79) Magic, Motorcycles, and Mandelbrot: Part 3 – Mandelbrot

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Then along comes Mandelbrot.  Fractals.  Complex dynamic systems.  Feedback loops.  Self-organization.  Resilience.  Perturbations.  Multi-leveled thinking.  Holonarchies.  Cybernetics.  Nonlinearity.   

And your world changes.  If you have gone through this learning curve, then you know, and I know that you know, that you think differently as a result.  (Unless yahyah, you’re a super-genius and you were a systems-thinker since birth….good for you.)  🙂 

For me, I feel comfortable saying “I’m a systems thinker.”  I know that I wasn’t a systems thinker for the first approximately 30-32 years of my life, and then started taking my first toddler-steps in that direction.  But now I’ve spent thousands of hours, read hundreds of articles and books, taught courses, given talks on the subject, written papers — I am a systems thinker.  

I’d like to say that “systems thinking” was like putting on a pair of glasses and suddenly realizing I could see the world differently from how I did before.  But that wouldn’t be true.  I took a course in complex systems dynamics in graduate school, and it turned out to be the most wonderful, and intense learning experience I ever had.  It introduced me to a great, passionate, intellectually diverse group of people, all intent on making their contribution to saving the world, and all struggling together, struggling for hours and hours every week, reading dozens and dozens and dozens of articles, books, digesting everything that was known about dynamic systems in the early 2000s.  

And slowly, a different world revealed itself.  It happens in bits at a time.  

And then, (just like systems theories would predict), IT Happens, Big Time.  Your whole way of understanding reality DOES change.  You feel more intellectually alive than ever.  You feel like you can understand EVERYTHING in a deeper way than before.  Intellectually anyway, you’re like Neo in the Matrix, when everything becomes numbers and he no longer needs to dodge the bullets.  

Not that systems thinking gives you the ability to dodge bullets.  (I would totally take that course though….)

But the world does become much more understandable — you can see how the different pieces of society fit together in ways that weren’t obvious before.  

Simultaneously, the world becomes much more mysterious.  You see how things are controlled by many different converging systems acting all together to create a situation — whether it’s a personality you are analyzing, a business investment, a community, or a nation.  

This revolution of your understanding is very much like the shift in thinking when Newtonian physics gives way to relativity and quantum theory.  It’s like Modernism and Individualism being challenged by an emerging understanding of Post-modernism and Global Communitarianism.  

This is what “Mandelbrot,” as a symbol, means to me.  

One of the key insights I get from this ‘nonlinear’ way of understanding the world is that small changes CAN have enormous effects, ever-rippling-outwards on the rest of reality.  Of course, if things are complete chaos, then “the butterfly effect” basically means that anything you do could be the best thing to ever happen, or the worst, or somewhere in the middle, and you have no real ability to figure out which it is.  So, chaos taken to the extreme becomes paralyzing.  (Or nihilistically liberating, perhaps….but that does seem pretty empty and dark, to me personally…)

But chaos and complexity theories much more broadly help us to understand that Reality IS predictable, up to a point.  We CAN manage real things — like ecosystems, or the climate, for example — in ways that are more likely to help than to harm over the long term.  We CAN understand how to manage human society in order to maintain the resilience of the global biosphere, for example.  We CAN make wiser decisions.  It DOES matter what we do.  But not in the straightforwardly predictable way we used to think.  

This cannot be summarized in a few sentences or even a few blog posts, but there are whole literatures devoted to the study of world systems, going back now several decades.  (I’ll post a few suggestions for readings at the end of this…). 🙂 


When you shift from Motorcycle thinking to Mandelbrot thinking, then problems take on a different dimension.  Instead of thinking about “the solution” that you need to Invent and then apply over the world and change everything, Mandelbrot thinking is about “the processes” we need to set in motion, in order to SHIFT the way the world organizes itself.  

….It’s such a subtle distinction, but it filters through everything profoundly.  For example, think of the difference between a boss/parent/teacher, who is very clear, and structured, disciplined and powerful, versus a boss/parent/teacher who is a true collaborator, encourager, mentor, and role model.  Think of the difference between “doing to” and “doing with.”  

We do have the knowledge, embedded throughout humanity-at-large, to fix the social and ecological crises we are facing.  And we have IMMENSE need to.  I know that in the remainder of my lifetime (at least, I hope I live long enough to see this!), humanity will have every chance to re-invent itself as a global civilization.  Or, we are going to blow the opportunities of the next couple of decades, and the world will spiral into chaos and incredible destruction.  

That’s it.  I don’t think there’s much middle ground.  I explain why throughout this blog, and talks I’ve given, but the crux of it is this:

— the ability to wield forces of immense destruction has grown profoundly, such that any small group can potentially commit a terrorist act of immense proportions. 

— the fact that wealth and power are profoundly concentrated in the hands of very, very few.

— the number of people suffering from the austerity in their lives due to profound economic inequality, is also increasing.  

— the ecological integrity of the planet, our health at a global, biospheric level, is plummeting and now, collapsing.  

Collapsing ecosystems * Austerity/inequality/poverty  —>  social chaos —> Tyranny & violence

So, we figure out the happy world of sharing our resources with each other NOW.  Like, now, this decade, these years, right now.  Or, we start to barricade ourselves as the hungry hordes grow.

The thing is, we KNOW the path forward, more or less. Mandelbrot-thinking makes that pretty clear. That’s the subject of “Part 4” (see next post)… 🙂

P.S. Suggestions for intro readings on complex systems — (These are personal favs, and I think would change how almost anybody sees the world. Enjoy!)

  • Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life
  • Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Ingenuity Gap
  • And although this is not the best for understanding the nonlinear dynamics of the world’s systems, it’s super-cool and will absolutely blow your miiiiiiind. And it’s where I first learned about the Mandelbrot set and fractals, maaaaan: James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think! :)

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