Geneva, NY. Demonstrators in Geneva, NY protested against Monsanto in front of the district office of Congressman Tom Reed on May 24. The protest was part of a global March Against Monsanto. The company's genetically modified organisms and harmful pesticides threaten health, biodiversity, and sustainable food production throughout the world.
The Geneva demonstration was organized by Geneva resident, Kyle McGloon. McGloon said, "I feel like a lot of people are not aware of what is going on with our food and our government and wanted to spark some critical thinking."
Although Austria, Germany, France, and Switzerland are among the countries with partial bans on GMOs, the US lags far behind. Just this week, several counties in Oregon broke this impass, when they voted to ban the planting of genetically modifed crops in their borders. Monsanto currently spends upward of seven million dollars a year in lobbying efforts in the US.
Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Professor of Political Science Paul A. Passavant explained, "GMOs threaten small farms. In addition to poisoning the environment with their toxins, Monsanto puts small farmers out of business when common seed stores get contaminated with their genetically modified frankenseeds. We live in a strange world when the law allows Monsanto to sue small farmers out of business, but doesn't protect the rest of us from invasion from these genetically modified organisms.
This year's Geneva protest doubled in size from last year. McGloon was optimistic: "If I reached one person, I would be satisfied."
Nicolis and Prigogine argue that the nonlinear dynamics of far from equilibrium systems can provide an archetype for understanding complex systems. As they explain, their argument relies on analogies between models of systems and physico-chemical systems. They describe a model (climatic variability, insect systems, human systems) and then use their language of complexity to demonstrate how the model can be understood as a complex system. The result, they hope, are suggestions on how to master complexity a (italics in original).
If analogy is the first step, faulty analogies would suggest faulty arguments. They would suggest, in other words, that the claims for the behavior of physical-chemical systems don't tell us anything about biological and conscious systems.
Definition: complexity is "connected to the ability to switch between different modes of behavior as the environmental conditions are varied. The resulting flexibility and adaptability in turn introduce the notion of choice among the various possibilities offered." The requisite condition for this choice involves the presence of instabilities and bifurcations.
N and P consider self-organization in human systems.
1. Human society is embedded in an environment with which it exchanges matter, energy, information. On the one hand, this seems rather non-controversial. We take from and give back to the earth. On the other, the initial separation of society and environment makes it more difficult to see society as its own environment. And this omission eliminates antagonism--society begins as one rather than as divided and exchanging with itself.
2. The example they give is "of a town in which raw materials and agricultural products arrive continuously, finished good are exported, while mass media and professional communication keep the various local groups aware of the present situation and of the immediate trends." The description of media here is as a conduit of facts. Media's role in producing facts, in obscuring facts, in making subjects. So not only does the example proceed as if there were a neutral set of exchanges, of the movement of products without violence or oppression, but it proceeds as if all reporting could be reporting of neutral facts uninfluenced by observers' own positions.
3. Nicolis and Prigogine know, of course, that humans have "individual projects and desires." They know as well that these desires constitute dynamics of their own, influencing people as much if not more than their predictions about what others might do. For them, desire is ultimately a matter of chance and unpredictability. Desire installs in what could be a deterministic system the element of indeterminacy and unpredictability. Desire makes the system open.
4. N and P then try to specify unpredictability. As they do so, desire because less the unpredictable, unknowable force or thrust, the locus of fantasies, but instead a simple appetite, a rational preference. At this point, the realization of preferences will have effects on preferences--the choices of others impact our choices; feedback is a factor in social systems (if someone I like likes a book, I'm more likely to read it than if they don't like it).
5. N an P consider the "development of an urban center as certain areas specialize in specific economic activities and as residential segregation produces neighborhoods differing in their living conditions and access to jobs and services. Two major components of the population are recognized, corresponding essentially to blue and white collar workers." Specialization and segregation appear as fundamental properties of the system rather than as conscious choices or as two among many organizational alternatives.
6. In fact, as their example continues, it is clear that specialization and segregation are the primary distinguishing characteristics of sub-populations ("it may be reasonably assumed that the subpopulation Ni is essentially determined by the number of jobs of type k situated at point i") .
7. N and P add: "similar equations can be written for the other categories of actors, equations that describe, for example, the need for industrial employment to be located at a point with good access to the outside and, preferably, in a location adjacent to already established industry." The picture we are getting, then, involves a classed society where class involves relations of production. Industrial production is taken as a given (so, one can presume assembly lines and factories; given that blue and white collar workers are separated, one can't presume collective ownership and management of these factories). Access to the outside is intriguing--I presume that the idea is one of export or capacities to ship the goods that made--but it could mean something else, like untapped markets or colonies. Adjacency gives primacy to existing modes and relations of production, and could have the side-effect of creating industrial sectors inhospitable to living. Most bluntly put: there are already tensions and problems creeping into the model.
8. They write: "the model just defined views the evolution as an autonomous process whose course is determined at each moment by the mechanisms of interaction among different actors. The environmental constraints act through the parameters, and the initial condition can be adopted to express the effect of randomness or of a systematic external intervention or "planning." An alternative scenario, closer to what happens in reality, is to let the system evolve for a certain period of time, brutally modify its state by launching a new activity or an "innovation", again let the system follow its autonomous dynamics until a new innovation is launched, and so forth."
I don't quite understand this. Or, I am mystified by the slippages, the same slippages that accompany the problem of the outmoded physicist I discussed in the first post on exploring complexity. The evocation of an autonomous process suggests an invisible hand, market forces. To emphasize an autonomous process would suggest a multiplicity of individual choices mutually impacting one another in multiple ways. An alternative would be "planning," the authors say. But this is a strange way to think of economic planning, particularly insofar as no city planners or state appear in the model. There is a society of industry with no government, in the model of an urban center they provide. So it isn't clear where they think the planning would fit. Their alternative seems like a combination (an oscillating universe?). But who is doing the brutal modification? who is launching a new activity? Are these revolutions? New products? Volcanoes? Who is letting the system evolve? This is a problem because it isn't clear what the difference between letting the system evolve and innovating is. If the system refers to its members interacting in their environment (which itself is indistinguishable from the system such that there are multiple interacting feedback loops), then any changes, even revolutionary ones, even ones that some group plan, are both evolutions and innovations. Differently put, any new motion or movement (throwing the ball back, pulling a weed or not pulling a weed, introducing a new product or continuing to produce an old one) can be described as either evolution or innovation.
9. Nicolis and Prigogine write: "Starting from a space in which variables are initially distributed at random, we observe the gradual emergence of an organized pattern with its own administrative and business centers, its industrial zones, its shopping centers, and its residential neighborhoods of varying qualities." But are the variable distributed at random? Or, does the level of development of the means of production play a role? What about the form of government? The legal regime? Does it make sense to say that shopping centers and industrial zones are products of random developments? or perhaps products of the development of the forces of production, class struggle, and legal attempts to respond to and direct both? Gradual emergence occludes the impact of power on choices and the reciprocal impact of choices on power.
10. Nicolis and Prigogine conclude that there account "illustrates the dangers of short-term, narrow planning based on the direct extrapolation of past experience. Such static methods threaten society with fossilization or, in the long term, with collapse. The principle message of the dynamical modeling advocated in this section is that the adaptive possibility of societies is the main source allowing them to survive in the long term, to innovate of themselves, and to produce originality."
I can't find an illustration of the danger of short-term narrow planning in the chapter. I think what they have in mind is the fact that small changes can have large impacts and that some large impacts may be unexpected (repeated tiny stresses on a bridge can ultimately contribute to its collapse). Their suggestion reminds me of points Nicolas Taleb and other raised against the use of the Gaussian copula in models of mortgage default risk--too much extrapolation based on the short term (last 2 years) rather than long term.
The problem, though, is that fossilization and collapse seem unpredictable and unavoidable on the basis of Nicolis and Prigogine's work. Their basic emphasis is on processes that are stochastic and irreversible. Put another way, originality can't be eliminated; adaptation can't be eliminated. The opposition between planning and innovation is a false one. They proceed as if planning were the same as presuming the existence of fixed laws of nature. But no plan determines in that sense. A plan does not establish a fixed course, for example. It posits a desired outcome and a set or processes to reach that outcome. But it cannot fix and inscribe the processes or guarantee the outcome.
Nicolis and Prigogine provide a vocabulary of complexity. The terms in this vocabulary have flourished, spreading into multiple discursive habitats, changing the habitats, making them welcoming to other, new species of political language. New economy and new media gurus love complexity. It's an ideal environment for neoliberalism.
1. Far from equilibrium conditions. N and P emphasize the wild flux and chaos in physico-chemical systems. The liveliness and instability seem much closer to life than to the statis formerly associated with so-called non-living matter. Primordial conditions that are not at equilibrium exhibit all sorts of activity--phase transitions are an example. Most critics of classical economics focus on their fantasy of equilibrium. I'm increasingly concerned with the ideological implications of the emphasis on non-equilibrium: it has correlated too readily with an unwillingness to regulate, govern, and control, that is, with the sense that complex systems need to be left to themselves, left free to self-organize.
2. Feedback mechanisms. In nonlinear systems, small additions can have dramatic effects.
3. Self-organization. Under far from equilibrium conditions, structures emerge. That is, without a guide or decider, it is possible for chaos and disorder to develop structures and stabilities on their own.
4. A point I like very much concerns information--the fact that information depends on randomness and asymmetry.
In the prologue to their 1989 book, Exploring Complexity, Gregoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine emphasize a change in science. Over the course of the twentieth century, scientists stopped thinking of the universe as deterministic and reversible and started thinking of its fundamental processes as stochastic and irreversible. What this means, N and P explain, is that physics is more like biology, even more like the human sciences. As in the human sciences, so in the hard sciences "we" are actors and spectators. The future is open. There is not one system subject to deterministic laws but rather multiple, complex processes that fold back upon and influence each other.
It seems, then, that complexity is a way of thinking chaotic conditions and systems that takes insights and attributes from the study of living and conscious systems and brings these insights to bear upon phenomena previously viewed as fixed or absolute. Matter is more like people, spontaneous and active.
Yet this implication, that the existence of stochastic phenomena means natural systems are more like biological and conscious systems, often reverses into its opposite. Physics has the knowledge and insights that tells us the truth about human sciences. The analogy reverses itself and the one side comes to govern the other:
According to the classical view, there was a sharp distinction between simple systems, such as studied by physics or chemistry, and complex systems, such as studied in biology and the human sciences. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than the one that exists between the simple behavior of a gas or a liquid, and the complex processes we discover in the evolution of life or in the history of the human sciences.
It is precisely because this gap is narrowing that we now may consider applying new knowledge to situations for which the concepts of classical physics were insufficient or inappropriate, or even essentially meaningless.
In classical physics, the investigator is outside the system that he observes. He is the one who can make independent decisions, while the system itself is subject to deterministic laws. In other terms, there is a 'decider' who is 'free,' and the members of the system, be they individuals or organizations, who are not 'free' but conform to some master plan.
In the first paragraph, physics is lacking. It can handle what is simple. But complex matters are left to biology and the human sciences. In the second paragraph, it is no longer lacking, no longer insufficient and inappropriate. Now there is the promise and possibility of meaning. This meaning is such that now physics has something to offer, something complex enough to apply to biology and the human sciences.
The third paragraph tells us why physics has something to offer. It no longer relies on the idea of an outside observer not involved in the action. It no longer posits the freedom of the scientist against the determination of the natural laws the scientist observes.
But notice: instead of affirming a positive the next sentence extends the critique. Instead of saying what the new physics, the new science of complexity, is providing, it rephrases the critique of deterministic physics as a social or political critique. The sentence relies on an analogy with the study of political systems. Yet the analogy is awkward.
a. The outmoded physicist is the same as, in the same place as, a decider (a sovereign, perhaps, or a party or a state). Applied to the outmoded physicist, the term "decider" suggests researcher--the scientist decides what to look at and focus on. His choices of what to investigate are not determined by the system he is investigating or observing.
b. What the outmoded physicist observes are objects that are analogous to the members of a system. These members, the human sciences tell us, are free. The outmoded physicist, though, did not think his objects were free. He thought they were determined. made to conform to certain patterns and cycles by fundamental laws. So now it seems that the outmoded physicist needs to recognize that his objects are not determined. But the sentence doesn't say that. Instead, it refers to individuals made to conform to a master plan.
c. If the outmoded physicist is making objects "conform to a master plan" he is understanding them in a particular way. He isn't forcing the planets into orbit. He views them in terms of a plan A sovereign (or state) would have a master plan in a different sense. This plan would attempt to secure conformity rather than simply apprehend conformity. Here, then, the decider is in a different position vis a vis the free members. Here the decider seems to have agency and the members seem to be oppressed. So now it seems that a political point is being made: if the members are free, then they are the same as the decider. They are also deciders and should not be made to conform. Our physicist has become a liberal.
Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.
The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.
The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call switching costs. Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.
The Net’s ability to monitor events and send out messages and notifications automatically is, of course, one of its great strengths as a communication technology. We rely on that capability to personalize the workings of the system, to program the vast database to respond to our particular needs, interests, and desires. We want to be interrupted, because each interruption—email, tweet, instant message, RSS headline—brings us a valuable piece of information. To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch or even socially isolated. The stream of new information also plays to our natural tendency to overemphasize the immediate. We crave the new even when we know it’s trivial.
And so we ask the Internet to keep interrupting us in ever more varied ways. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive. We rarely stop to think that it might actually make more sense just to tune it all out.