecies in human systems. What we believe affects our decisions, and our decisions modify what is and is not possible.

Global vs. Local Mitigation For Epidemics
A pandemic is a global problem. Does that imply its litigants and solutions must be applied globally?

Green zone expansion strategy, as articulated for instance by Balaji Srinivasan, depends on local eradication combined with boundary controls such as mandatory quarantine upon entrance, or general travel restrictions on ingress.

This, one of the most promising approaches to eliminating an infectious agent, can only be realized if local green zones have the sovereignty to control their own boundaries. Local eradication is useless if you keep importing it.

This is in stark contrast to a global approach, that depends on “decision makers” managing all the myriad locations and conditions — a computationally overwhelming job.

Moreover, local control of boundaries implies that even if some locations fail, others will succeed, and failed locations are incentivized to get their act together to join the green zones.

Global scale decisions put us all at the mercy of “the deciders”. Even with the best of intentions they can fail miserably. In late January the WHO was encouraging (!) the continuation of global travel. We need local decisions and local control, even in the face of global problems.

Two Years on Our Land
Speaking of local, this month marks two years since my wife and I purchased a home and some land to begin our journey towards a homesteading lifestyle. It has taken these two years for our mark on the land to become really visible. Mostly those are improvements, though not universally.

It has been a humbling and sobering two years. Working the land takes a long time, both physically, and mentally coming up to speed. I can feel in my bones how far behind I am in the necessary knowhow to maintain a homestead. It requires one to be a true practicing generalist.

I love it.

But the timescale is long. Iterate on the garden once a year, no more. Manage the forests across many years. Plant and nurture these trees for the rest of my days.

The timescale is necessarily intergenerational, and I hope to pass on at least some of what I am able to learn to future generations. I believe there is no time to waste in becoming an intergenerational species once again.

Fall 2020 Intro to Complexity and Applied Complexity launches next month
THANK YOU to those who signed up. This is a scale-bound course, I limited enrollment to 30 people. The seats went faster than I could have imagined. We are in the midst of an educational phase transition, and I am so pleased to be part of that.

In addition to repeating this course in the Spring, I will be looking at what topics folks might be interested to go more in depth on for future courses. Stay tuned.


Thanks for reading and don't hesitate to reach out joe.w.norman@gmail.com

All my best,
Joe