A typical street in a metropolis in India.
Snapshot
  • Given the inevitability of chaos in complex systems, our only hope for stability and order would be to have smaller, simpler systems that are easier to manage.

Global, national and local societies face many threats. We are threatened by enemies – internal and external – who want to destroy our way of life. We are plagued with environmental degradation as we quickly try to ramp up the economy and improve our living standards. Finally our own social systems are in tatters because efforts to mitigate the effects of the first two reasons are stymied by venal corruption and a cynical disregard for the rule of law. In fact, the last reason is perhaps the most overarching reason, because it leads to the other two.

We have solutions to most of our problems. Technological solutions are available to grow more food, generate more energy, combat disease and check crime. There are public structures like hospitals, schools, municipal, state and central governments, the legislature, each with its own set of rules and procedures, to guide and govern matters. There are commercial structures, like corporates, cooperatives and professional networks that transform natural and human resources into disposable surplus that can be used for material pleasure. Then there are clubs, non-profits and political parties that lubricate the gears and facilitate the work of the public and private structures. Finally, we have a whole set of checks and balances, like the police and the courts of law, and institutions that recursively keep checks on the checks and balances, like the Vigilance Department, the CBI and the Lokpal to ensure that everyone does what they should. So in principle, if everything were to work like clockwork, there should not be any unresolved problems on the planet.

But obviously, this is absurd. Unlike the precise determinism of classical mechanics, the social mechanism that governs society is based on the non-deterministic behaviour of human beings. No two persons are alike and so no two will respond to a situation in an identical manner. One may be afraid to break the law even if there is a benefit, but another may be willing to do so. So there is an element of randomness that permeates society and it is this randomness that is the key determinant of social outcomes.

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Randomness leads the environment from order to disorder. Physics equates disorder with entropy, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy of a closed system can only increase over time. In fact, the direction of the “arrow of time” is often determined by the level of entropy between two states of the system. Information theory also associates entropy with randomness. Uncertain, random events are associated with high information content and, hence, high entropy. Certain events, like the daily sunrise, that have a probability of 1, are associated with zero entropy, as are impossible events like a horse giving birth to a dog, which have a probability of 0. But entropy is high when there is uncertainty and unpredictability as in the outcome of a toss of a fair coin, the results of an election or a war.

Increase in entropy, in randomness, in unpredictability leads to chaos that can be analysed in terms of Chaos Theory. Chaos is the inevitable outcome of any adaptive, dynamic and complex system which is exactly what human society is. Chaos is unpredictability in the face of apparent determinism – and as Edward Lorenz puts it so elegantly, chaos is when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. What this means is that a slight change in initial conditions – a crow flapping its wings in Kolkata – can cause a major upheaval far away – a tornado in Texas. Mapped to human society, it means that social uncertainty caused by the erratic, unpredictable behaviour of even a small group of people can cause ripples and upheavals across the world.

Chaos Theory allows for strange attractors, or periodic repetitions of somewhat predictable outcomes, which is why human society settles into equilibria that give us a sense of stability. But given its colossal complexity, even one incident, like 9/11, can tip it into a new, possibly more uncomfortable and anarchic equilibrium. Complexity is, in fact, impossible to manage in large organisations, which is why we have the eventual collapse of centrally governed empires – the Kaurava, the Pharaonic, the Roman, the Mauryan, the Holy Roman, the Ottoman, the Mughal, the British, the Soviet and finally the European Union. We can only hope that India will not join this list. Well-governed human societies are based on the rule of law and order and it is this order that is under threat from the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chaos Theory. While we all crave for order, the reason why we rarely attain it is because the laws of the universe inexorably push us towards disorder and anarchy.

Smoke pouring from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two planes on 11 September 2001 in New York City. (Craig Allen/Getty Images) Smoke pouring from the World Trade Center after it was hit by two planes on 11 September 2001 in New York City. (Craig Allen/Getty Images)

But will entropy always increase? Not really. In a small closed system – as in a school, a company, a factory, a state like Singapore or perhaps a human colony on Mars – it is possible to reduce the local entropy within the system and impose perfect order, but this needs one of two prerequisites. Either we need an external agency imposing order from outside – a non-popular dictatorship – or there has to exist a mechanism of self-organisation that resolves contradictions and guides the system towards greater order. A small school or factory is an example of the first, while well-governed United States cities that are cleaner and more habitable than anarchic municipalities in India are an example of the second.

But even in a small society, which is somehow isolated from the random anarchy of the global environment, the ability to self-regulate is not guaranteed. Self-regulation is actually an outcome of enlightened self-interest that seeks to create the proverbial win-win situation that benefits all at the cost of none. But this is not easy. To understand why, consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a special case of a mathematical oddity called Nash Equilibrium that is part of Game Theory.

Consider two persons who have been arrested for a murder but the police do not have any clinching evidence to ensure a conviction. So both prisoners are offered a plea-bargain offer. If any one turns approver and betrays the other, then the betrayer will be let off but the other will serve 20 years in jail. If both turn approver, then both serve 10 years in jail. But if both cooperate and neither betrays the other, then the police will imprison them for a year on a lesser crime. Unfortunately, neither do the prisoners have any knowledge of what the other prisoner will do and nor do they trust each other. Ideally, neither should betray the other, because this will ensure light punishment for both, which is the best solution. But in reality, given the uncertainty, neither will trust the other, both will betray each other and so ensure a 10-year hardship for both. A classic lose-lose scenario.

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This scenario is reflected in many real-life situations like women wearing make-up to look more elegant, athletes using steroids to enhance performance, over-exploitation of resources like fish or minerals, countries spending money on arms and ammunition, countries refusing restrictions on environmental pollutants that hamper economic growth, advertisers spending money to push competing products or bidders at an auction being afflicted with the winner’s curse. In India, aggressive drivers break traffic rules to squeeze past others and, in the process, create massive traffic jams, whereas everyone could reach home earlier by waiting and obeying the traffic rules.

If people would cooperate with one another, the world will be a better place, but the inexorable laws of Game Theory says that this will never happen. If all political parties were to cooperate on matters of national interest, like implementing labour reforms or fighting Islamic terror, many of the social and economic problems that bedevil India can be quickly eliminated but, as in the case of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, each political party thinks that cooperating with the other means sealing one’s own electoral fate and facilitating a landslide victory for the other.

Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing. (NASA) Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing. (NASA)

Human society is in a bind. The Second Law and Chaos Theory push us towards anarchy while Game Theory prevents us from self-organising. So we are forced to reconcile ourselves to a chaotic future. Given the inevitability of chaos in complex systems, our only hope for stability and order would be to have smaller, simpler systems that are easier to manage. Small states, municipalities, panchayats and even gated communities – where the number of players, or variables, is small and where complexity is manageable – have a far better chance of avoiding anarchy. Going forward, as complex social and security challenges – both international and now more often intra-national – overwhelm the world, a loosely-coupled federation of small, self-sustainable, technology-enabled, well-managed, elitist communities or “smart cities”, spread across the earth and nearby planets, may be the only way towards a reasonably stable future.

But the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the inability of people to collaborate for the common good may be a persistent roadblock on the path to global peace with prosperity.

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