Sunday, July 27, 2008

A pragmatic, positive and integrated use of the ideas of nonlinear science and complex systems

Manuel De Landa closes his book, A thousand years of nonlinear history, with a reflection on the pragmatic use of the ideas borrowed from nonlinear science and the science of complex systems. The two main forces that De Landa has been recognized throughout his book are homogenization and heterogenization. The first force assures a pyramidal or stratified construction with a hierarchy and a strong commandment, the second a flat or destratified organization or meshwork with no central control.

De Landa recognizes that linear science, adapted to describe hierarchic and stratified systems, have dominated the western thought for the last three centuries and thus limited our view of the world. On the other hand, the actual homogenization of the world, in terms of economies or ecology and occuring over many scales, have rendered the world more linear:

"[A]s our industrial, medical and educational systems became routinized, as they grew and began to profit from economies of scale, linear equations accumulated in physical sciences and equilibrium theories flourished in the social sciences. In a sense, even though the world is inherently nonlinear and far from equilibrium , its homogenization meant that those areas that have been made uniform began behaving objectively as linear equilibrium structures, with predictable and controllable properties." Manuel De Landa, A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.
Still, the nonlinear contribution is important and indeed necessary to avoid the world and Earth to become a dead, predictable and uncreative body. So what should we do? First, De Landa cautions not to adopt the extremist view of destroying the homogeneous part of the system. As Deleuze and Guattari wrote:
"If you free [the system] with too violent an action, if you blow apart the strata without taking precautions, then instead of drawing the plane you will be killed, plunged into a black hole, or even dragged into catastrophe. Staying stratified -organized, signified, subjected-, is not the worst that can happen; the worst that can happen is if you throw the strata into demented or suicidal collapse, which brings them back down on us heavier than ever." Deleuze and Guattari, A thousand plateaus, pp 160-161, cited in A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.
What a balanced and moderate view from post-modernists such as Deleuze and Guattari that are supposed to be, according to what I heard about them, more nihilist that positivist! It reminds me of Camus who wrote in, L'homme rebel, that revolutions were not necessary. Revolutions are actually counter-productive. They may do more harm than good and only by changing the world small steps at a time, can we achieve the ideal dreamed. De Landa, Deleuze and Guattari expand that idea acknowledging the complexity and nonlinearity of the system:
"This is how it should be done: lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuum of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of new land at all times." Deleuze and Guattari, A thousand plateaus, pp 160-161, cited in A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.
De Landa explains that
[a]ll these precautions are necessary in a world that does not possess a ladder of progress, or a drive toward increased perfection, or a promised land, or even a socialist pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Moreover, these warnings derive from a recognition that our world is governed not only by nonlinear dynamics, which makes detailed prediction and control impossible, but also by nonlinear combinatorics, which implies that the number of possible mixtures of meshwork and hierarchy, of command and market, of centralization and decentralization, are immense and that we simply cannot predict the emergent properties of these myriad combinations will be." in A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.
De Landa pursues:
"Thus the call for a more experimental attitude toward reality and for an increased awareness of the potential for self-organization inherent in even the humblest forms of matter-energy." in A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.
He finishes by emphasizing that this approach does not necessarily mean a hopeless and boring view of life. Far from it:
"It is important, however, not to confuse the need for caution in our exploration of the nonlinear possibilities of (economic, linguistic, biological) reality, and the concomitant abandonment of utopian euphoria, with despair, resentment and nihilism. There is, indeed, a new kind of hope implicit in these new views. After all, many of the most beautiful and inspiring things on our planet may have been created through [partial] destratification. A good example of this may be the emergence of birdsongs: the mouth became destratified when it ceased to be a strictly alimentary organ, caught up in the day-to-day eating of flesh, and began to generate other flows (memes) and structures (songs) where the meshwork element dominated the hierarchical. The emergence of organic life itself, while not representing a more perfect stage of development than rocks, did involve a greater capacity to generate self-consistent aggregates, a surplus of consistency. The human hand may also have involved a destratification, a complete detachment from locomotive functions and a new coupling with the external environment, itself further destratified when the hand began converting pieces of it (rocks, bones, branches) into tools. Thus, despite all the cautionary tales about simplistic calls for anarchic liberation, there is in these theories a positive, even joyful conception of reality. And while these views do indeed invoke the «death of man», it is only the death of «man» of the old «manifest destinies», not the death of humanity and its potential for destratification." in A thousand years of nonlinear history, Conclusion and speculations.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A summary of "A thousand years of nonlinear history": the geological component and why the West dominates the World

Manuel De Landa ambitiously borrows the vocabulary and concepts from the science of nonlinearity and complex systems and applies them to the history of Europe from the year 1000 to 2000. The main goal of the book is to draft a possible schematic trajectory explaining the domination of Europe during that period over the rest of the world, especially the empire of Islam and China. The idea is that this domination came up because of the lucky congruence of multitude of complex and interacting economic, climatic, geographic and social processes that triggered auto-catalytic processes, that it is processes fuelling themselves via positive feedbacks, and not because of either the fate of History as Marx suggested, the sole power of some top-down political and economical concept as capitalism and its (really) "invisible hand", or a fundamental dominating aspect of the European people, such as a psyche or a religion shaped for "success". In this sense, De Landa follows the traces of many (western) authors who have been trying to re-equilibrate the idea that we have of the creative power of the different cultures in the History and put back the spoiled child 'Europa' to its right place, as Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (one of the best book and theory ever) successfully did.

The originality of De Landa is to avoid at every instant the use of any subjective concious or unconscious explanations by constantly using the scientific language, metaphors but also actual processes from the science of complex systems.

The first part deals on the geological aspect of the European society, its cities, institutions and economical system:

"From this point of view cities arise from the flow of matter-energy, but once a town's mineral infrastructure has emerged, it reacts to those flows, creating a new set of constraints that either intensifies or inhibits them. Needless to say, the walls, monumental buildings, streets, and houses of a town would make a rather weak set of constraints if they operated on their own. Of course, they do not. Our historical exploration of urban dynamics must therefore include an analysis of the institutions that inhabit cities, whether the bureaucracies that run them or the markets that animate them. Although these institutions are the product of collective human decision making, once in place they also react back on their human components to limit them and control them, or, on the contrary, to set them in motion or accelerate their mutation."
Manuel De Landa, A thousand years of nonlinear history, Geological history: 1000-1700 AD

Notice the vocabulary of dynamics employed and the numerous feedback loops considered in that explanation. One of the virtuous cycle that exists, according to De Landa, is the combination of markets and anti-markets. The first are actual markets, composed of small-scale and truly capitalistic companies where competition rules, while the second are composed of large-scale companies that are anti-capitalistic by preventing competition to exercise its force:
"Markets and bureaucracies, as well as planned and unplanned cities, are concrete instances of a more general distinction: self-organized meshworks of diverse elements, versus hierarchies of uniform elements. But again, meshworks and hierarchies not only coexist and intermingle, they constantly give rise to one another.
[...]Thus, once markets grew past the size of local, weekly gatherings, they were ranked and organized form the top, giving rise to a hybrid form:a hierarchy of meshworks. The opposite hybrid, a meshwork of hierarchies, may be illustrated by the system of power in the Middle Ages."
Manuel De Landa, A thousand years of nonlinear history, Geological history: 1000-1700 AD

The chance of Europe, that Islam or China did not have, was that it was never too anarchic nor too controlled. Its chance has been the presence of that multitude of people, competing each other over that relatively small piece of land, where the virtuous cycle of markets and anti-markets survived until invading the institutions and the psyche of Europe. In some sense, even without mentioning it, De Landa describes here the concept of the edge of chaos, the limit between too much order and too much randomness; only at the edge, life and creativity survive. Islam and China have both a too strong central commandment that prevented, according to De Landa, the local market-like processes to develop and bring the innovations to the high level necessary for a civilisation to win the evolutionary game:
"The emergence of powerful nation-states, and the concomitant decrease in the autonomy of the cities they absorbed (and even of the city-states that remained independent), could have brought the different forms of self-stimulating dynamics we have described to a halt. That this did not happen was due yet to one more form of autocatalysis unique to the West: continued arm races. [T]his type of self-stimulation depended in turn on the fact that the nations of Europe, unlike China and Islam, were never able to form a single, homogeneous empire, and have remained until today a meshwork of hierarchies. It was within this meshwork that advances in offensive weaponry stimulated innovations in defense technology, leading to an ever-growing armament spiral.
Many of the inventions that Europeans used to colonize the world (the compass, gunpowder, paper money, the printing press) were of Chinese origin, while Europe's accounting techniques and instrument of credits (which are often cited as examples of her unique «rationality») came from Islam. Thus, nothing intrinsic to Europe determined the outcome, but rather a dynamics bearing no inherent relationship to any culture. [A]n excess of centralized decision making in the East kept turbulent dynamics under control, while they raged unobstructed in the West. To be sure, at several points in her history Europe could have become a unified hierarchy, and this would have ground these dynamics to a halt. This happened in the sixteenth century with the Hapsburg Empire, and later on with the rise of Napoleon and Hitler. Yet all these efforts proved abortive, and European nations remained a meshwork."
Manuel De Landa, A thousand years of nonlinear history, Geological history: 1000-1700 AD

As again, those theories and trajectories are hard to proved. They are only suggestive but they have the merit to bring a more moderate albeit complex view of the world and to liberate ourself from the extremist, at times naive and too simplistic, visions that we have of our world. The Truth might lay somewhere in between.

Monday, July 14, 2008

How did life survive?

In Discordant harmonies, Daniel B. Botkin briefly describes the history of Earth, and the important role that life has played, especially in the formation of the present composition of the atmosphere. The idea is that life has always succeeding in exploiting the available chemical resources, which resulted after every major evolutionary move in a change of the main composition of the atmosphere. The question that struck me is then: how come did life succeed not to kill itself by over-exploiting Earth's resources, a question obviously of utmost important for the human race?

Several hypothesis: 1) there is a Gaia-like theological process where life keeps itself within limitis where it can survive, 2) just luck. Both answers are not satisfactory. The first one avoids to answer the question: why would there be such process? The second one does not provide any mechanism that we, human, could use to manage Earth correctly.