Most of us look at technological advances as one of the successes of the human race. The industrialized society has evolved on the backs of these advances and today, at least in the western hemisphere, we expect water to come when we turn the tap on, the television to play an array of images at the turn of a switch and food to be delivered, at our doorstep, with just a few clicks on a computer.
These apparently simple everyday actions rely on complex systems to function properly and that has become a common feature of every single aspect of our everyday routine. For example, food and water supply, as well as communications, finance and security, all rely on electricity to work, which in turn relies on the supply of energy (oil, coal, nuclear and from renewable sources), which relies on the manufacture of instruments that also use energy. A big complex system, where every key aspect of our lives is intertwined with the next, and if one fails, the others will fail too, like a giant house of cards.
That is analysis put forward by John Casti, an American complexity scientist and systems analyst. Casti believes that the increasing complexity of the industrialized world is not a success to be hailed, but a weakness that can prove to be catastrophic. In his view, the system is unsustainable and it will eventually lead to disaster. Especially if it is hit by the extreme scenarios he refers to as “x-events”.
X-events are rare occurrences that have an impact that goes beyond normal standards and they can be of natural or human origin. Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake and tsunami, that led to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, are examples of x-events of natural origin. For examples of x-events of human origin, one can look at the financial crisis or at Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation (that sparked the revolution in Tunisia). All of these had an impact that fell out of what was considered “normal” and could not be predicted.
In all these cases, the complex systems put in place to support the city, the nuclear reactor, the financial system and the government collapsed because of their complexity. Their design accounted for smaller strength hurricanes or less radical protests that the system would have been apple to withstand. But here lies the problem when it comes to x-events: their rarity makes their prediction nearly impossible. As Casti argues, “science is mostly about the study of repeatable phenomena; X-events fall outside that category, which is a major reason why at present we have no decent theory for when, how, and why they occur”(Casti, 2012). They are one of a kind events: dependent on a set of circumstances that, most likely, will never happen again. He adds that these events are “human nature’s way of reducing a complexity overload that has become unsustainable”(Casti, 2012).
Used in a preemptive way, one could, in theory, bring massive changes to society by creating a x-event that would work as the catalyst for change that would work in a domino effect. Think of the complex network of alliances and interests that were bound together just before World War I started. The balance of power in Europe was too complex, just like a house of cards. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria worked as the linchpin, the domino piece that made all the other ones fall in the required direction to catapult the continent into war.
I find it both interesting and frightening that this sort of model can actually be effective in changing the world. And, in theory, it can. Fortunately, however, x-events are not so easily devised and because of their rare nature, it is impossible to accurately predict them, as well as their impact. Theoretical models are usually based on huge amounts of data and the rarity of these occurrences makes it impossible to nail “down a probability you can believe in” (Casti, 2012).
Casti intends to warn us about the existence of these paradigm changing events that can bring massive changes: electrical collapses, epidemics, wars and other natural catastrophes all fall into this category. His aim is to encourage the study of these events so that we can come up with a theory to predict them. There is, of course, a possible political use to all of this. As I mentioned, this systemic model can (in theory and only if the prediction models are perfected) be a tool for governments to use in their worldwide power struggles. It is, in my opinion, a grim perspective.