Self-Organization: Toward an Informed Optimism

This was my reply to Egypt – Cradle of Self-Organization (on the author’s blog). I have reproduced it here because social transformation beyond hierarchical, collective, and compulsory institutions is a perennial and integral interest of mine, and so is complexity theory (understood broadly, encompassing the subjects of emergence, attractors, chaos, cybernetics, feedback, systems, networks, self-organization, etc.). Unfortunately the fascinations and enthusiasm which often accompany bringing any of the latter trendy set into the context of the former are, in my view, insufficiently prepared with detailed knowledge of either one or both contexts and insufficiently exacting in the translation.

In a complex adaptive system, like society, self-organization happens around attractors. One difficulty with predicting that the self-organization of a revolution to make democratic changes will carry forward afterward is that different attractors are required. The attractors—like technologies, people and ideas—that can catalyze self-organization for a movement like the laudable protests in Egypt are very different from the attractors, particularly ideas, which will be needed for organizing a different sociopolitical reality. Do we have the ideas we need? Are they in enough hands? It seems to me that people can know they want change and achieve it, but have the vaguest idea of what should happen afterward. The fact that centralized, collectivized, hierarchical state “democracy” based on political parties and other institutions will likely be established because it is still the dominant paradigm should induce some caution about proclaiming the new future. Without alternatives, the firmest attractors are those of the past and its problems.

A great deal more can be said; I have tried to say some of it in an essay on human progress entitled Rising in Walls. For those interested, it is available in this collection.

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