Faith in Chaos…
“Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”
– from the work of Edward Lorenz
Originally published on LinkedIn by the author
Our world is changing, faster than we can understand it. Or, at least, it seems to be. A state of flux seems to be the new normal. So much so, that we forget how much and how fast our world changed in the past.
The business world is one big network of networks. Massively complex inter-connected systems of people, companies and governments, existing locally, regionally, nationally, trans-nationally and globally. It seems like chaos, randomness. It seems like we, as human beings, as individuals, can’t have any meaningful and perceptible effect on the whole.
And that’s a terrifying thing: to be constantly looking up to see the whole, through the lens of 24-7 international news, social media, and transnational trade, but to feel incapable of truly understanding how our actions impact upon it. It’s enough to send anyone into a deep, lasting existential spiral of despair.
But we do have an impact. Everything matters. Everything we do, every decision we make, ripples out. Someone, something, is affected by our actions. There is a response to that stimulus: further decisions, further actions, further impacts. Change is created, on a grand scale. Human society evolves, the system iterates.
By now, plenty of folks are familiar with the notion of the ‘butterfly effect’. Hell, some guys made a pretty ridiculous movie invoking it*. There’s a purity in the mathematics of chaos, an approach that points out just how uncertain cause and effect can seem, even when they aren’t uncertain at all. As misused as the theory may be, it’s got intriguing implications for the business world, and especially for our understanding of business ethics.
Societies, economies, and nations are all inherently deterministic. The conditions we create, by our behaviour, yield clear outcomes in the behaviour of our systems. Nothing is purely random. But humans are fallible. Mistakes happen. We can’t predict what should be predictable.
So, how do we square the circle? How do we reconcile the scale we operate at, as individuals, independently or in a company context, with the scale and pace of global change?
The system is dynamic, at every level. It responds to stimulus. We can look at evidence – at history – and gain an understanding of the future. Even though we can’t accurately predict what our impact will be, we can get a clue. We can make sure that the initial conditions we create in our systems are good conditions.
The aggregate of human actions across socio-economic systems yields a gestalt, a spirit of the age, an order in the chaos. It’s up to us – all of us – to choose the times that we live in, and to choose how business contributes to the system. Our choices make the difference.
We can choose a humanitarian world, a system of systems where people are valued, where our world is valued, where our interconnected societies are valued, and where we feel like we can embrace the pace of change.
Or we can choose a cold world, a world of ubiquitous predator/prey relationships.
It’s a choice between humanity and a state of nature, and a choice that each of us makes every day, whether we’re aware of it, or not.
After all, we all participate. Well, maybe not quite all of us. There are folks outside of the system, off-grid, the folks hunkered down in a cabin in the forest in the absolute middle of nowhere. Participation means that we’re complying with the nature of the systems we inhabit and co-author; it means we consent to the effects that so many interlinked systems have upon us. Our comfort level in all of that depends entirely on how well the system seems to serve our ends as human beings. Non-awareness of the big picture doesn’t wash as an excuse for choices and actions which yield negative stimulus. We are the system; the system is us.
So, how do we transcend our own inputs into the system?
How do we reduce the error factor?
How do we form order out of chaos?
Me, I have faith. I believe in humanity. I believe in what we can achieve, together, if we look up keenly enough. Different systems change, adapt, collapse, redevelop; humanity endures. We always find a way. The great system always iterates.
*a few years after a different bunch of guys made a much more interesting movie invoking chaos maths, which, unfortunately, fewer people saw.