Profound transformation of postmodern societies in their mainstream is underway since early 90’s. This process may be examined also from the aspect of increasing complexity of social life.
The transformation is driven by contradictory changes in social structure and dynamics. On one side interdependence between effective causes of collective action on global scale is immensely enhanced. On the other, autonomy of independent agents increased to the extent where they gain capacity to progressively organise their lives around their own centres of concern. Squeezed between contradictory demands for uniformity and diversity, collective processes are decreasingly manageable and this fundamentally destabilises social systems (Bar-Yam, 1997). Complex situations instigate complex coordination problems (Elsner, 2006) which entail ‘complexity risk’ (Zolli, 2012) and lead to strategic uncertainty about appropriate way of managing social processes. We are like traveller, searching unknown terrain with the assistance of old maps (Benhabib, 2010) – hanging around short sighted in the face of far reaching changes with no guarantees for favourable outcomes (Wallerstein, 2013).
There are numerous yet recent examples of high-level failures of complex systems. Very intriguing one, despite relatively small damage involved, took place on New York stock exchange with momentarily crush shortly after 2:30 p.m. on 6th May 2010. Local reporter saw it as one of the most terrifying moments in Wall Street history with a brief 1,000-point plunge in Dow Jones Index, the largest intraday decline on record, which some later and equally abruptly mostly entirely rebounded. The chaos lasted just 16 minutes but left Wall Street experts struggling to come to grips with what had happened. The source of the turmoil remained unknown to the reporter, but it had apparently set off algorithmic trading strategies, which in turn rippled across everything, pushing trading out of whack and feeding on itself — until it somehow homeostatically started to reverse (Bowley, 2010). This event nevertheless triggered observable change in exchange rates between $ and € on financial markets, it affected global price of oil and call for emergency meeting of the council for national security.
Stock exchange has been often blamed as a potent source of systemic chaos due to its unregulatedness. However, increasing social complexity is not limited to unregulated, decentralised and dispersed processes. Just the opposite, regulation itself is a strong source of complexity. See a catastrophic failure of one of the world’s 25 largest nuclear power stations on 11 March 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, which resulted in a meltdown of three of the plant’s six nuclear reactors. The series of ruinous events was triggered by the earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, which led at the plant to disconnection in electric power. Then the tsunami water flooded the emergency generators, so that active cooling systems stopped, and the nuclear reactors began to heat up. The power failure meant that many of the reactor control instruments also failed. Failing to supply power to the reactors’ coolant systems and control rooms, multiple hydrogen-air chemical explosions occurred from 12 to 15 March. Although no short term radiation exposure fatalities were reported at that time, some 300,000 people evacuated the area, a part of them for a prolonged period of time. The plant is afterwards leaking radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean and radiation was detected on the other side of the ocean near Canada’s West Coast in 2013.
The disaster in Fukushima may have been triggered by earthquake but it was human error that made it into one of the worst-ever nuclear accidents in history. This is conclusion achieved in the Executive summary of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission Report prepared by independent body. The investigation found the nuclear disaster was ‘manmade’ and that its direct causes were all foreseeable. The report found that the plant was incapable of withstanding the earthquake and tsunami of such catastrophic proportions. It is found that bureaucrats put organizational interests ahead of duty to protect public safety. The government body promoting the nuclear power industry, failed to meet the most basic safety requirements, such as assessing the probability of damage, preparing for containing collateral damage from such a disaster, and developing evacuation plans. The blame should be put, according to the report, on systemic faults that supported faulty rationales for decisions and actions, rather then issues relating to the competency of any specific individual. Report attributed much of the blame directly to collusion between the plant’s owner-operator, government regulators, and a dysfunctional governance and management bureaucracy. Fundamental causes for disaster are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: reflective obedience; reluctance to question authority, devotion to ‘sticking with the program’.
These harsh conclusions should be probably read in the traditional Japanese context of fatalistic self-criticism, which is rather odd for Western cultural conventions. Also there might be hidden agenda behind the investigation that needs to contribute to impression that it is not nuclear technology per se that is uncontrollable in catastrophic condition but only professionals’ deviation from the standards in the management, governance and business. The alleged cause for the catastrophe is not supposed to be complexity of the situation per se but deviation from simple rules. In this way Report fails to outline that risky interdependencies with potentially catastrophic outcome may be expected as entirely possible outcomes of overlap between brainless large-scale technology, unpredictable nature and purposeful human beings locked in their structural and cultural framings.
Social institutions found themselves caught between their old habits and new expectations. Politically dominant agents retain their privilege to pay no attention to these expectations and continually impose their uniform will from above. The intricacy is that the systemic outcomes of simplistic enforcements are perverse in complex setting and so decreasingly manageable by systemic agents. Outcomes of one sided impositions do not automatically reproduce structures of domination any more. Coordination capacity of social institutions become weak and is further fading in light of wicked problems such as perpetuating systemic inequality and structural injustice. Social life can not be shaped any more by assumingly benevolent visions of power holders whose legitimacy has almost vanished. Several independent global studies consistently reveal that a strong majority of world population, in excess of 60%, does not feel represented by their governments any more (United Nations, 2000; Chomsky in Kreisler, 2001; Halpin and Summer, 2008; Eurobarometer, 2005; Henning, 2007).
A recent study authored by Motesharrei et al. (2012 in Nafeez, 2014), has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could crumble due to convergence of independent processes which breach system thresholds in all social domains. Following recent study prepared by Oxfam the 85 richest people on the planet own the same wealth as half the world’s population— the 3.5 billion poorest people — while just 90 corporations have been responsible for a full two-thirds of the carbon emissions generated since the onset of industrialism (Oxfam, 2014; Chomsky, 2014). Combination of resource pressure and structural inflexibility can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features – the overstretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity and the economic stratification of society into rich and poor. These social phenomena have played ‘a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse, in all such cases over the last five thousand years’ (Motesharrei et al., 2012 in Nafeez, 2014).
This is a miserable picture of situation in a society without a decent exit. There is widespread impression of over increased complexity in markets, technologies and societies resulting in system tensions and poor integration (Abrahamson in Ritzer, Smart, 2003). They are reciprocally incommensurable and this involves a tragedy (Hsieh, 2008): no matter which aspect is emphasised, it always imposes involuntary and illegitimate trade-offs.
The search for coherent rational bases for dealing with collective problems is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are complicated or wicked (Rittel, Webber, 1973). Ordinary problems in the natural sciences are definable and may have solutions that are findable. The wicked problems in social context have no definitive formulation, they occur in any domain involving stakeholders with differing perspectives. They are uncertain due to the hardly reducible structural uncertainty, difficult to manage with a variety of actors with diverse interests involved and hard to grasp in the sense that they are ill-structured and difficult to interpret relying upon elusive political judgment for their resolution. Wicked problems invalidate any simple unitary concept, such as the public interest, and make its practical application infeasible (Rittel and Webber, 1973).
Social complexity when observed through system failures and catastrophic developments, can be seen as a threat to the modern way of life instituted on predictability and stability. Complexity is seen as an obstacle. There is a strong drive among scientists for ‘killing the complexity’ as a precondition to build resilient social systems (Zolli, 2012). The conservative monetarist Milton Friedman and one of influential economists, was convinced that complexity is just impression until we find a simple explanation with better theories. So there is overwhelming support for an idea that complexity is dangerous. It should be and they believe it certainly can be wiped out if we remain rational and aspire to this goal hard enough.
Author: Bojan Radej, firstname.lastname@example.org, version may 2014, for comments