2020 April, 15

On the Necessity of Ordered Chaos

This is a draft of one of the chapters from my forthcoming book, released to my newsletter. This version may differ from the final publication.

Hello Again!


My last newsletter was sent just as America was hunkering down for what has proven to be a long fight against a global pandemic.

In it, I described the dubious statistics from China and their botched response to the virus. I talked about how many other countries, including America, made the same mistakes, which has led to the virus having a more painful impact than it otherwise would have. I hope you've been weathering the storm well with your loved ones.

I also mentioned that I'm writing a book, saying that "I’ve been frustrated for years with centralization and several structural problems I see with society. So I finally decided to say something. Yes, to point out the problems I see like I have here with the virus. But also to highlight actions that we as individuals can take to improve the world."

I've been furiously typing away since, and would like to share a draft of one of the early chapters with you. In part to share my progress, in part to ask for your feedback. Hope you find it valuable.

On the Necessity of Ordered Liberty

Who are you?” - Kosh, Vorlon Ambassador, Babylon 5

What do you want?” - Mr. Morden, representing the surrounding Shadows, Babylon 5

There is a Yin to every Yang.

This is a dualistic concept, the two mirror each other. Yin is the sun, Yang is the moon. Yin is day, Yang is night. Yin is order, stability, consistency. Yang is chaos, change, variety.

 

The Yin-Yang symbol most will be familiar with has a swirl of yin (white), and a swirl of yang (black), with a dot of each in the other. The dots represent Humanity, which finds its balance by having one foot in each of these universal ideals.

 

Neither is inherently bad.

 

The first two quotes at the header of this piece – Who are you, what do you want – are asked repeatedly by the Vorlons and the Shadows, respectively. They are both ancient alien races from the SiFi show Babylon 5.

 

So the Vorlons are going around testing people by asking who they are, and the Shadows are doing the same by asking people what they want. And it’s these questions that are the core of their race’s respective philosophies. Both believe their philosophy is the best guide for helping the younger races of the galaxies mature.

 

The Shadows are the epitome of chaos. What do you want? - completely focused on change and the future. They believe progress is born of the struggle, when faced with adversity nations innovate. The best ideas are forged in the fire by trial. And so they seek to subject the universe to chaos in order to ensure it never becomes stagnant and frail.

 

The Vorlons are the epitome of order. Who are you? - as if your currently defined identity where fixed and all that mattered. They believe that only with careful nurturing can the greatest growth happen. The strongest people are raised with a guiding hand and a safe environment. So they seek to impose order on the universe to cultivate it.

 

So, the Vorlons and Shadows are busy with their galactic war over ideals and who’s the better absent-father figure, while trying to press the smaller races into picking sides.

Captain Sheridan of Earth, as the bad-ass he is, rejects the choice. Instead he declares both of the super ancient alien races with really big space fleets and planet destroying weapons to be whiny children, right to their faces. He insists on a third path.

 

As Sheridan says, “We can find our own way between Order and Chaos […] Now get the hell out of our galaxy! Both of you."

That’s humanity. We need order to grow, and chaos to change. Yin AND Yang.

 

Chaos can be dangerous, but it also allows change. It is the root of choice, freedom and liberty.

 

But with total liberty nothing is consistent and we have no chance to pause and enjoy our liberties.

 

Order seems to offer safety – stability, predictability. But it also stagnates us. Too many constraints sacrifices our ability to enjoy our safety in our own unique ways.

 

Too much freedom, or too much order, and we become sickened.

 

We need both. Sufficient order so that our freedoms are lasting. Sufficient freedom so that we might enjoy our stability.

 

We don’t have to choose. We can have both.

 

Unfortunately, that isn’t easy.

 

Maintaining the balance between stability and freedom is less having equal footing on two pieces of solid ground, and more planting your feet on two sides of a board, putting the board on a bowling ball, and trying to keep off the ground.

 

We can do it, but it’s not easy.

 

And all too often we get it wrong.

 

And when we’ve been delicately balanced for so long, the fall can seem long and painful.

 

The fall into complete chaos, lacking all stability, is anarchy. It is a collapse of civilization, a world of war and gangs and thuggery. Even if you crawl on top of the pile, it’s so unstable you’re unlikely to stay on top for long. Fortunately this world, and it’s perils, are well known, and largely avoided by our societies and cultures and institutions. It is designed away.

 

The fall into complete order, lacking all liberty, is stasis. It is the expulsion of choice and individuality, a world of monotony, and routine. And everyone slowly wilts and rots away, devoid of any Self.

 

With a world fallen into total chaos, it’s obvious to most people that the state of things is terrible, and it’s generally easy to get people to agree that things need to change. Galvanizing support for reasserting some level of stability to a world wrought by war and conflict isn’t hard. It may take some effort to bring about that stability and make it last, but we as a species have done that plenty of times.

 

A world fallen into complete order, however, is another beast entirely.

 

One of the central arguments of this book is that we are tipping too far into complete order. While our stories and abstractions of the world spin a narrative of more chaos, the fundamentals of life are in fact becoming more stagnant. I believe that, at this moment in the ‘developed’ world we face a greater risk from too much stability rather than too little.

 

In a world of complete order, the stasis that slowly rots away everything for lack of creativity happens slowly. So slowly, you can almost pretend that nothing’s changing at all. And that stability, or rather that temporary stability masquerading as permanent stability, is sold as a feature, not a bug.

 

We’re not slowly sinking into quick sand, Oh no! We’re comfortable right where we are, thank you very much. Absolutely no need to move. We were here yesterday and everything was fine, and we’ll be here tomorrow, just fine. Everything will stay just as it is!”

 

And who’s selling that pretty illusion? Is it some overbearing dictator or shadowy bureaucracy? Sometimes. But more often it’s millions of everyday people who desperately want it to be true. It’s a comforting story that our elected leaders and appointed bureaucrats repeat, but also our family members, our colleagues. Our friends and even ourselves, who repeat the comfortable story that this is the way things are and will remain.

 

It’s the default assumption, that things will remain unchanged, and it certainly is comfortable to feel like you’re staying in place. But you’re not fixed, you’re sliding, ever so slowly like tectonic plates. And you’re sliding downwards.

 

The descent into complete order is where we now live. Our destination? A sclerotic world stifled by a society designed to persist, but never taking the risk to thrive.

 

It is a world which does not worry about the future. For the future means change and we are wrapped in our pretty illusion that things will stay the same forever. Instead of confronting an inherently shifting world, we impose systems and regulations on all manner of human expression and natural trends, pretending that we can control it all. And if enough people believe this sleight of hand, it will even appear to work, for a while.

 

Just look at Hong Kong. “One Country, Two Systems”. Hong Kong is part of the country of the People’s Republic of China, but it also has it’s own separate political system, one with elections and rule of law. Except China has never let that separate political system fully manifest as the island’s constitution supposedly requires. Yes there’s an elected legislature for the island of Hong Kong, but in practice China makes sure that a majority of it’s members are always loyal to the mainland.

 

This fake separation let China mostly control Hong Kong for a few decades, it let China pretend that Hong Kong was just another obedient vassal of the Communist Party, until a few students in the summer of 2014 said enough is enough. Then a few students turned into hundreds of thousands of citizens marching in the streets in what became known as the Umbrella Protests (the protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from police tear gas).

 

The China-led Hong Kong police firmly stamped any public dissent. They locked up thousands of protesters, particularly anyone who tried to become a leader or spokesperson for the grievances of the protesters calling for proper democracy.

 

And for a time it seemed to work. Life in Hong Kong went back to ‘normal’ for a few years, with a pretty illusion of quite obedient citizens living lives in productive service to Hong Kong and it’s Chinese masters.

 

For a time it looked like Complete Order was restored. Until the controlling arm of Beijing reached a bit too far, trying to pass a law that would grant them much more control over Hong Kong’s court systems. The picture of Complete Order was pretty, but in reality things were always sliding, it just took a while for the cracks to burst.

 

And burst they did. Hong Kong citizens said enough is enough, and again marched in the streets, this time by the millions. Again the police responded with tear gas, riot gear, and clashed with protesters in the streets. But this time the protesters did not cow to the demands of Order and Stability. They continued to march.

 

But they also did not succumb to the sirens call of armed rebellion, of complete chaos. They kept their protests remarkably peaceful, although there was still some violence. Though certainly not without incident, they took a middle path, and they persisted. For months. From July of 2019 through the rest of the year, the protesters marched in the streets, temporarily occupied malls and airports, made signs, videos, and songs to draw global attention to their struggle for the freedoms their Hong Kong constitution promised but Beijing trampled.

 

Those protests got the original proposed law that sparked the protests withdrawn. And they did help lead to a landslide victory in late 2019 for pro-democracy parties in the local elections that help determine those legislature seats that are not appointed by Beijing loyalists.

 

However the protests, and the militaristic police response to them involving mass arrests and beatings, led to massive disruption. Hong Kong’s airports were shut down for a few days at one point. Many shops and subway stations were closed on numerous occasions. Streets were damaged in the clashes between protester’s trying to demonstrate and riot police trying to evict them from public spaces. Many schools and universities closed early, and foreign investment dipped. All this had actually caused Hong Kong to slip into a small recession by the end of last year.

 

The Hong Kong protests are much more complex than the brief summary I’m giving here.

 

I’m primarily sharing it is an example of what could soon happen in many other parts of the world. In just the last quarter of 2019 there were protests (simplifying a lot) in Chile (against economic inequity), Iraq (against political corruption), Lebanon (reduction in state subsidies), Iran (also state subsidy reductions), and India (laws with possible religious and ethnic discrimination consequences), to name a few. In each of these instances a government tried to take a little bit more control, and a mass demonstration movement rose against it to protest the latest power grab.

 

These situations are not monolithic, they vary greatly in what exactly their spark was, the level of response, and their effectiveness at translating popular will into lasting change. In all of them though, there is a deeper story than the immediate spark and backlash. There is also the buildup of tension over years.

 

One analogy, which I first learned from Mauldin Economics, likens our global economy to a Sandpile. This analogy actually works for any social system. If you have a pile of sand, and slowly add one grain at a time, instability will build up and eventually a single grain will spark an avalanche. The grain didn’t do it alone, it was just the camel’s straw. The challenge is to predict when the next avalanche will occur, and how large the avalanche will be.

 

Put simply, it’s impossible to predict in exact terms, but we can derive several useful insights. First, avalanches are unavoidable. You can try to strategically drop the grains of sand, but as they pile up, the pile becomes steeper and steeper, and thus less stable. You only have a finite number of places to put the next grain, so you eventually are left with only steep cliffs on which to drop the grains, which is ever more likely to trigger an avalanche.

 

I’ll pull a money quote from the Mauldin piece:


To find out why [such unpredictability] should show up in their sandpile game, Bak and colleagues next played a trick with their computer. Imagine peering down on the pile from above and coloring it in according to its steepness. Where it is relatively flat and stable, color it green; where steep and, in avalanche terms, “ready to go,” color it red. What do you see? They found that at the outset, the pile looked mostly green, but that, as the pile grew, the green became infiltrated with ever more red. With more grains, the scattering of red danger spots grew until a dense skeleton of instability ran through the pile. Here then was a clue to its peculiar behavior: a grain falling on a red spot can, by domino-like action, cause sliding at other nearby red spots. If the red network was sparse, and all trouble spots were well isolated one from the other, then a single grain could have only limited repercussions. But when the red spots come to riddle the pile, the consequences of the next grain become fiendishly unpredictable. It might trigger only a few tumblings, or it might instead set off a cataclysmic chain reaction involving millions. The sandpile seemed to have configured itself into a hypersensitive and peculiarly unstable condition in which the next falling grain could trigger a response of any size whatsoever.

 

Second, and this might seem redundant but is important to restate: the longer you go without an avalanche, the more likely a future event will cause an avalanche. This is not like flipping a coin, where each event is independent of the next. As you build up the pile, you create more cliffs, and thus more opportunities for avalanches to occur.

 

Thirdly, the longer you go without an avalanche, the bigger an avalanche can get, because there have been more opportunities for instabilities in one region to spread and influence others. Avalanches come in all sizes, some only a few hundred grains, some millions, some cataclysmic shifts that collapse the whole edifice. But if you have lots of small avalanches early on, you prevent the pile from growing too big, thus you can plan for and deal with minor set backs which are harmful but not existential. If it builds up and up, it has opportunities to result in bigger avalanches, causing system wide catastrophes.

 

And from this we’re going to derive the last important takeaway: the longer we go without an avalanche – the more the pile builds up without any disruption or chaos – the greater chance of a cataclysmic avalanche that collapses the entire pile.

 

That sandpile is not a stable system that builds and builds forever, even if it may appear so for a time. It is constantly creating pockets of instability that could collapse at any moment, and for the long term survival of the pile as a whole, it’s important, necessary even, for small pockets to collapse. That prevents large pockets of steep cliffs from growing and risking the collapse of the system as a whole. Order, the methodical adding of sand grains, and Chaos, the unpredictable tendency for some unknown portion to collapse. You can’t remove one and expect to keep the other forever.

 

The same is true in society.

 

You can’t try to keep society static. Humans change, culture changes. People change, and society’s preferences and dreams and needs change with them. You can try to keep things the same, but you’re going to have to change with them or be left behind. That doesn’t mean we need to abandon everything we know and hold dear with each generation. Many of our existing ideas and practices are good and should be kept – it’s too disruptive to lurch into Complete Chaos. But it is equally untenable to keep things the same forever.

 

Some would try to solve for an ideal society. If we can just track everyone’s preferences, map all the inputs, gather enough data surely our fancy deep learning and neural net programs can black box us an Answer that will satisfy everyone. Unfortunately not, because many things in this world are Three Body Problems.

 

A Three Body Problem is an issue for which it is not possible to predict an answer. It may be possible to calculate the current state, but that state needs to be constantly updated and recalculated.

 

The term Three Body Problem comes from a physics problem, I first came across it in the excellent SiFi novel of the same name. Later I read another good explanation from Epsilon Theory. You can take a deep dive in either of those, or the Wikipedia entry, but I’ll pull out a quick summary for my purposes here.

 

Imagine you have a solar system empty of any planets. Some solar systems have one star. In hear you have a giant ball of gasses fusing in a bright ball of plasma and it’s just sitting there (we’re going to ignore for these purposes the relatively inconsequential effects of other distant stars, let’s treat this as a closed system).

 

Now, if instead of one star we have two, the gravity of each will pull on the other. They’ll make wide swings around each other, like dancers joining and parting from a partner, they might fling out of each others’ orbits or even slam together and fuse. The interesting thing is that if you know the initial mass, volume, speed, and direction of both of the stars, you could design an equation to predict any future position of both stars at any point.

 

Predict, not compute. With just 9 variables (mass, volume, speed, direction for both, and time), you can plug in the numbers and have a definite answer.

 

If we add a third star, however, we loose this powerful predictive capability. The stars continue to swerve and spin, trapped in each others’ orbits. But you can’t predict where they’ll be in 5,000 years, or even tomorrow.

 

Of course, this is all still just geometry and physics, so you can use all the known laws about gravity with their masses and velocities and taking their current positions, you can calculate the position in the next instant. And then taking that next position as the new starting state you can calculate the next position and so forth. But now we need to calculate each instant in the process, we can no longer plug in the numbers into an equation and instantly know the solution.

 

There is no equation, no possible way, to solve a Three Body Problem. Now, if we have perfect information on all the elements of the system, we can still calculate the future states, step by step. But only if we have perfect information.

 

In a complex system like, say, a human society, that’s just not possible. Sure, you can ramp up surveillance, you can mine more big data, but there will always be unknowns.

 

Human society is like a Three Body Problem, and it’s impossible to know all the inputs. Human society is also like a Sandpile.

 

You can try to make predictions, you can try to use those right-sounding predictions to enforce Order on society. But that Order is a Mirage. Like a mirage in the desert, as we hold the false image in our mind and think we’re getting closer, we’re just piling up grains of sand until inevitably, things collapse, and the mirage falls away.

 

Of course, like all Sandpiles, collapses are necessary and unavoidable. Just like there will always (sorry Fed) be declines in the stock market and recessions. We can delay them and let them build up until they are infrequent and cataclysmic. Or we can accept some order and chaos, have small disruptions that are frequent, but never an existential threat to the whole organization.

 

Earlier I shared examples of several mass protest movements, examples where the Mirage of Complete Order collapsed. The different movements had varying levels of organization, and effectiveness.

 

Among them, Hong Kong is perhaps the best case example. The protesters were very well organized and civil, with almost no violent outbreaks given the fact that they lasted months. The police were also largely well disciplined, and there have only been a handful of cases where lethal action was taken. Yes there was disruption (it was a protest movement after all), but it was always clear what the protest was about and exactly what the 5 demands of the protesters where. In Iran hundreds were killed by deliberate live fire by police. These movements can very easily turn deadly.

 

However this could happen here…..

 

The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements both started out with the potential to define massive social change. Both perhaps fell short of their potential, but many of the grievances they raised have not been addressed. Those piles are still building. Don’t pretend an avalanche will never come again.

 

What this book is working to do is define a few of the trends heating up those revolutionary forces. Moreover we’re going to explore what forces are working to contain society. What in our society is restraining our liberties, preventing the regular release of the build up of tensions, and what can we do about it?

 

Ideally, I’d say we have a little more chaos in the world, in order that we might enjoy a more stable long term equilibrium. Let’s accept that the world is not completely controllable, and have more frequent small disruptions. Otherwise society grows frail and susceptible to massive shocks. And in the long run that can do far more harm.

 

We don’t want to suffer deadly outbursts of violence in anger at ‘the system’. The Shadows are wrong, disorder is not the only solution.

 

We also, and I think we are at a greater risk of this and so will focus more on it in the book, do not want to suffer the shackles of authoritarianism. The Vorlons are also wrong, control is not the only solution.

 

How can we define our own path? That’s what this book is about. Pulling a Sheridan, defining your own path, as well as recognizing and addressing the challenges to doing so.

 

It’s important to keep in mind the stakes. In the abstract sense there is at stake our liberties, our freedom, and our way of life. In a more immediate sense it’s worth remembering that these decisions we make about how to shape our country and our lives have practical implications for standards of living and prosperity. If we get it wrong badly enough for long enough, people get frustrated enough to march on the streets, and that’s a path that can easily turn to violence.

Thank You for Reading!

As always, thank you for your time, and I hope you have a wonderful day!

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