“For Want of a Nail” – A Proverb of Chaos

Posted: January 30, 2011 in Complexity, Philosophy, Quotes
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

As a Christmas gift, I received a set of video lectures by The Teaching Company entitled “Chaos.”  The course, presented by a well known educator on the subject, Professor Steven Strogatz, explores the history, science and implications of chaos theory.  I feel confident in saying that chaos theory is still not nearly as appreciated as it probably should be, given how fundamental of a breakthrough in scientific perspective it represents.

I am very much still learning it’s principles, but from what I’ve learned so far I believe that it’s an extremely fascinating & useful lens through which to comprehend, cope with & adapt to the bewilderingly complex & constantly evolving world around us.

Besides the science and math principles which the course explores, Professor Strogatz also provides some examples of chaos theory in literature & art.  Anybody who has ever seen a fractal (i.e. self-similar spatial patterns – often very beautifully coloured) – knows at least something about chaos theory.

Below I share a well known parable of chaos (and a picture of the famous fractal known as the Mandlebrot set).

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


 

From wikipedia:

This proverb has been around in many variations for centuries (see historical references below), and describes a situation where permitting some small undesirable situation will allow gradual and inexorable worsening. The rhyme is thus a good illustration of the “butterfly effect“, and ideas presented in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on initial conditions; the initial condition being the presence or absence of the horseshoe nail.[1] At a more literal level, it summarizes the importance of military logistics throughout the history of human warfare.

An important thing to note is that these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it.[1]

A big lesson I’ve taken away from my study of chaos theory so far is that complex systems in a state of criticality (i.e. those that have a lot of converging forces reaching/overshooting limits in sync) have a high sensitivity to small fluctuations in certain key system components.  As such, minor changes in starting conditions can have disproportionately large consequences.  As the the bolded parts of the Wikipedia explanation above indicates, the dependence of a system on initial conditions and the inability for us to see causality except in hindsight, leads us to a situation whereby turbulence is more or less baked into the cake.

If we are to accept that breakdown is an inherent feature of complex systems, then I think that the questions we should be asking are the same as those being asked by the brilliant Canadian intellectual & complexity theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon.   Paraphrasing, Homer-Dixon asks “how do we turn the breakdown of our societies into renewal?  how do we transform catastrophe into genesis? – how do we foster the notion of catagenesis? how do we exploit the opportunities created by the coming massive non-linearities?”

My current scenario for the next 3-5 years envisions some kind of a “tipping point” event on during that time horizon.  Figuring out if it’s going to be a financial/monetary/economic tipping point (my best bet), or an energy tipping point, or an ecological tipping point or some other kind of tipping point is not the main issue as I see it.  The main issue, as I see it right now, is the recognition of and increasingly likelihood that our hyper-complexified & hyper-efficient globe-spanning system of trade & communications will hit a major non-linearity and be almost completely transformed in a very short time frame.

My concerns has to do with how we act upon these non-linear events & trajectories.  These “chaotic shifts” present opportunities for creative responses just as much as they present opportunities for ideologues with antiquated ideas to seize power.  Catastrophe can just be catastrophe – it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to creative & adaptive responses.  The big idea is that when a system is on the verge of chaos, the slightest nudge to that system can send it through either a favourable phase transition or an unfavourable phase transition – but ultimately ending up in a new state of complexity & organization (often at a lower level of complexity – but I’m open to this idea being wrong).

As I see it, the capacity & opportunity for new models to emerge is greatest during major phase transitions.  These new models may be new business/economic/monetary models, they could be new agricultural & energy models, or they could be sociocultural models – among other possibilities.  I think new models will be increasingly called upon as adaptive strategies for managing the rapid pace of change & non-linearity.

I still hold out hope that there are ideas, technologies, and social arrangements available to us today that can be used to bootstrap a new and post-modern way of living.  I can only hope that as things continue to “shift” (ever-faster), more and more people will seek and find ways of adapting to these changes in a creative & productive manner.  The alternatives don’t appeal much to me – so I’m gonna keep working towards the positive stuff….whatever that means.

Cheers,

a.j.m.

Additional Resources:

Chaos Theory (wikipedia)

 

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Comments
  1. AJM: Thanks another interesting and beautifully succinct item on, as you say,an under-appreciated area of inter-disciplinary study..I think that is part of the problem.

    A better understanding of the inter-connectedness of complex systems across domains and in everyday life would only be a benefit.

    As you can’t miss(!) from my own blog complex systems is what we (Ontonix) “do”. Measuring the complexity within a system to manage and maintain it at a safe distance from criticality – Prevention better (less painful and costly) than cure!

    We view it as “Advanced Risk Management” – as endo/exogenous exposures cannot be detected by conventional techniques. Of particular relevance to a business system is contagion from ecosystem (e.g. supply chain). Witness pace and impact of global financial crisis upon banking – robust yet fragile – brought to its knees in hours!

    Similar scenario for virus’ with rapid potential spread in our increasingly global society.

    Otherwise “hindsight” in a post-critical environment is the only option.

    David

    • a.j.m. says:

      David,

      Thank you for the kind words, and I apologize about taking forever to follow up.

      I know you must know this feeling – like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, having seen the light of complex systems & chaos theory, it’s very difficult for one to come back into the cave and explain to the linear thinking cave-dwellers what a non-linear world really looks like.

      I’m not a strict genetic determinist or anything, so I do think that, although our brains have probably evolved to solve relatively simple problems with linear problem solving techniques, I think we do have the capacity to think non-linearly and solve non-linear problems (with the help of computer technologies).

      I checked out Ontonix & your blog – I like what I see. It’s a tangible application of these concepts – something that I’m (sadly) not very good at. I’m definitely gonna keep up to speed and subscribe to your blog feed.

      Out of curiosity – do you know of anybody who’s doing the type of work Ontonix does, but in Canada? I’ve got entrepreneurial tendencies and if nobody is applying these concepts in my neck of the woods, perhaps there is an opportunity there.

      Cheers,
      -a.j.m.

  2. […] As a Christmas gift, I received a set of video lectures by The Teaching Company entitled “Chaos.”  The course, presented by a well known educator on the subject, Professor Steven Strogatz, explores the history, science and implications of chaos theory.  I feel confident in saying that chaos theory is still not nearly as appreciated as it probably should be, given how fundamental of a breakthrough in scientific perspective it represents. I am very … Read More […]

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