Much has been written about the damage that ‘globalisation’ is
doing to ‘local communities’. ‘Community’ (like globalisation)
is one of those wonderful words that instantly means something to you
and me, but resists definition by academics and commentators. (Here, ‘local
communities’ usually means something like ‘the places you used to
shop’). Globalisation is the unseeable enemy that is ensuring that
large conglomerates replace what Americans like to call the ‘mom-and-pop
Indeed. That’s true. My shopping is now done at the local outlet of
a large national (Australian) chain. I still take the opportunity to
support my local grocer, but not always, and not for the bulk of items.
Why? Well, it’s cheaper at the chain store. It’s more convenient.
For generic items, it suffices. I much prefer the ambience of local
grocers, it’s a more personal and personable experience, but there is
no way I could get all the items my family wants from that shop.
I don’t eat at McDonalds, I don’t go to Burger Kings, and I’m
not a fan of Hollywood movies. I like to think that I have a global
outlook; I’m well versed in the benefits (to myself, to others, to the
world) of living lightly, taking only photographs, of eating well (with
lots of vegetables and fish), of buying local and serving the community.
I understand the potential problems of GE foods (the
cross-contamination, the potential for irreversibility as GE strains
enter the ‘normal’ food chain), although I am not in principle
against genetic manipulation (farmers have been doing it for thousands
of years). I worry about the self-proclaimed role of the United States’
as ‘policeperson’ of the world.
Yet I find it hard to get too fussed about globalisation, and here’s
why: I think the very large and the very small grow together; I think a
system of great diversity and many participants evolves toward a complex
state in which both the local and the global co-exist. And I think we
are simultaneously seeing the rebirth of local ‘community’ and
the death of the nation-state. Each complements the other, and, indeed,
each is necessary to the other.
I think we are moving towards a more open, more diverse (not less
diverse) and more self-organising world. Self-organisation is the
flavour of the day in the arena of ‘complex systems science’,
developed largely at a place called the Santa Fe Institute, in New
Mexico. The new ‘scientists of complexity’ are finding out some
amazing things about life, and societies, and systems behaviour—and at
the very centre of their findings is the notion of self-organisation.
The classic example of a "self-organising" (although not
adaptive) system is the humble sand pile. If we keep adding sand to the
pile, it cascades down the side, and the system (pile)
"self-organises", keeping as much sand as it ‘wants’,
discarding the rest. The system stays in a self-organised, critical
state, in which as much sand as possible is held on the pile, and
avalanches of all sizes discard the sand that is not required. It turns
out, in fact, that the avalanche size conforms to a law (called a
power-law distribution): There are many small avalanches and a small
number of large avalanches.
The stock market has been considered by some to be a self-organising
system, a subset of that self-organising system par excellence,
the market. (Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ appears to have been
replaced by ‘self-organised criticality’—although it doesn’t
have the same ring.)
Many have tried to use the new knowledge of complex system movement
(dynamics) to make money on the stock market—my erstwhile colleague
Ben Goertzel, a bona fide genius if ever there was one who knows
more about these things than most, crashed a company on Wall Street
trying to do just that, and burned a lot of money into the bargain.
Moving on from a self-organising system to an adaptive,
self-organised one; a good example is an ecosystem. An ecosystem
shows many of the attributes and characteristics that characterise
adaptive, self-organising systems: An ecosystem has diversity; many
autonomous ‘agents’ (individuals) that compete for resources; it
shows phase transitions and what are called ‘sparse connections’
between the agents (meaning they don’t share all their information).
The ecosystem persists over time, in the face of a changing environment
An adaptive, self-organising system such as an ecosystem evolves to a
critically poised, far-from-equilibrium state at ‘the edge of chaos’.
There, it optimises many of its functions—its inputs, its outputs, its
relationships between internal elements. Such a system has a diversity
of elements (eg. animals) of differing size: A few very large, many very
small. This diversity appears naturally, during the system’s evolution
to an optimal state, and is a key element in the system continuing to
exist and ‘work’.
In the world we are moving towards, we will see more
celebration of local culture, local colour, local produce, regional
fare, at the same time as we see more (but a smaller total number
of) supranational regulatory bodies, supranational companies,
supranational police forces, and the devaluing of nation-states in
favour of smaller, local communities globally linked via the internet,
Don’t fret, it’s perfectly natural.