Tag Archives: Gillian Tett

Destruction of society as a complex system?

Sadly my vacation is finished [see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019] and I have reconnected to the digital world, including the news media.  Despite the sensational headlines and plenty of rhetoric from politicians, nothing very much appears to have really changed in the world.  Yes, we have a new prime minister in the UK, who has a different agenda to the previous incumbent; however, the impact of actions by politicians on society and the economy seems rather limited unless the action represents a step change and is accompanied by appropriate resources.  In addition, the consequences of such changes are often different to those anticipated by our leaders.  Perhaps, this is because society is a global network with simple operating rules, some of which we know intuitively, and without a central control because governments exert only limited and local control.  It is well-known in the scientific community that large networks, without central control but with simple operating rules, usually exhibit self-organising and non-trivial emergent behaviour. The emergent behaviour of a complex system cannot be predicted from the behaviour of its constituent components or sub-systems, i.e., the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The mathematical approach to describing such systems is to use non-linear dynamics with solutions lying in phase space.  Modelling complex systems is difficult and interpreting the predictions is challenging; so, it is not surprising that when the actions of government have an impact then the outcomes are often unexpected and unintended.  However, if global society can be considered as a complex system, then it would appear that its self-organising behaviour tends to blunt the effectiveness of many of the actions of government.  This seems be a fortuitous regulatory mechanism that helps maintain the status quo.   In addition, we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our powers of explanation, or we use over-simplified explanations [see ‘Is the world incomprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017 and Blind to complexity‘ on December 19th, 2018].  And, politicians are no exception to this tendency; so, they usually legislate based on simple ideology rather than rational consideration of the likely outcomes of change on the complex system we call society. And, this is probably a further regulatory mechanism.

However, all of this is evolving rapidly because a small number of tech companies have created a central control by grabbing the flow of data between us and they are using it to manipulate those simple operating rules.  This appears to be weakening the self-organising and emergent characteristics of society so that the system can be controlled more easily without the influence of its constituent parts, i.e. us.

For a more straightforward explanation listen to Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy‘ or if you have more time on your hands then watch the new documentary movie ‘The Great Hack‘.  My thanks to Gillian Tett in the FT last weekend who alerted me to the scale of the issue: ‘Data brokers: from poachers to gamekeepers?


Stopped in Lime Street

It is a late, slightly muggy, summer afternoon and I am sitting at the window in the last carriage of a train waiting for it to leave Liverpool for London.  So far, it has been a busy day with meetings in the morning at the University’s facility at Daresbury followed by a couple on the main campus before I walked down to Lime Street station.  I stopped for a bite to eat as I travelled from Daresbury to Liverpool; but I am hungry again, so I have a sandwich that I bought in the station.  However, I don’t like to unpack and start eating until the train starts moving, just in case I am on the wrong train or we have to change trains.  Finally, the train starts to move and as it builds up speed I reach for my sandwich.  Suddenly it stops.  My carriage has not even reached the end of the platform.  Station staff appear outside my window talking into their radios.  What’s happened?  Did the train hit someone?  I thought there was a small thud just before we stopped.  But the station staff seem unflustered.  Wouldn’t there be more urgency about their movements if there was a casualty?  We sit in silence for ten minutes before the train starts to move again and the train manager announces that someone pulled the emergency handle because they decided that wanted to get off the train. Why did they want to get off the train?  Did they realise they were trapped on the train to London with someone who was pursuing them?  Was it a police officer who realised that their quarry had jumped off the train just before it set off?  Or, have I been reading too many Eric Ambler stories (see ‘The Mask of Dimitrios‘ or ‘Journey into Fear‘) involving train journeys across Europe?  Maybe it was someone who just decided that they didn’t want to go London after all and didn’t care about inconveniencing several hundred people or paying the fine for improper use of the emergency handle.  But that seems unlikely too or perhaps not…  I contemplate these options as the train accelerates towards London and I munch my sandwich.  It reminds me of a quote from Gillian Tett (in the FT Weekend on June 17/18, 2017) about people believing they have a ‘God-given right that they should be able to organise the world around their personal views and needs instead of quietly accepting pre-packaged options’.