Emergence is a revolution in human thinking

Emergence is a revolution in human thinking

Exploration of emergence as a tool for revolutionaries, it's use by capitalist management theory, and the tensions within that create opportunities for counterpower.

A theme keeps popping up in the news of technologies, ideas, and predictions all based around theories of complex adaptive systems.[1] We hear about things like self-organizing and self-learning computer programs, hive models of military organization, cloud networks, and decentralized intelligence. Dig deeper into the scientific, industrial, and academic literature and a world begins to emerge from view, a scientific revolution under our feet. In places we comes across management theorists proclaiming the end of power as we knew it within businesses, dystopian projections of apocalypse, technoutopias of artificial life, and countless experiments of social control. What is happening here? These currents are little known of or discussed in society except in the passing references of reporters and pop scientists. Politically, the military and powers of industry have been the vanguard of this domain, seeking to harness its findings to bank encryption, missile guidance systems, and redesigning their capacities as widely as possible. Amongst revolutionaries these ideas, industries, and experiments are largely unknown.

Recently, I came upon an article from the journal of the National Association of Engineers entitled Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for design and management by W.B. Rouse. The piece is concerned with laying out the implications for system design and organizational management of capitalist industries due to the problems created by increasing understanding of emergence in complex adaptive systems. Looking to health care, the author draws out some themes that are being repeated throughout the literature of society’s institutions and the voices of their power brokers. The growth of our understanding of the biological and social worlds via emergence is creating a revolution of thought, and one that has within it an inherent critique of dominant power.

The article’s subtle language disguises the changes that are happening, which might be compared to other shifts in human thought created by scientific revolutions. Complexity science is still in its infancy with growing applications. Largely this remains off the radar of the thinkers and luminaries of the political world, yet it is becoming firmly in the sites of the ruling class. Consider the 2011 report by Lagi, Bertrand, and Bar-Yam published by the New England Complex Systems Institute that sought to model and project potentials for disruptions using complex systems analysis of the Arab Spring and tying them to food crises. The report was widely covered in the media, and is part of a broader trend of modeling and seeking to understand popular disruptions as an attempt of dominant power to control opposition.

Naomi Klein recently reported on the use of complex systems theory by climate scientists who became radicalized in their research. Working through complex systems climatology, these scientists have begun identifying both the necessity of systemic change, and the potentials to contain the growing environmental crisis. She cites a talk by a climatologist Werner. Klein observes that Werner’s investigations led him not to an activist stance, but rather, his research identified inherent dynamics towards resistance. She writes, ”…what Werner is doing with his modeling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.” Perusing Werner’s publications one finds a variety of topics centering around a core theme, self-organization in nature. The workings of climate systems led him both to rejecting an existing solution within the political system, and also towards anti-systemic resistance as a viable path towards addressing such a crisis. His abstract to the talk, sponsored by the National Science Foundation strangely, is telling.

“Perhaps as evidenced by widespread inability to meaningfully address such global environmental challenges as climate change and soil degradation, nonlinear connections reduce the ability of managers to operate outside coupled human-environmental systems, decreasing their effectiveness in steering towards sustainable interactions and resulting in managers slaved to short-to-intermediate-term interests. In sum, the dynamics of the global coupled human-environmental system within the dominant culture precludes management for stable, sustainable pathways and promotes instability.”

His conclusions are placed in the terms of his systems science. He identifies forces within an institutional framework combined with systemic pressures that increasingly are blocking potential solutions. The effect is instability or throwing the balance of power out of equilibrium. In this situation, he sees resistance as actually providing a vehicle for a new equilibrium.

“Environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups, increases dissipation within the coupled system over fast to intermediate scales and pushes for changes in the dominant culture that favor transition to a stable, sustainable attractor.”

What is significant about Werner is not necessarily his conclusions. Scientists debate just these matters. Rather it is how he reached his conclusions, within the analysis of climate and trying to find a specific solution to reducing potentially devastating temperature increases. Such research is normally myopic, but with the situation of climate crisis, the argument and conclusions open up the subject and show a view of broader society within. Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist in the UK, argues similarly in his rejection of carbon trading as a solution to climate crisis. The emphasis in the passage is the author’s and was quoted by Klein as well.

“Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue!

Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-) industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony.”

That these debates would occur centered on scientific claims not only within the hard sciences, but also within the elite societies of British and American academia is significant. The arguments raging read not as a political discussion interpreting scientific data, but disputing whether or not, with what we know about how these systems function, there is a solution within the existing political structure. Without taking a position on it, this is a situation which continues to arise within work on emergence and complex systems, and that the theory remains predisposed to. The tools that this framework gives us opens up new cracks in the edifice of power, and creates tension for those seeking to use it to the advantage of elites.

This all becomes apparent when reading the recent piece on healthcare. First Rouse rejects the idea that top down design (called hierarchical decomposition in information technology and engineering) work for many spheres in social systems. “The success of traditional systems [i.e. engineering and management] depends on being able to decompose and recompose the elements of the system and, most important, on someone or some entity having the authority and resources to design the system.” He is thinking here of things like automobile design. We analyze a car into its components, those components like engines into their parts, and reconstruct them into the whole of a functioning means of transportation. The companies can purchase, design, and implement their vision. Socially this is how most managers have thought of their businesses. They purchase capital, create plans, analyze it into component parts, and continue the expansion. Rouse contrasts such models to healthcare because, he argues, healthcare managers operate within a larger system that is beyond their control.

“Not all system design and management problems can be addressed through hierarchical decomposition. For example, decomposition may result in the loss of important information about interactions among the phenomena of interest. Another fundamental problem for very complex systems like health care is that no one is “in charge,” no one has the authority or resources to design the system. Complex adaptive systems tend to have these design and management limitations.”

The act of decomposition by management of healthcare thereby would render their plans and information distorted, making it hard to implement. The problem is that healthcare workers are constantly placed in changing situations to which they must adapt, and create new solutions to immediate problems. Management, as a tiny centralized power, cannot easily monitor, analyze, and construct actionable plans.

The management implications for Rouse are seen as hard limits on power of managers, and necessitate different models for governing. The problem is that the adaptive self-learning nature of a social system like healthcare makes any design or central planning by management inherently inadequate because of the gap between the levels of organization of management and that of patients and workers. A clear example of this are the centralized plans of large scale businesses and governments such as the massive Soviet construction projects under Stalin, the American prison system, or perhaps early Microsoft’s proprietary software. The gap between the activity of those implementing the plans, the reality on the ground, and the crafting/design/reform of plans leads to disastrous consequences when central authorities seek to directly implement their ideas as one would with say cutting a potato. Management simply cannot design the system or control it directly.

Instead he calls for moving to a model of influence (rather than control) with a human-centered orientation to gaining influence over the behavior of its workers. He even rejects the idea and need for direct surveillance, promoting a radical shift in the thinking of capitalist planners. The goal of managers then would be to organize the system so as to maximize their influence on autonomous agents within the system without needing to directly control or instruct those agents how to act. Missing from this discussion is the obvious. Management needs the workers to be influenced to act in the interests of management rather than their own or the patients, which aside from a general humanism, run against one and another.

“Not only are most stakeholders in health care independent agents, they are also beyond direct observation. Thus one cannot manage their activities but can only assess the value of their outcomes. In a traditional system, one might attempt to optimize efficiency. However, the learning and adaptive characteristics of a complex adaptive system should be leveraged to encourage agility rather than throttled by optimization focused on out-of-date requirements.”

Within a technocratic framework the author gives pieces of a possible future approach to saving capitalism, maintaining the dominance of elites, and the misery of the exploited. Perhaps this forms fragments from a new social democracy in fact, one where the surveillance state and even the decentralized policing of the post-modernists have receded into a system that is not designed for direct control, but rather influenced to maintain the interests of ruling power. Part of the genius of the American political system has been its ability to maintain ideological dominance without having to impose those ideas (at least most of the time). Today’s intellectual representatives of power are grappling with just these issues; how to maintain control over systems that increasingly are revealing their instability, escape from engineering attempts, and internal dynamics that keep producing revolutionary alternatives.

Just as the revolutions of Copernicus, Darwin, and others shook up the thinking of their days, so today emergence and complex systems are creating fissures in the thought of the ruling class. The more we learn about systems, such as our own society, the more we see the core of self-organization and collectivity against a cumbersome and destructive artificiality of class society. As these contradictions continue to churn within, those resisting are being given more and more tools for their own liberation in the widening understanding of this world we are creating daily together in all our actions and relationships. It is strange, but today we hear echos of this new world from the lips of scientists like Kevin Anderson, while tomorrow we may unknowingly be creating them in the plazas, workplaces, and neighborhoods of a world walking slowly into a new era.

“Reinforcing the view that we may be on the cusp of a paradigm shift are the fundamental disagreements between orthodox economists as to how to respond to the crisis. This theoretical disarray has parallels with those rare occasions in history where established knowledge is superseded by new ways of thinking and understanding. Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Planck all represent such radical transitions. They are seldom achieved easily and the old guard typically hangs on kicking furiously to avoid relinquishing its grip on power. Ultimately, however, such protestations are futile in the face of the new insights and new ways of doing things that emerge with the new paradigm. It is in this rapidly evolving context that the science underpinning climate change is being conducted and its findings communicated. This is an opportunity that should and must be grasped. Liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by the conclusions however uncomfortable. But this is still not enough. In an increasingly interconnected world where the whole — the system — is often far removed from the sum of its parts, we need to be less afraid of making academic judgements. Not unsubstantiated opinions and prejudice, but applying a mix of academic rigour, courage and humility to bring new and interdisciplinary insights into the emerging era. Leave the market economists to fight among themselves over the right price of carbon — let them relive their groundhog day if they wish. The world is moving on and we need to have the audacity to think differently and conceive of alternative futures.”

[1] The citations provided here provide good introductions to complex adaptive systems and emergence. One of the most straightforward accounts however comes from an interview in the Harvard Business Review of a chief investment consultant Michael J. Mauboussin, also a professor at Columbia Business School. His definition is succinct and highlights important features. He says, “A complex adaptive system has three characteristics. The first is that the system consists of a number of heterogeneous agents, and each of those agents makes decisions about how to behave. The most important dimension here is that those decisions will evolve over time. The second characteristic is that the agents interact with one another. That interaction leads to the third—something that scientists call emergence: In a very real way, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The key issue is that you can’t really understand the whole system by simply looking at its individual parts.” The ability of these systems and thinking around emergence to bridge the world of political agents and large scale social forces gives it both its power and its critical potential for revolutionaries. Laying out this critique and an emergentist approach to political struggle is the work of a forthcoming text on the subject I’m completing.


Anderson, K. (2013). Why Carbon Prices Can’t Deliver the 2c Target. http://kevinanderson.info/blog/why-carbon-prices-cant-deliver-the-2c-tar...

Klein, N. (2013). How Science is Telling us all to Revolt. The New Statesman. http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt

Mauboussin, M.J. (2011). Interviewed by Sullivan, T. Embracing Complexity. Harvard Business Review. http://hbr.org/2011/09/embracing-complexity/

Rouse, W.B. (2008). Health Care as a Complex Adaptive System: Implications for design and management. The Bridge. 38:1. http://www.nae.edu/Publications/Bridge/EngineeringandtheHealthCareDelive...

Werner, B. (2013). Is Earth F**ked? Abstract reprinted on the Climate Connections blog. http://climate-connections.org/2012/12/10/agu-scientist-asks-is-earth-fk...

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Feb 27 2014 13:45


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Mar 3 2014 19:11

Thank you for writing this! I have been extremely interested in complexity/complex systems, topology and and statistical mechanics and how they may be applied in a socioeconomic context. This was an excellent read

Mar 4 2014 20:04
Socially this is how most managers have thought of their businesses. They purchase capital, create plans, analyze it into component parts, and continue the expansion. Rouse contrasts such models to healthcare because, he argues, healthcare managers operate within a larger system that is beyond their control.

But isn't the broader social context outside the capitalist's control? Or at least firms, even like Ford or GM have to struggle for influence beyond their internal structuring....

I guess I'm thinking that even in the manufacturing of pens, there is a degree of deviation from planning, in that all of planning takes the form of influence. Maybe I missed the point. tongue

Mar 11 2014 15:39

That is true, but healthcare is especially weird since prices and compensation are not set by normal means, but rather are given through incredibly complicated schemas involving the state, 3rd party insurance, negotiations, etc. I mean that's always the case, but with healthcare you can have situations where you are providing services at a loss systematically because of how compensation works (in the US).

Mar 11 2014 19:37

Mr. Natural taking so long to respond to this blog post is a great failing of the left.