Thursday, March 02, 2006

John Robb at Global Guerillas had an important and thought provoking post on the effects of System Perturbations entitled " Big Bangs" - a casual term that Thomas P.M. Barnett uses for the invasion of Iraq . After a nice applied physics explanation of systems and feedback, Robb writes:

"If we look at today's global environment we see a moderately unstable system. It is a relatively high performance system that is increasingly controlled by global markets. This explains why it is spreading so quickly. However, our drive towards a high performance system, powered by rampant global interconnectivity, has outpaced our ability to dampen excess. The old dampening functions of borders, distance, government, etc are quickly fading. The result is a system vulnerable to rogue feedback. Even a small amount of it can cause global reverberations. Worse, there are people actively working on ways to introduce this rogue feedback. Iraq is a great demonstration of our inability to dampen excess in the face of active opposition (notice how our goals have drifted from building an allied democracy to stopping civil war).

The long-term solution is to build more stability into the system through decentralization. Unfortunately, we are far from realizing that goal, since our current view of the world is based on old models.

For example, instead of building resilience into the system, we have embarked on a path of introducing more rogue feedback into the system (the invasion of Iraq seen as a "big bang" in the Middle East). This is based on the belief that Fukuyama's "End of History," where we all live in capitalist democracies is inexorable. It's not. There isn't any guarantee that our current system is the inevitable result of history. As a result, the more likely short term outcome is more chaos (we are seeing the start of that right now). Small attacks, like the one on the Askariya shrine and the facility at Abqaiq will continue to put entire sections of the system on the brink. Over the longer term, the system will continue on its unpredictable path until the weight of numerous fundamental changes to the system's design and operation are made that dampen this chaos. Where we end up at the end of this process may be a dynamically stable state that is far from the current political and economic status quo. You might not recognize what you see. "

There's a lot to like in this post as Robb clearly has a grasp on the nature of globalization and some of the potentially negative implications arising from that process interacting with American policy - in this case deliberately intiating a system perturbation in the Middle-East by invading Iraq. However, I'm also reading a significant internal contradiction present in the passage that undermines Robb's argument that has to do with connectivity.

The global market ( which John seems to define separately and as something less than the environment but an economist probably would not) has always been interconnected, even autarkic, self-isolating, lunatic regimes like the DPRK allow some exchange to take place. What globalization has done is accelerate the transaction speed while dramatically diversifying and increasing the volume of exchanges so when Robb writes about fading borders, fewer governmental controls and the diminishing impact of distance, he's correct. While we normally consider money and goods when speaking of markets, in reality most of the choices that we make are actually economic decisions, even apparently intangible ones involving information or personal relationships.

These decisions all take place within the infinitely complex global system, so whether we call it a "market" or something else the world is effectively one system. The Gap constitutes a region in the system where the transaction rates are slower, irregular and subject to greater irrationalities or distortions than in the Core. This is because there is either too much centralized control wielded over access to the Gap nation, usually by corrupt, authoritarian, rulers or not enough state control exists to assure physical security and enforce rule-sets as in the case of failed states.

In the former case " decentralization" needed for " long term stability" advocated by Robb is little else than the very connectivity that Robb argues that requires a greater dampening capacity on the part of the system ( incidentally, Robb is correct that the interconnectivity yielded by globalization also makes the system more vulnerable to perturbations and rogue feedback. I outlined a similar thesis in my review of system perturbation rule sets). The systemic dampening capacity Robb asserts is needed can only be established by:

1. Better governance in Gap states - something that in extreme cases will involve " exporting security" through system administration intervention ( abstaining from intervention does not mean an absence of "rogue feedback", as Afghanistan under Taliban rule proved).

2. A new rule-set consensus being implemented among the Core states whose economic dynamism drives the global market's destabilizing high performance characteristics. Primarily this is the realm of international economic diplomacy, rationalizing market effciency while setting up breakers to interrupt potential domino effect transnational market collapse in cases of panic, natural or man-made disasters.

Can the system be stressed by a series of smaller shocks to a " tipping point", at least regionally, as Robb argues? Yes, I think that is certainly possible but we need to remember that in a dynamic system it isn't simply the centrifugal, disintegrating, entropic or negative events that count against a status quo but those events in relation to the centripetal, integrating, nonzero sum or positive events happening simultaneously. This is why complex systems are notoriously difficult to game out without relying on greatly simplified models - the mathematical predictability of the model comes at the cost of varying from reality. Even supercomputer modelling of, say,weather patterns or the stock market cannot produce reliable outcomes, being thwarted by the sheer complexity and the dynamic state of the global market.

The disruptive effects - political, economic and moral - that Robb worries about and encapsulates as his strategy of Global Guerillaism are quite real and are not to be dismissed lightly. In any system, the devolution toward entropy will be present but these forces are not the only ones driving mankind and the evolutionary and creative phenomena that add value to our civilization have a powerful logic of their own.


Chirol at Coming Anarchy has his own take on Robb's post, leaning toward...ahem..a coming anarchy.
Good points on Robb's post. I hadn't even noticed you'd already posted on this otherwise I'd of linked to you too. Still catching up on my blogs after a week away!
Hi Chirol,

Know the feeling. My blogging/blogreading has been at about 40 % lately.
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