Thursday, December 29, 2005

Complexity and Conservatism

Oftentimes I find that the world is too complex. The more you learn about how the world works, the more you realize how little you know. I’m naturally suspicious of easy answers, but I’m also left discomforted that there are no easy answers to a problem. It’s like saying that some particular issue is indeed a problem but it’s futile to find an elegant solution anyway. It’s a response that exhibits humility but it also gives others desirous of solutions the impression that I’m timid. Still, the truth remains, systems are complex, unpredictability is the rule to things we don’t fully understand, and to ignore these axioms will cause catastrophic results.

I find that is often the case in studying the city. It’s undoubtedly a very dynamic system, comprised of countless individuals making decisions independent of what is desired by the city’s governing authority. The topic of the ideal city has been constantly revisited throughout civilized history, and often the reality of the built result turns out to far different from the intentions of the designer. The most ambitious urban planners in my view suffer from the arrogance of viewing systems simplistically. All can agree that Le Corbusier’s vision of the city grossly abstracts what really goes on in cities in spite of his efforts to present his arguments in a ‘scientific’ way. Still the his self-image as the Nietzchean Superman prevented him from absorbing the wisdom that we can’t fully understand complexity.

One person who does understand the need for humility in comprehending complex systems is author Michael Crichton:

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now thirty years old. A third of a century should be plenty of time for this knowledge and to filter down to everyday consciousness, but except for slogans—like the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane halfway around the world—not much has penetrated ordinary human thinking.

On the other hand, complexity theory has raced through the financial world. It has been briskly incorporated into medicine. But organizations that care about the environment do not seem to notice that their ministrations are deleterious in many cases. Lawmakers do not seem to notice when their laws have unexpected consequences, or make things worse. Governors and mayors and managers may manage their complex systems well or badly, but if they manage well, it is usually because they have an instinctive understanding of how to deal with complex systems. Most managers fail.

Why? Our human predisposition treat all systems as linear when they are not. A linear system is a rocket flying to Mars. Or a cannonball fired from a canon. Its behavior is quite easily described mathematically. A complex system is water gurgling over rocks, or air flowing over a bird’s wing. Here the mathematics are complicated, and in fact no understanding of these systems was possible until the widespread availability of computers.

Crichton is referring to the environmental movement and much of the science they rely on to promote their agenda. I’m sympathetic to the author’s views about the environment, not because I’m against its preservation than I’m convinced that there are so many unknowns that implementing any kind of policy is bound to make the conditions more severe to humans. To declare uncontestable certainty about the future of the global climate, especially for the next 100 years is foolish. To transform social and economic policies to address a future that is simply an unknown is an irresponsible leap of faith.

I believe that conservative thought, which eschews utopianisms and any grand romantic schemes, is essentially about how to best manage surrounding circumstances. Improvements are often incremental and are measured not by how well at achieves absolute values like equality, peace or even harmony. Rather success is often defined by how the current reality is a bit better for people than before. Although conservatives dislike the notion that they are the traditionalists and reactionaries the name implies, the ability to conserve is actually healthy. It is an acknowledgement that old ways of doing things sometimes work better than new ways, and that its wiser to hold on to good things we know than to embrace things we will never fully know. In a complex and dynamic system, the conservative will only want to control aspects small enough that we can understand and manipulate while leaving the rest of the system alone. If a particular policy has worked in the past and is appropriate enough in the present, a conservative will conserve the policy that has proven itself to work.

Creating grand top-down schemes is not what a conservative can provide. Rather they offer to control certain levers that predictably yield particularly limited results. In the development of cities this might mean a change in zoning criteria or a change in tax rates or incentives. It certainly doesn’t involve rethinking the nature of the city from scratch, and it doesn’t pretend that city can become a harmonious place with the proper design. Maybe that’s why many designers are sympathetic to state involvement on grand scale. Statists aren’t happy with existence of few problems mixed in with the mostly decent reality. The existence of even one problem requires a radically new solution. Conservatives are happy when the problems are mostly under control rather than eliminated. Imperfection, like inequality is tolerated as long as most people can benefit. This mindset doesn’t prescribe beautiful new plans, doesn’t inspire the soul with bold works of art, nor does it provide much impetus to remake reality down to the very last detail. But it doesn’t condemn all that people hold dear and it doesn’t lecture them that they are deluded in accepting the reality than they are part of. But for someone who is part of a creative vocation, conservatism doesn’t motivate one to think that the work will have much of an effect beyond its significance as a creation.

Note: Please do read Crichton’s lecture here. I’m interested in seeing if any readers believe that creative professions can be inspired by conservatism.

Hattip: The Corner

1 comment:

mostafashaban said...

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