Applied Complexity Newsletter - December 2020

The clearest view of failure we've ever had, and our role in what's next

The COVID Year

Hey everyone, hope you are finding yourself in a comfortable spot for this, the final month of 2020. Certainly for most of us it has been the strangest year in memory. A year that began for me with a warning about our susceptibility to pandemic is closing with vindication, but zero satisfaction (our paper from Jan 26, 2020 can be found here).

In addition to the societal drama, we had our first child in March, delivered at home completely naturally (a blessing I will never forget), and six weeks later suffered a fire on the homestead that destroyed one of the historic mill buildings (another blessing that it was not worse and that no people were hurt). Wow, 2020!

It is noteworthy that the COVID pandemic is the most well-documented in history. We have untold amounts of data about infections, mortality, structure of the virus itself, interventions and their consequences, etc. Despite this, there is absolutely no consensus or coherence around how serious it is, or what to do (or not do) about it. 

This should cause pause to all data enthusiasts. Our informational connectivity and ability to process large amounts of data would appear to enable a much clearer picture of what is going on in real time, as well as to shine light on what are effective and ineffective interventions. 

The problem is that both the data and analyses are generated in an opaque manner from the perspective of most people. It is reasonable in an information environment flooded by mis- and dis-information to be skeptical of the numbers one is presented with coming from far away and agenda-laden sources. Not only are people skeptical of the data they receive, but skeptical of providing their personal data to what amount to unaccountable authorities to do who-knows-what with it.

It is hard to imagine a solution to this distrust at scale, given that scale it the source of the distrust. People believe what they experience directly, with their own eyes and ears, or the eyes of their close friends and families. Outside of that, it is not unreasonable to doubt the veracity of the information one receives. Too much mediation, and too many agendas.

And what’s worse, our desire to be “data-driven” at the societal scale can actually hamper the ability to respond locally. Take for instance the issue of at-home rapid testing — something that certainly ought to be available to everyone now, but isn’t. One of the friction points slowing the introduction of such tests is the implications for reporting: simply, if one tests themselves at home, they are not necessarily reporting their information to a central authority, and it is difficult for that authority to compel them to do so.

The tradeoff for public health is obvious: it is better to solve a problem without a central view into the detailed dynamics, than it is to have such a central view while failing to solve the problem.

Data is good, until it’s not. We should focus on solving problems first. 

The swings of history and our role

As big as COVID is, it is not really the headline. It is both a symptom of our global hyperconnectivty, and a catalyst to a transition into a new historical epoch. 

The individual has a dual relationship with the unfolding of history. On one hand, the dynamics are so large that it is hard to imagine one’s personal actions affecting the macroscopic trajectory. On the other, history unfolds as a consequence of all of our decisions and actions — it is not separate from them.

In dynamical systems terms, going through a transition from one regime to another can be understood as passing through an instability. What was once stable becomes unstable, or otherwise some large event pushes the system far enough away from a stable point that it crosses an energy barrier, making it unlikely to return. 

When the macroscopic system is stable, it is true that individual actions don’t “matter” much historically: despite perturbations away from the stable point your actions might cause, the system returns. We can picture this as a ball sitting at the bottom of a valley. Push it away, and it returns — something we discussed in an earlier newsletter. We also discussed how the swings away from the stable point get wilder as it becomes less stable (so-called “critical slowing down”). 

These points of instability are where our individual actions matter the most — even the smallest of them. Consider the ball sitting on top of a hill. Something is going to push it so that it rolls down. But which direction will it go? And how small of a push will determine or influence that direction? Imagine there are not merely two directions as in this drawing, but an unknown number of possible directions to roll into.

This is the same reason chaotic dynamics are “sensitive to initial conditions”. What begin as the tiniest of differences over time become amplified into very large differences over time.

So, it is true that a crisis is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to participate directly in the unfolding of history. No act is too small to matter.

As always, thank you for reading my newsletter, and look forward to hearing from you. Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New year, and all of that nice stuff.