Feedback Loops

Characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems

I forget which dystopian novel we are living in now. In Portland, Oregon last week storm troopers, I mean federal troops were deployed to harass citizens who have been engaged in peaceful protests over the murder of George Floyd and over the unrelenting deaths of BIPOC in particular black people since well…  We have already passed a tipping point of recognition of the meaning of black death at the hands of the police and after a large helping of “I don’t want to hear about it” a significant portion of the white populace is appalled.

Tipping points in complex adaptive systems are often illustrated using a hockey stick graph to explain why change can seem so sudden. There are multiple incidents resulting in small public reactions over time culminating in what we used to call when I was a kid a pile-on. The hockey stick graph has been used to illustrate this phenomenon in everything from segregation to climate change. Graphing specific incidents over time while useful leaves out one of the key characteristics of complex adaptive systems the power of feedback loops. The previous incidents are not one and dones, but have a cumulative effect in public consciousness. 

If you take the murder of Trayvon Martin as a starting point, it is one of the first times that much of the white public became aware of this particular type of unjust death. The justifications in Zimmerman’s favor were a natural reaction to the social media conversations around what was to many a shock to their view of how a just world operates. The just world theory is that the world is inherently just and injustice must have some external cause or reason. Because racism (white people’s embedded fear of black bodies), it was less of a shock to our picture of a just world to believe that Trayvon must have been acting suspiciously and Zimmerman must have had a reason to fear. Of course, the trial bore out this interpretation and Zimmerman remains free to publicly prove that he is a man of no morals.

Two things happened after Trayvon’s murder. First, three queer black women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded the Black Lives Matter movement. Variations of BLM sprang up all over the country. These groups both took control of the narrative around police violence and built their activist skills. Second, due to social media, white communities largely unaffected by police violence were made increasingly aware of the impact on primarily young black men. Case after case was made public on social media. The murder of Michael Brown was a minor tipping point in that for many white people it became obvious that what was challenging to our picture of a just world was not necessarily black men refusing to conform, but a system that relied on squeezing money from the poor to fund basic services and police training that resulted in police forces viewing the public they were meant to serve as enemy combatants. All of the very public deaths following Michael Brown’s ran through a feedback system that was changing the narrative on what unfairness looked like. The tipping point of George Floyd’s public murder in white consciousness was the result of a reset of what a just world is.

The unfairness of his death was so immediately apparent that the mainstream press didn’t spend time with its usual quibbles of “wait until we hear the whole story”, “but he was a criminal—$20”, “the police were afraid for their lives” etc. It was immediately called murder in the press and corporate America for the most part rushed to proclaim support for black lives matter. The resulting demonstrations showcased both the activist chops that BIPOC had been building over the intervening years and the willingness of white people to protest in solidarity. 

In biological emergent systems networks build through cross-network connections and feedback loops emerging into new spaces that had been non-existent before. This is how species evolve. Old species/networks atrophy and die out. The issue, of course, is that the old networks do not go peacefully. They can re-emerge, and at the edge of chaos that point between steady states where one thing becomes another outcomes are not certain. However, though we may not have certainty we have an increasing picture of likely outcomes. The desperation of both the calls for overt racism and the stormtroopers on the ground are indicative of and the result of the loss of majority public approval. In 1992 M. Mitchell Waldrup the chronicler of the Santa Fe Institute, described

The edge of chaos is where new ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling away at the edges of the status quo, and where even the most entrenched old guard will eventually be overthrown.