SOC or self organizing criticality is a property of the natural world. It is everywhere around us and is a part of most of what we experience in our world. It can be seen from the patterns of landscapes and evolution to the behavior of most complex systems in our social, economic and political lives.
It is not necessary to understand the mathematical properties and descriptions of this reality. It is however beneficial to comprehend the ubiquitous nature and implications of this fact of existence. SOC is present in everything from the behavior of piles of sand to stock market crashes and the disappearance of glaciers.
Human beings are an incredibly complex species. However we are unaware of our evolutionarily delivered limitations. The ways in which evolution has had to try to get more from less and the consequences of those trade-offs and their implications for how we perceive the world. Our world is incredibly broad in spectrum and our window to it through our senses is incredibly narrow. To deal with this actuality sensory systems developed which could transform extraordinary domains of bandwith into narrow non linear ones which could be encoded into our system of sensation. Whether it is sight, sound, touch, smell, time or any other system of sensation we see the world as if it is linear even though we are actually mapping a huge domain of sensation non linearly onto the sensorium. This gave use the extraordinary ability to deal with a larger portion of the actual world, maping it onto our world of sensation and thus perception to form our lived experience of reality. Notice I distinguish reality as it is perceived and experienced from actuality as it is. It is important to keep in mind our reality is non actual. It is really what we experience but is and always will be barely actual. The real is a shadow of the actual. This is something which has been made evident through the disconfirming process of science and its method. Science uses intrumentality to measure the actual world and test our realities against actuality. The process of ongoing disconfirmation through testing of perception and assumption is essential. It is the only path to coherence and consonance between our realities and actuality. This becomes important when we attempt to comprehend the dynamic complexity of our world. Unless we can come to some accommodation and comprehension of this character of lived existence we will always anticipate one outcome in this world and be bewildered when the world behaves wildly differently. The importance of this can not be understated.. Today we face a world whose scope and rate of change is challenging the ability of most human beings to understand and act in a way that will not produce extreme negative consequences down the road. We must come to terms with this part of our own nature if we are to be able to reason accurately about complex issues. Our lack of this insight leads to reasoning and actions which decrease our chances of survival on a daily basis. Nuff said.
This piece does not propose to say all there is to say about this. It is simply an effort to bring awareness of it to those that might listen. So that they may become better in their anticipation of likely outcomes to some very critical issues, and for the purposes of this piece I wish to discuss two domains, politics and economics. I am going to use a rather broad brush. So it will always be possible to point out the ways in which there is more to consider and exceptions to any statement of a general nature. I am going to use an extremely simple example which I hope will be of service to us in coming to a very general sense of the importance of shifting our perception of these two things. That exemplar is a pile of sand. Something familiar to all and therefor within the reach of all of our realities to relate to. It is my hope that through an examination of a pile of sand we can make our realities come closer to actuality. Perhaps this will be of benefit when we consider action in the service of change in our worlds.
All systems have elements which compose the system. Those elements are tied together through the relationships which drive their dynamic behavior. Those relationships are determined by the physical laws of this existence. They can be described in mathematical terms and modeled to gain deeper understanding of their observed behavior. Our model is a pile of sand. In our model our element is a grain of sand and we will assume for this examination that all of our elements are more or less the same size and composed of similar materials with similar physical properties. Our pile of sand will have two fundamental processes at work. It will be increasing in size over time through grains being dropped from above, an ongoing increase of scale of the system. As this process occurs the pile will experience events where the addition of a grain will cause a small avalanche to occur. The pile will move in a zone and redistribute itself and come to rest. These events are of two kinds local of some scope, they entrain some to portion but not all of the pile, and global, they entrain the whole pile. Our pile of sand has two relationships which it will be seen are of interest to us. The slope of the pile. Its height to width, and the distribution of the size of the events to their frequency. The relationships are largely determined by the size and composition of the grains of sand. This determines the coefficients of friction which along with the force of gravity and several other things determines how much sand can be deposited before an event occurs in any local area. So lets get in the sand box…….
Life is beach, and a beach in a box is great. Sitting in a sand box and scooping up a handful of sand is one of the earliest acts of play we all have experienced. Letting the sand trickle through a small hole in our grasp we notice the formation of a pile. A pile of sand. So elegant in its simplicity. It requires no comprehension, no analysis, only attentive noticing. As we allow grains to drop one by one the pile slowly grows. It gets taller and taller. Each new grain falling and landing on the pile. Usually rolling down one side or another to come to rest somewhere along the side of the sand pile. As this process goes on and we scoop up more sand and add it to the pile an interesting thing occurs. A grain of sand rolls to some place on the pile and its arrival initiates an slide. In the spot where the grain came to rest the pile redistributes itself. Some small area of the pile slides and comes to rest. An event which could be seen in terms of how much of the pile it involves. The size of the event. Another scoop and more sand cascading down from above, and the pile continues to grow in height, and more events. As the pile grows in height the slides begin to grow in scope. They become larger, and a new behavior begins to appear. Our events begin to trigger other events. No longer does the addition of a grain of sand just occasionally cause a small slide, it cause a slide which causes yet another slide. Entrainment also a ubiquitous part of our experience of the world begins to show itself. As the pile grows higher and higher the frequency of events grows. The pile seems to seek a comfortable ratio of height to width. A slope appropriate to itself and its elements. We watch and scoop more sand and let it descend from above one grain at a time. Higher and higher more and more events. We notice that not only are the number of events increasing as the slope of the pile becomes steeper but the size and number of entraining events is increasing and we get the suspicion that there is some pattern to this ongoing dynamic. Some emergent shape sand wants to have. Some shape a pile of sand simply is because of the elements it is composed of. Another scoop of sand. Drop drop drop go the grains. The pile is growing unstable and big pieces of it entrain and slide from the deposition of each additional grain. The process continues and large parts of the pile slump. For awhile each new grain is able to find a home along the slope and causes no new sliding because locally there is the magic shape but the pile keeps getting bigger and higher globally. Growing larger in relation to the size of a single grain of sand. Higher and higher more sand more sand. The pile is now huge in relation to each new tiny grain. in a strange cycle the pile grows and reorganizes itself over some portion to a stable slope. The area of the redistribution growing and lessening in a some dynamic pattern. Higher and higher, each grain of sand now miniscule in comparison to the pile which towers over them all. Each grain falling and as the pile grows becoming seemingly inconsequential to the behavior of the pile. Until one small insignificant grain descends from the heavens and lands on the pile whose proportions have become epic. Rolling a distance it starts an event. That event entrains another event. The growing event disturbs an adjacent area and a huge event is set in motion. As we watch the events begin to entrain one another until the entire pile is engulfed in a single event. An event which causes the entire pile to reorganize itself to the magic shape. There seems to be some threshold at which a pile of sand becomes unstable and change engulfs its entirety. Always returning to a proportion of size, height, and width of its base for any given size of grain. Curiosity sets in. It is obvious that if our sandbox was a beach we could extend this process for an unkown amount of time. Our pile would grow. Arrive at a critical threshold and reorganize itself. Locally at first and then globally in a self organizing critcal event. SOC. What if there was a limit tho. What if the size of the box was all there was. What would that look like. What would a happen to an SOC system if it was limited by some physical constraint because it existed in the actual world. It dawns on us that that would be problematic. That there would be a new bahavior the system would exibhit at the limits of the system. We name that situation catastrophea. That is another discussion.
So what does this have to do with politics and economics? How are politics and economics similar to our pile of sand? If we change the symbols that we use to describe the parts of our exercise perhaps it may become clearer.For the moment then lets us confine our discussion to situations within or near the limits of the world we live in. In politics and in economics our grains of sand are us. Our individual existence in and participation in those systems. Each human being is an agent and acts within those systems we call politics and economics. Events could be considered to be acts which redistribute the tension arising from the exchanges between us. Within our world another phenomenon comes into play, aggregation. The scope of the events any given agent is able to create. Power is another word we use to describe this effect. So we are agents and we have the ability to create redistributions of tension in human systems. In SOC systems there is a notion called a power law distribution. It is a property that all SOC systems exhibit. The relative distribution of the size and frequency of events within the system when plotted on a log log graph show a straight line. What does this have to do with politics and economics and SOC behavior in those systems. Simply put it says that as power aggregates to fewer and fewer players the system becomes more and more a system which will under go an SOC event. The ability of fewer and fewer agents to cause events which entrain more and more of the system causes the system to become unstable and generates an SOC reorganization of the system. The sand pile collapses. In small slides at first. Growing to complete collapse eventually at scale. Aggregation and scale are everything. The recent crash is a prime example. Too few big players have too much influence for our system of human political and economic existence to be stable. Cyclical collapses are inevitable. Political movements and collapses are the same. Without belaboring the metaphor because all metaphors become inaccurate at some point. This an unavoidable truth of the underlying dynamics driving both the natural and the human world.
Power aggregating upwards to fewer and fewer agents is the enemy of stability. Period. The scale of human systems is the number of us and the amount of change we are capable of creating. Scale is a reality. Humans have a scope which is extended and amplified for good or ill through our lamarckian inheritance, knowledge and instrumentality. These things define both the possible height and and width of our sand pile. Power aggregates upwards in current human systems. There is the serious issue of the size of the sand box tho. It is only slightly obviated by our lamarkian inheritance. In actuality it determines when we reach the limits of the box more than the size of the box. We are at a historic location in the development of the human species. We have arrived more or less at the scale of the sand box itself. We have grown exponentially for a very long time and have reached the limits of the system called life. Not so much at the limits of resources or instrumentality and knowledge, but at the scale of the biotic web. This condition is called overshoot. It is a reality and is the true driving dynamic for our future. Aggregation and scale are the two most important and determinative issues facing us today. We must redistribute power downward to more not fewer agents. We must reduce our scale. While I say we must reduce our scale I also think we must concommitantly continue to increase our scope through pursuit of our lamarckian inheritance. The events of recent, the last 3-4 hundred years are a shadow of what is coming. Each time we have reorganized in the past we have avoided catastrophea by extending our reach through our lamarkian inheritance. However we are at scale as determined by life. The next SOC events will not be like the ones we have experienced in the past. We are now in a new domain. It would behove us all to consider if we want to truely go through catastrophea. I believe the true yearning of most of us would be to avoid that because it would be the end of everything we have gained as species up to this point.
I do not want to discourage anyone from any action taken in the service of life with a compassioanate heart and mind. This is just what I see from the sand box.
I pray for all of life that we find a way through the changes that are approaching which conserve us all and lessen suffering.