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Why I'm not worried about Global communities

By Mark Randell - posted Tuesday, 3 September 2002

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 store’.

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, peer-to-peer.

Don’t fret, it’s perfectly natural.

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About the Author

Mark Randell is the Principal of Human Sciences, a community development consultancy based in Fremantle, WA. He has worked in the commercial, government and academic sectors.

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