Applied Complexity Newsletter - January 2021

History is not reversible

History is not reversible

Happy New Year! Already in 2021 we are experiencing quite a ride. Legacy institutional powers have been focused on returning things to “normal”. What they don’t — and by their bureaucratic nature can’t — perceive is that we are going through irreversible changes.

In complex systems, multiple states can be possible for the same parameter values, where the parameters can be thought of as the “external conditions” the system is experiencing. 

We can picture this on an “energy landscape” as there being multiple valleys that the system can settle into. Which one it ends up in is a matter of the history that took the system to where it is. 

As the parameters change, states that were once stable can become unstable, and lead the system to switch rapidly to a new attractor. The rub is that even if one manages to turn the parameters back to what they used to be, the system is now firmly settled in a new state — it is not reversible in that sense.


In dynamical systems this is known as hysteresis and is most generally characterized as a “fold bifurcation”. In the drawing below, solid lines represent stable state, the dashed line represents an unstable boundary between stable state. As the system moves in parameter space (x-axis) it is possible that the stable state that the system was just in vanishes, leaving the system no choice but to transition to a different state.


Now in this state, even if the parameters get turned back to previous values, there is simply nothing to take the system out of this new regime!

This is what the institutions aren’t able to grasp. Their belief is that, by turning the dials back to where they used to be, the system will go back with it. They are wrong: history is unfolding, and it is not reversible.

There are very clear signs of this irreversible shift: a new permanent wall to be constructed around the Capitol (for now a metal fence lined with barbed wire on top), an unprecedented self-organized swarm attack on short selling hedge funds, and of course a new normal that includes transient “lockdowns” of varying degrees globally, impacting every aspect of business and life, to name three.

As always, I must insist that we don’t know exactly where we are headed. But I can guarantee you it’s not back to where we were over the past fifty years or so.

Godspeed all, we indeed live in interesting times. 

As always, thank you for reading my newsletter, and don’t hesitate to drop an email in my inbox.

All my best,

Joe