and Knowledge Management:
what is it all about
Four lectures prepared for the
University of Western Australia Extension
We go about our daily lives understanding almost
nothing of the world.
(Stephen Hawking A brief History of Time)
interesting foreword (October 20, 2004).
I posted this essay
on my website in April 2004 and gave the lectures at the UWA Extension
in May 2004.
On October 5th, 2004
I read an article on the Washington Post by David Ignatius (Google
with Judgement) in which news were given about a researcher named
Charles McLean of a Denver Research Group who was asserting to have produced
a computer model capable of processing 80% of the information available
through press, journals, research papers, students thesis, Government
Institutions reports etc. and to discern the "tonalities" that
shape global events.
Here is the excerpt
from that article:
It happens that a former
Republican campaign strategist named Charles M. McLean has created just
such a database. His consulting company, Denver Research Group Inc., monitors
more than 7,000 sources on a constant, real-time basis -- giving him a
window on what he estimates is about 80 percent of all original political
content around the world. Using a combination of computer algorithms and
human analysis, he sifts this mass of information to discern the "tonalities"
that shape global events. This approach has identified key political trends
one to two weeks before those changes appear in traditional poll numbers,
If you compare this
with what I propose at the end of my essay you will see the striking similarity
of the two ideas.
I contacted immediately
Mr. David Ignatius at his e.mail address c/o the Washington Post asking
to be put in touch with Mr. Charles McLean, but my message was ignored.
I tried to find Mr. Charles McLean and the Denver Research Group, but
that turned out to be an impossible exercise. Neither of the two seem
Now it would be interesting
A. if Mr. Charles
McLean and the Denver Research Group are fictional characters invented
by Ignatius to propose without any personal risk an idea that he fished
out from my paper;
B. if Mr. Charles
McLean is a real person who fished out the idea from my essay and is asserting
to have a "mathematical model" or an "algorithm" to
process in real time 7000 sources of information;
C. if Mr. Charles
McLean is a real person and actually had my same idea at just about the
I got the source from
Mr. Ignatius in the form of a website (DRGI.com): but that website is
impenetrable to me because I have not been issued a password.
So Charles McLean
is a real person but he does not want me to nose around his site. Which
is interesting news.
My trade today is writing - a trade that I chose freely and not for any
financial reward. My boss is enlightened and very understanding.
Nothing is asked of me nor imposed upon me. I can write whatever I want
about whatever topic I choose. I can express whatever opinion I have,
however controversial. I can censor the official policy of my Government
and its allies with no fear of retribution.
Total freedom! I can publish my opinions and my writings wherever I wish
and the system even provides a very powerful tool for publication at a
very reasonable cost with millions of people having access to my website.
I have no specific constraints or duties. I am not restricted to a minimum
of words or lines every day; there are no schedules or deadlines to be
met. There are no editors to control or censor, cut, or change
my drafts. I can spend weeks or months without writing a single word and
then write furiously for days and nights, following the whim of inspiration
or some other contingent condition that I force upon myself with conscious
Whatever I write goes into what I call the global information environment.
My subjects are diverse: energy, technology and utopia, literature, international
politics, environmental problems, medieval history, Normans, Frederick
the Second Hohenstaufen, medieval merchants and bankers, short stories,
Clearly there are some basic rules: document consistency, respect for
individuals, dignity of presentation, accountability, a dignified use
of the language, but these are more on account of a self-imposed ethical
choice or for the sake of credibility. As Jacques Monod would say, the
ethics of knowledge.
People may wonder how I managed to reach such an interesting position.
I must confess that it has not been simple. Thirty-six years, six months
and one day of hard work in a risky career and in a cutthroat professional
environment. I am a retired Italian university professor and my boss
is the Italian Government. I write mainly for myself and publish my essays
on my website. I have readers. In fact, some of my essays have had tens
of thousands of readers, to my delight and surprise.
When you write, your thoughts seem to roll out in a different way from
when you speak. Writing implies a more systematic way of thinking, continuously
and consistently fed by what you have already written. In some ways it
is a self-referential process (as in Luhmann). One writes writing, at
least as far as I am concerned, maybe because it is the very process of
writing that makes me think. Even now, for example, I have only a vague
idea about the pattern of thought that will unfold: an implicit feeling
that I will discover line by line. In some way I am drawn to writing by
the curiosity for what I may come up with. When I read what I have written,
I am often surprised and think what an articulate and interesting
chap! I am intrigued when reading my own writings and I add notes
and comments to update them according to the evolution of my subsequent
thinking. The name of the game is narcissism, a very common
syndrome - not only among writers.
I recently wrote about the war in Iraq and it was this experience that
drew my attention to how difficult it is for us today to be decently informed
about what is actually happening. Manipulation is dominating the news
and the attempts to escape manipulation are even more frustrating. Manipulation
of the news is an irreversible process (like the journey towards maximum
entropy). Retrieval of the original facts is impossible.
It is quite a frustrating process: the more I read, the more I cross check
my information, the more I search for further evidence and documentation,
the less I seem to understand or to know about what is actually
When I submitted the idea of exploring the problem of information control
to the UWA Extension as a possible topic for a short course, I thought
it might be possible to identify a reasonably simple method to organise
our reading habits in order to deal with the current information
glut. When I tried to elaborate on this concept I found myself entering
a very challenging field of complexity, chaos and knowledge management.
Cognition processes, complexity, chaos and knowledge management appeared
immediately to be a challenging field of speculation and a powerful provocation
to overcome our natural laziness.
I was fascinated by the exercise and started some voracious reading which
presented even greater challenges.
I must also acknowledge that the idea of a connection between chaos, complexity
and information has been lingering in my mind for quite some time. I wrote
this almost ten years ago in an essay on Technology, Utopia & Future:
Compared to hundreds of years ago social utopia
is challenged today by a new element: intensive and diffused information,
by which current opinion is shaped or deformed. A positive outcome of
this interaction may be the sudden flash of the pervasive social utopian
signal that may reach the critical intensity needed to move the dwellers
of the Planet towards a new set of organic scopes: adequacy, sustainability,
This could happen not as a consequence of intelligence, a feature that
the chaotic paradigm of information hardly deserves, but by the association
of the dominant information signals with the contingent reactive capability
of the general public. Such an effective alliance could induce new patterns
of conduct in the mass of consumers, which would stir a consistent demand
mode. The market may eventually respond, radically changing present attitudes
and inducing related environmental trends.
Quite possibly this essay is an attempt to explore the intuition I had
ten years ago. Our thoughts often repeat themselves during our lifetime.The
first few books I read about complexity and chaos stirred my imagination,
but some of the literature left me with the feeling that the field was
still quite obscure and that some of the authors were actually fishing
in murky waters. My suspicion was that behind the woolly language, the
substantial core was very thin. Basically, many authors seemed to me to
be groping in the dark. However, one interesting aspect was that the founders
of the science of complexity were people coming from the most diverse
fields of expertise: physics, mathematics, meteorology, biology, quantum
mechanics, computer science, cosmology, philosophy
After further reading, I have changed my mind, but I still think that
most of the literature in the field on chaos and non linear dynamic systems
is complacent to the intellectual game of complexity and chaos and that
the main objective of the debate is the debate itself.
Further study made me understand that the science of complexity
had a very long incubation period. The powerful academic masters
of the real scientific disciplines viewed those who were dealing
with it with scorn and suspicion. Big Science was sceptical,
if not openly disdainful, towards the new discipline. The experience of
the Santa Cruz Collective from 1977 to 1983 (Shaw, Farmer,
Packard, Crutchfield) exemplifies the problem.
Complexity and chaos had language problems. The message was
unclear and the mathematical tools to represent it were not yet available.
The math involved was not the most simple to grasp. It required an interdisciplinary
culture whereas the academic set-up of those years was definitely specialist
to the limit of sectarianism.
I cannot claim to be an expert now, but the amount of reading I have done
has given me a better vision of the complexity & chaos arena.
I feel reasonably safe if I state that the science of complexity and chaos
and the discovery of inner self-organisational trends in highly complex
non-linear systems has been the most important scientific revolution of
the last century. The radical reassessment of the very foundations of
knowledge, which resulted from that discovery, has completely overruled
what was left of deterministic post Newtonian reductionism. To quote James
Gleick: Chaos: the making of a new science:
chaos theory may in time rival relativity
and quantum mechanics in its influence on scientific thought
The perspectives, which are now open for a comprehensive reading of the
real world, are a new challenge to all fields of discipline. The great
utopian dream of the unified field of knowledge that has been at the core
of scientific debate for the last two centuries may be closer to reality
than we think.
In the four lectures that I have prepared, I will tell you what I think
I have learned in my two years of chaotic reading and learning.
I will also try to describe ways in which the science of complexity can
be applied to everyday life to help us understand what it is really
all about. My personal technological culture always pushes me to
search for practical applications of a concept or of a theoretical scientific
A short outline of the four lectures
In my first lecture I will deal with
present day manipulated information: How we are subject to exogenous and
endogenous manipulation and how the problem has changed throughout history.
I will talk about scenarios and comment on a particularly
authoritative one: the CIA Trends 2015.
The second lecture will be about our
learning process: The damage caused by conformist education to the innate
potential of our brain for holistic understanding of complex realities.
In the same lecture I will briefly deal with mistakes and
culturally induced mistakes.
The third lecture will deal with the
science of complexity and chaos: I will peruse through a short history
of the new discipline and of its main masters (Monod, Prigogine, Lorenz,
Kauffmann, Johnson, Mitchell). I will also analyze the potential of the
science of complexity for the possible better management of information
In the fourth lecture I will try to
explain how understanding the concepts of complexity and chaos may help
us in our daily experience. I will present the general outline of a possible
method to codify and process information in order to identify current
trends at various levels of specificity
Never before in its history has our society had the intensity and quantity
of data we have today. We are continuously bombarded by data
and messages: TV, newspapers, internet, radio, relentlessly feed us with
an amount of information that by far exceeds our reading capacity and
our critical processing capability.
To the quantitative overload we have to add the problem of systematic
manipulation by various sources. Last, but not least, by ourselves: We
screen the incoming information through our cultural and ideological filter
and bias, discarding, overestimating and underestimating according to
our personal values. So the huge amount of information does not yield
a consistent amount of reliable knowledge.
In fact, we must conclude that the knowledge we have of the world we live
in is both scarce and biased.
The real world is quite different from the idea we can have
of it, both as citizens and as decision-makers. We do not know what is
happening and what we think we know is probably wrong.
This is a dangerous situation because we are living in the real world
and in this real world we make decisions for ourselves and for others
with vital consequences.
To make decisions without knowing, or worse, based on wrong assumptions,
clearly aggravates the vicious cycle of our critical relationship with
The fundamental conditions for any reliable guidance are not there and
what we have is dangerously biased. The stage is set for a formidable
While a few decades ago (or a few centuries ago) the gap between knowledge
and guidance was less critical because the human settlement on the Planet
was contained (one billion people compared to the present six billion),
today the danger of irreversible catastrophic dynamics is clear and present.
Physical and social environmental limits have been reached and, in many
areas, breached. The physical human impact on the Planet is now so huge
that there is no more space or time left for further reckless development.
So much for the broad planetary terms of the knowledge gap.
The information failure is also relevant for our everyday life, menial
matters, no cosmic/planetary issues maybe, but very meaningful for our
individual lives and not to be neglected. After all, we only have one
life to live.
Decisions on how to raise the kids, how to invest our savings, where to
buy a house, how to vote
are paramount for each one of us, and are
paramount for the social environment to which we belong.
It is not a new problem, in fact it is a very old one, and we have tackled
it in many ways throughout history: with rationality through
philosophy and logical thinking; in practice with science, research and
technology; with religion, through prophetic revelations and
assumptions of faith.
Neither rationality nor religions have ever been able to thoroughly fulfil
the yearning for certainty and knowledge of the human mind. This is why
there have always been all kinds of esoteric operators: fortune tellers,
astrologers, oracles, augurs, soothsayers, palm readers, witch doctors,
popes, imams, ayatollahs, priests
Looking at various experiences, some of which were terribly cruel and
tragic, one can see that the problem was always the same: to understand
and simplify a vast and complex reality and to explain it simply and clearly,
eventually with a blunt yes or no choice.
Our ancestors used to make sacrifices to the gods of sheep, lambs, goats,
chickens, rabbits, cows, sometimes-young virgins or lads to anxiously
scrutinize their death throes, the blood and the guts of the victims and
hence draw unquestionable conclusions. The flight of birds, the behaviour
of ants, snails, snakes, cats and dogs were other places for the search
of interpretive certainty of our ancestors. The night sky, constantly
changing with the mysterious dance of the planets against the majestic
backdrop of the stars, was another source of inquiry.
Planets and stars are still today a field of passionate exploration and
frankly I would have some regrets if I had to utterly dismiss it on grounds
of lack of scientific evidence.
No wine expert would deny the fact that wine bottled during the wrong
lunar phase (different for each wine) is undrinkable. The same applies
to salad: if seeded during the wrong moon phase it will produce flowers
and not leaves. If so many organic systems around us are sensitive to
astral influence why should we be exempt? Lack of evidence has never been
a condition sufficient to dismiss a possibility. It would not be prudent
to accept this criterion today.
The choice of the scientific method by Renaissance thinkers
should suggest caution before excluding possibilities for lack of scientific
evidence, whereas such lack is generally assumed to justify dismissal
with no appeal. No experimental scientific evidence? Off you go
finito, end of story. Galileo said that he believed things he could see
with his eyes, but he never denied the existence of what he could not
Mathematics is full of theorems, lemmas that are assumed as certain even
if their complete demonstration has not been developed. We had to wait
two hundred years to have a full demonstration of the last theorem by
Fermat. The same applies to physics where the separation between quantum
mechanics and oscillatory dynamics is very uncertain and continuously
subject to contingent interpretation.
I do not have to elaborate any further to conclude that we urgently need
new and much more effective tools for information handling, processing
and management in order to consistently improve the general knowledge
of what is actually going on out there so that we can make the most appropriate
decisions for ourselves and for our Planet.
These tools must be available to the greater public and must be easy to
use. In fact, problems cannot be solved by an isolated group of political
decision makers, no matter how well informed and competent, over the heads
of uninformed citizens, ignorant or unable to understand.
Nothing can be decided and implemented without the understanding and intelligent
participation of the public. Nothing can be achieved above or against
the social culture. This is, at the same time, the great advantage and
the great curse of democracy.
Only a thoroughly informed social structure can accept without rejection
the decisions that will lead beyond the crisis. The time of oracles and
of augurs is way past. A modern political leader cannot demand acts of
faith. He who tries is a danger to himself and to others.
The Information Utopia is that of a World without leaders where the social
culture acts upon its own input and on account of mature understanding
and not of subservience. We must urgently recover and use the right hemisphere
of our brain that operates according to holistic procedures processing
information and data in a diffuse and simultaneous way.
The true information revolution has yet to happen. Until now the computer
culture has only enormously increased the information and data glut, and
it has been used within the paradigm of the reductionism Cartesian vision
of the cognitive learning process, as a tool for deterministic partialization.
This is a very powerful tool, used with a two centuries old cultural attitude.
We urgently need a conceptual spin. We must work so that this huge amount
of data can be collected and collated with a comprehensive vision of reality
so that it can become holistic participated knowledge as opposed to an
analytical data glut. This is the only way to manage the ongoing slow
catastrophe: The devastation of the planetary environment setting out
the irreversible dynamics towards our own extinction.
Some further comment about oracles and augurs
With the arrogance of our presumed scientific culture we could
dismiss with derision the simple minds searching for answers to their
desperate quests in the blood and guts of sacrificed animals. I would
not so lightly disagree with those gory, colourful and diverse customs.
In fact, I believe they had some degree of efficacy, as did many other
esoteric habits and functions. The lack of hard evidence is irrelevant
because they gave certainty to the questioning party.
When someone operates on the assumption of certainty he automatically
has a great edge on his uncertain counterpart. Often mistakenly, his cheerful
assertion is accepted as the right thing to do just because
it is perceived as such. Regrettably an incompetent but sure
person is more credible than a doubting wiser man and there always seem
to be far more of the former than the latter. Moreover from a statistical
standpoint, if the question requires a yes or no answer, the probability
of a correct response is 50% - a reasonable rate in practical risk management.
An immediate answer with a 50% chance of being right is much more effective
and convincing than a very elaborate, possibly ambiguous response, supplied
after days of tormented debate.
In the real world, the first to move has the advantage of forcing his
own rules upon his counterpart. The need to make the right choice is often
balanced by the opportunity of making an almost right choice and maybe
even a wrong one, but quickly. How many a time has a quick, risky and
perhaps wrong choice won over a more cautious possibly right slow move?
This is an impossible question to answer because history reports only
the consequences of the decision that is made. What would have followed
otherwise is not recorded. We will never know where the road not taken
would have led us.
The Romans stated quite clearly: Fortuna audaces juvat (Luck
helps the daring) - a blunt response to Petronius subtle suggestion:
Suam habet rationem fortuna (Chance has a reason of its own).
The responses of oracles and augurs have strength, regardless of their
veracity, because they convince the applicants, who, made
bold by the response, act and succeed because of their conviction.
We are what we believe and we act accordingly. Success and victory come
easiest to him who is convinced he will win - right or wrong -
Which is the true strength of oracles, horoscopes and augurs.
The definition of plausible scenarios:
Strategy and tactics are basic disciplines of military organisation. Tactics
is the art of contingent short-term action and response, whereas strategy
is the discipline of long-term operation.
Devising war operations, attack and defence, the military have learned
the art of representing hypothetical plausible realities: alternative
variations, schemes and diagrams to void enemy actions and to achieve
control or victory on the battlefield.
The rules of the game have always been limited: the terrain, the number
and the qualification of the forces on the field climate, horses,
Nevertheless risk in military action has always been high and the ability
to invent surprises, unusual schemes and sequences of actions to pre-empt
enemy attacks has always been a rewarding challenge and test of military
ingenuity. Those who deserved it achieved often victory by sheer chance.
Surprise and luck in military history have often counted more than heroism.
With the introduction of nuclear weapons capable of destroying entire
continents, tactics and strategy have become global disciplines:
not a limited number of parameters, but the disruption of the physical
and environmental balance of the whole Planet.
The definition of plausible scenarios of what is going on, or projections
of hypothetical futures is a continuous exercise for many Groups and Institutions.
There are many techniques and methods, generally done with a no
surprise condition which is unrealistic. Surprises inevitably happen
- and surprising reactions to surprises. Maybe an effort to list possible
surprises would be useful.
Our current everyday information process is different from the strategic
or tactical scenarios definition and is done (I would say it happens)
according to less formal modes. We usually absorb the information
environment with no specific critical attention: as if it were merely
some kind of background noise.
Wars, murders, robberies, planetary scams and multibillion scandals, natural
disasters, oil depletion, pollution, climate change, terror, bombings,
riots, epidemics, earthquakes, hurricanes are metabolised in a subliminal
limbo while we are dealing with our taxes, the mortgage, children, parents,
noisy neighbours, mowing lawns and paying the bills.
We read the newspapers, watch TV, listen to the radio, talk with friends
and colleagues with the only filter of our culture within
the frame of the set of values that we have received from our family,
school, education and life experience (so far).
Nevertheless, information absorbed in this way confirms or directs our
basic culture. The consequent evaluations, assessments and
decisions we make are inevitably the outcome of the manipulated environmental
information as deformed by our own personal cultural filters an
intriguing chicken/egg cycle.
Hence, the Information environment as filtered by our culture is the limit
we cannot overcome and which rules whatever judgement, decision, statement
or choices we make. This same limit makes the manipulation of information
by those who control it, easy and successful: We end up by behaving according
to the defined paradigm.
The CIA 2015 trends
Scenario building has been an institutional activity for many years and
is currently carried out by many organisations: central banks, government
agencies, political parties, huge corporations, universities, and armies
One interesting exercise is to check the scenarios drafted twenty or thirty
years ago. None of the historical subverting events has ever been properly
identified by any scenario: WW2, Fall of Communism, 9/11
disasters instead have been clearly identified: demographic bomb, famine,
oil depletion, climate change and
ignored (removed) by the common
If what actually happens is not identified and if what is correctly identified
bypasses social consciousness, one must question what is the use of scenarios!
Clearly scenarios do not make it through the endogenous and exogenous
cultural filters that squelch the information environment,
for lack of authority/credibility or for lack of a social mind set conducive
to belief. Both attitudes are worth studying.
Scenarios are usually prepared or sold to Governments (Banks, huge Corporations,
International Bodies, Agencies
) they are thought to be powerful
movers of the public and private decision-making processes. Some of them
are kept secret for security reasons and some of them are consistently
manipulated for instrumental reasons. They may be used as a tool to supplement,
direct or substitute other information-retrieval procedures. They have
to be considered with great caution.
There are a lot of websites available on the Internet with scenarios and
descriptions of hypothetical futures. These are usually provided by Universities
or by Government agencies with the advice and consultancy of highly qualified
research Institutes and centres. Reading this literature is an interesting
exercise. Even the most powerful futurologists, when confronted with the
need for a conclusive and comprehensive description of the result of their
vast and expensive research, end up with some healthy pedestrian editing.
You will find here one of the most authoritative set of scenarios
proposed by the Central Intelligence Agency of the US Government, published
on their site (Trends 2015). Research and assistance for these various
matters was provided by thirteen of the most powerful and important American
Universities and integrated and edited by a committee of world-class experts.
Global Futures by the CIA
In September-October 1999, the NIC initiated work on Global Trends 2015
by cosponsoring with Department of State/INR and CIA's Global Futures
Project two unclassified workshops on Alternative Global Futures: 2000-2015.
The workshops brought together several dozen government and nongovernmental
specialists in a wide range of fields.
The first workshop identified major factors and events that would drive
global change through 2015. It focused on demography, natural resources,
science and technology, the global economy, governance, social/cultural
identities, and conflict and identified main trends and regional variations.
These analyses became the basis for subsequent elaboration in Global Trends
The second workshop developed four alternative global futures in which
these drivers would interact in different ways through 2015. Each scenario
was intended to construct a plausible, policy-relevant story of how this
future might evolve: highlighting key uncertainties, discontinuities,
and unlikely or "wild card" events, and identifying important
policy and intelligence challenges.
Scenario One: Inclusive Globalization:
A virtuous circle develops among technology, economic growth, demographic
factors, and effective governance, which enables a majority of the world's
people to benefit from globalization. Technological development and diffusionin
some cases triggered by severe environmental or health crisesare
utilized to grapple effectively with some problems of the developing world.
Robust global economic growthspurred by a strong policy consensus
on economic liberalizationdiffuses wealth widely and mitigates many
demographic and resource problems. Governance is effective at both the
national and international levels. In many countries, the state's role
shrinks, as its functions are privatized or performed by public-private
partnerships, while global cooperation intensifies on many issues through
a variety of international arrangements. Conflict is minimal within and
among states benefiting from globalization. A minority of the world's
peoplein Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Central and South
Asia, and the Andean regiondo not benefit from these positive changes,
and internal conflicts persist in and around those countries left behind.
Scenario Two: Pernicious Globalization
Global elites thrive, but the majority of the world's population fails
to benefit from globalization. Population growth and resource scarcities
place heavy burdens on many developing countries, and migration becomes
a major source of interstate tension. Technologies not only fail to address
the problems of developing countries but also are exploited by negative
and illicit networks and incorporated into destabilizing weapons. The
global economy splits into three: growth continues in developed countries;
many developing countries experience low or negative per capita growth,
resulting in a growing gap with the developed world; and the illicit economy
grows dramatically. Governance and political leadership are weak at both
the national and international levels. Internal conflicts increase, fuelled
by frustrated expectations, inequities, and heightened communal tensions;
WMD proliferate and are used in at least one internal conflict.
Scenario Three: Regional Competition
Regional identities sharpen in Europe, Asia, and the Americas, driven
by growing political resistance in Europe and East Asia to US global preponderance
and US-driven globalization and each region's increasing preoccupation
with its own economic and political priorities. There is an uneven diffusion
of technologies, reflecting differing regional concepts of intellectual
property and attitudes towards biotechnology. Regional economic integration
in trade and finance increases, resulting in both fairly high levels of
economic growth and rising regional competition. Both the state and institutions
of regional governance thrive in major developed and emerging market countries,
as governments recognize the need to resolve pressing regional problems
and shift responsibilities from global to regional institutions. Given
the preoccupation of the three major regions with their own concerns,
countries outside these regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East,
and Central and South Asia have few places to turn for resources or political
support. Military conflict among and within the three major regions does
not materialize, but internal conflicts increase in and around other countries
Scenario Four: Post-Polar World
US domestic preoccupation increases as the US economy slows, then stagnates.
Economic and political tensions with Europe grow, the US-European alliance
deteriorates as the United States withdraws its troops, and Europe turns
inward, relying on its own regional institutions. At the same time, national
governance crises create instability in Latin America, particularly in
Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, and Panama, forcing the United States to concentrate
on the region. Indonesia also faces internal crisis and risks disintegration,
prompting China to provide the bulk of an ad hoc peacekeeping force. Otherwise,
Asia is generally prosperous and stable, permitting the United States
to focus elsewhere. Korea's normalization and de facto unification proceed,
China and Japan provide the bulk of external financial support for Korean
unification, and the United States begins withdrawing its troops from
Korea and Japan. Over time, these geostrategic shifts ignite longstanding
national rivalries among the Asian powers, triggering increased military
preparations and hitherto dormant or covert WMD programs. Regional and
global institutions prove irrelevant to the evolving conflict situation
in Asia, as China issues an ultimatum to Japan to dismantle its nuclear
program and Japaninvoking its bilateral treaty with the UScalls
for US reengagement in Asia under adverse circumstances at the brink of
a major war. Given the priorities of Asia, the Americas, and Europe, countries
outside these regions are marginalized, with virtually no sources of political
or financial support.
Generalizations Across the Scenarios
The four scenarios can be grouped in two pairs: the first pair contrasting
the "positive" and "negative" effects of globalization;
the second pair contrasting intensely competitive but not conflictual
regionalism and the descent into regional military conflict.
* In all but the first scenario, globalization does not create widespread
global cooperation. Rather, in the second scenario, globalization's negative
effects promote extensive dislocation and conflict, while in the third
and fourth, they spur regionalism.
* In all four scenarios, countries negatively affected by population growth,
resource scarcities and bad governance, fail to benefit from globalization,
are prone to internal conflicts, and risk state failure.
* In all four scenarios, the effectiveness of national, regional, and
international governance and at least moderate but steady economic growth
* In all four scenarios, US global influence wanes.
In our present situation, I can hardly see any chances for any other scenario
than No. 2.
One of the consequences of scenario building and future exploration is
that the foreseen future may be either confirmed and locked in
by the forecast, or skilfully avoided. Being aware of possible terrible
future curses, all available efforts are made to avoid them, thus pre-empting
their occurrence. Sometimes it is these very efforts to avoid foreseen
events that actually make them happen. For understandable reasons, this
is called the Oedipus Effect in the field of futurology.
A short review of the scenarios proposed by various Bodies
and Institutions in the last 20 or 30 years will explain why the wording
of the scenarios is always extremely cautious: the list of totally unforeseen
major events sets a discouraging standard. (Pearl Harbour, WW2, the Kippur
Oil Crisis 1973, the fall of the Berlin Wall, September 11
My perception again is that the publication of the CIA doom scenario is
not sufficient to set out a powerful global re-action. There are no political,
social or cultural ears available to listen to the message a dramatic,
two-way, credibility gap.
What is needed is an action capable of addressing the vast majority of
people to inform them about the real situation and the possible consequent
consistent dangers or outcomes. An action capable of getting through the
subliminal critical filter that prevents information reaching public consciousness
and to direct consequent behavioural patterns.
Such an action implies a cultural revolution and the radical
reassessment of our ways of reading what is going on in our
This eventually requires a complete overhaul of our ways of retrieving
and processing information, learning, evaluating and understanding. The
whole paradigm of knowledge is at stake.
The second lecture will be about our learning process: The damage caused
by conformist education to the innate potential of our brain for holistic
understanding of complex realities. In the same lecture I will briefly
deal with mistakes and with culturally induced
For the last few centuries the teaching methods and procedures of the
Western school systems have been based upon an ambiguous mixture of Aristotelian/Cartesian
logic: we understand by simplifying, we learn through analysis. We reduce
a complex, intertwined and dynamically changing reality to single parts
and bits so that our brain can comprehend each one of them; then we assume
that we know the whole because we think that knowing the parts implies
knowledge of the whole. Throughout this paper I have done this repeatedly.
I cannot escape the deeply embedded habit and conditioning. Unfortunately
I am a product of the system.
To make the process easier, or as a result of that same process, during
the last 20 centuries we have built a set of disciplinary categories:
physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, philosophy
The main disciplinary
fields have then been further reduced into sub chapters: arithmetic, algebra,
analysis, mechanics, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, organic chemistry,
We have extended this reductionism operation to every field of knowledge:
history, geography, astronomy, oceanography, earth sciences, and zoology
Ironically, even philosophy has been dismembered according to various
categories: the Greek philosophers, atomists, stoicisms, German idealism,
English positivism, Heidegger, existentialism, aesthetics, ethics, historic
Even our life is organised in sections and chapters (childhood, adolescence,
youth, maturity, old age, very old age and the terminal stretch) and I
suspect that even the best of us has an index!
So radical and strong has been the reductionism operation that different
cultures, languages and anthropological profiles have been set up. Fences
between disciplines, so useful to organise our books on the shelves of
a library, have created different cultural territories with no connecting
communication. Different and sometimes mutually hostile values have grown
in time and with the help of academies.
Think about the cultural/social implications of the professional qualification
of accountant or quantity surveyor. Ask a quantum
physicist his opinion on engineers (do not even mention architects or
zoologists). Even within the domain of engineering, consider the attitude
of electronic engineers towards mechanical engineers, or civil engineers.
I do not wish to elaborate any further on this matter that could have
a sarcastic twist. I will leave it to you to consider the implications
on our daily life: what does an optician think of a grocer, or a psychiatrist
of a dentist
not to mention the estate agent or car salesman!
Let us go back to reductionism and analysis. What I am worried about is
the automatic operation of this mindset. We reduce to parts. We analyze
in order to understand the whole. I do not know what we understand, but
certainly the level of comprehension is minimal and the substance is biased.
This Cartesian approach has been subject to a heavy critical
process during the last 50 years: it slowly deteriorated and was eventually
completely destroyed. The lethal critic came from many of
the separated disciplines: quantum physics, mathematics, biology, and
Deterministic attitudes are still active out there and still causing damage,
but the main strongholds of deterministic certainty have been
dealt a fatal blow.
The clear and undeniable fact that has annihilated the reductionist learning
logic (possibly unjustly attributed to Descartes) is that the whole
is different from the sum of its parts. This simple truth is also
a cognitive curse: the whole is different and, moreover, we do not know
it. Since the whole is different from the sum of its parts it defies our
knowledge procedure. When we act on the whole equipped with the specialist
knowledge of its parts, we are bound to make mistakes. From this point
of view the history of the last 30-50 years of science is the history
of the long fight of a few visionaries to rebuild a holistic
approach to our learning and understanding processes.
Einstein was probably the first agent provocateur when he
started messing around with space and time, destabilising the entire scientific
castle at the beginning of the last century (1900).
Others contributed to the assault against the reductionist wall subverting
Newtonian categories with new insights on particles or vibration energy
flows and quantum mechanics (Planck, Schrödinger, Prigogine and Petrosky).
Jacques Monod et al started demolishing the established belief, speculating
on the continuity between chemistry/physics and biology. The present day
debate (1970-2000) on self-organisation trends in very complex systems
(order at the border of chaos) opens a new territory of knowledge, the
limits of which are not yet conceivable (physics, cosmology, space biology).
In the field of humanities, liberal arts and cognition sciences, we are
still behind: History, geography, economy, cultural anthropology, are
still isolated disciplines well in control of the old proto Cartesian
Ambassadors and pompous delegations are shared from time to time and fake
trans-disciplinary seminars are organised so that the various
high priests can exchange elegant innuendoes and slurs, gift-
wrapped in academic silk. The disciplines remain segregated in their sectarian
logics, unable to share knowledge and information and to grow beyond the
provincial boundaries of self-imposed apartheid. Order and related immobility
dominate, unchallenged, as if maximum entropy had been reached whereas
energy differentials are still explosive.
The battle to promote a different mind set, a holistic attitude for the
exploration of the World has another formidable enemy: Religion -
In its various guises and under the different forms in which it is marketed:
political faith, philosophical credo, spiritual fanaticism, gullibility,
existential fear, and presumption of truth, racism, cultural arrogance,
The dwellers within the various religious fortresses know quite well that
when other castles fall, their strongholds will also crumble. This is
why their resistance is so fierce. It is indeed a challenge to an alluring
Moving towards a new cognition
I proposed the assumption that the origin of our inability to understand
the world (and the complex dynamics that move within it) is the result
of specialization and the reductive analysis that is peculiar to our cognition
I think that our brain is quite capable, from a structural point of view,
to comprehend and manage complexity and a chaotic information environment,
which are the essence of the real world. This capability has been seriously
damaged by our education system which, for the sake of presumed rationality
and teaching simplification, has systematically destroyed all its potential
to operate according to fuzzy logic and holistic methods. However, The
memory of that capability may still be there, much as our shoulder blades
are the truncated remnants of wings that never evolved sufficiently for
us to fly. Somewhere inside our brain there are the truncated remnants
of a holistic cognitive process that has not evolved sufficiently for
our complete comprehension.
We must now find a way to retrieve a holistic perception of the complex
reality around us, assuming that the reductive canon has not yet entered
our genetic profile.
Our suspicion of the existence of a holistic M.O. may be a positive sign.
The Learning Process:
The process through which we learn has been a field of research
for centuries. Modern neuro-science and modern means of exploring explore
the brain environment in action have revealed some mechanical
procedures of our hardware: neurons zap about from one side
of the brain to another even while we sleep and process experience, store
data in some order in some place, but exactly how notions
are extracted from experience and memorized in the ineffable enzymes/proteins
of our grey blob is still pretty much a mystery. What kind of, and how
much operating system do we already have in our brain cells
when we are born and how much is added while we go through the very first
months of life and later on is a matter of wild speculation. Also, the
peculiar ways of the decaying and inexorable progress to a
world of dreams or silent darkness are not at all clear.
We can analyze the process and split it into parts and stages.
That is what we are taught to do whenever we explore the unknown.
It is arguable that the actual learning process of the brain
is in any way similar to the simplified block diagrams that we produce.
The actual connections seem to be holistic: its all
there at the same moment. Retrieval of information is also a strange process:
sometimes mental associations that allow us to remember are absolutely
whimsical, as we have all experienced.
Let us consider more closely a possible sequence of the learning process:a.
Setting up of the individual cultural base
b. Perception of the information environment
c. Interaction of perceived data and individual cultural
d. Assessment and comparative evaluation
e. Operational or behavioural choice
f. Ex post re-assessment
g. Feedback to a)
Setting up the individual cultural base is a lifelong process: It starts
with the very first days after birth (and maybe even earlier). It is comparable
to a cognitive storm for the first few years of life, is moderated by
the educational experience and goes on throughout our work or professional
experience and daily menial chores. The last thing we learn is to die,
but there is no feedback. We are our culture: its all there, values,
ideal tensions, desires, frustrations, delusions, happiness, anger
The establishment of this cultural asset takes years and as we grow older
it gets more and more difficult to change or update. While during the
first few years of life the process is dominated by the right hemisphere
of the brain (the one that controls the left side of our body) that operates
in a comprehensive, intuitive rather holistic way, later in life is dominated
by the analytical left side of the brain.
Our comprehension capability level plummets and for some of us is wiped
out completely. When that happens we understand only or mainly according
to the established cognition paradigm. After 15-20 years the individual
cultural base is defined and has a specific identity. The consequent behavioural
patterns and character profile can be described and predicted - the territory
of marketing and any other kind of manipulation: ideological, cultural,
The reaction of a frustrated football fan to a wrong call by a referee
is not difficult to foresee. The housewife in front of the detergents
shelf of the store automatically picks up the one that has been hammered
into her brain by systematic, relentless, explicit or subliminal advertising.
Like tame dogs we execute the trick we have been trained to perform. What
we are tamed into doing by explicit advertising is of concern, but even
more worrying is what we do as a result of unperceived, diffused, environmental
conditioning. We are advertising fodder.
One of the products or results of the individual cultural base formation
process is the establishment of interpretive patterns of the world around
us and of our current consequential logic of understanding. Such patterns
are not necessarily consciously perceived: they are more like a mind-set.
Fritjof Capra (The turning point, part IV, chapter 9) has a good image:
The patterns of the external environment that we perceive are quite
fundamentally based on the patterns we have inside.
The perception of the information environment is the continuous daily
practice of retrieving information. We read the newspapers, watch TV,
talk with friends and colleagues, we go to the movies, to the bank, shopping,
to the beach, to play tennis
Each specific activity of our everyday
life is a channel through which we gather information directly or indirectly;
each situation is a representation of the world, partly genuine,
Our analytical brain is not the best tool to grasp multiple correlations:
Four mutually related dynamic phenomena are beyond the reach of most of
us. To overcome this weakness our brain shifts into its simplified patterns
or to its latent comprehensive paradigms, which become dangerous means
of generalisation, yielding implausible conclusions or dismissing unmanageable
The flow of incoming data is processed through our individual cultural
base (and filter). We consciously or unconsciously dismiss unacceptable
data or data we do not like or understand. We filter, simplify, adapt,
interpret and thus shape up our personal image of reality (always some
kind of projection of our interior patterns). This image is more or less
sophisticated according to our culture and to many contingent conditions
(worry, happiness, pressure, fear
) In the majority of situations
this image compares well with the image that the media system
wants us to have.
According to the more or less complex and sophisticated image of the world,
we update and integrate our set of assessment patterns: We elaborate our
identity or position as related to the world. This process takes place
both at conscious and unconscious levels. We know some of the things that
change us and in what way, but some of the changes take place without
us perceiving their happening. This is, in some ways, part of the process
of getting old.
With these patterns, culture and mind-set we make our choices and decisions.
We invest, educate our children, work and contribute to the establishment
of the information environment around us - a self-referential cycle.
We may change our judgments and behavioural patterns as a consequence
of different experiences: our cultural base becomes richer and more sophisticated.
It is called experience. When we use it to update our mindset
and our assessment values we are still critically active. If we use it
to confirm the acquired mind-set our critical system is weakening.
Sociology, social psychology, psychiatry, medicine,
teaching science and many other disciplines have contributed monuments
of thinking to the above schematic outline. What the scheme illustrates
is the vital importance of the image. Knowledge is the result
of image retrieving, processing, comparing, reading, and understanding
- a simple truth from the individual to the huge corporate empire. This
is why so much money is invested in image building by anyone
who has to operate within the global market - an image to sell, to communicate,
to convince, to survive.
Nothing new here! We all know it and many among
us are active members of the image machine. The strange thing is that
this knowledge does not protect us. We take part in it and at the same
time we are the happy subjects of the image machine. Diligent pawns of
its establishment and perpetuation, we condemn and ostracise non-conforming
behavioural modes, dismiss or deny the ones we do not like, radically
remove the dangerous ones.A brief History of Information
A short perusal on how the learning paradigm has developed through the
history of Homo sapiens could be useful and to consider the application
of the scheme to the early Cro Magnon:
a. Setting up of the individual cultural base (memory)
b. Detection of the information environment
c. Interaction of perceived data and individual cultural base
d. Assessment and comparative evaluation (reasoning)
e. Operational or behavioural choice (decision making)
f. Ex post re-assessment
g. Feedback to a) (memory)
The anthropological cultural base of the individuals was dominated by
tribe/family relationships and by environmental conditions. People applied
and endured behavioural patterns, which were at the limits of tolerability;
the environmental information was mainly dictated by survival necessities.
The interaction between context and individuals was simple: if I
do not kill you, I will not eat and will die, or if I do not
kill you, you kill me. The assessment was blunt. The feedback was
the satisfaction of having survived one more day and to have killed the
This exercise is simple but nevertheless it shows how effective was the
scheme when applied to a primitive society. The individual cultural pattern
was clear, simple and not distorted by ideological constraints. The environmental
information reached the subjects in a very direct way. The evaluation
and assessment procedures were brutally effective. The relationship between
information and individual behavioural modes was direct.
Things have changed with the introduction of supernatural forces and entities.
When simple answers could not be given to explain events and phenomena,
abstract entities were invented (spirits, ghosts, genies, gods, fairies
a huge step towards complexity of the information environment and for
the individual cultural base.
For a few millennia, the subjects of the information game were limited:
the king, the witch doctor, and the chief of the warriors. The tribe followed
the tribal power logic.
We often wonder about the efficiency of the governing structures of primitive
societies. They were effective because of the simple diagram of the chain
of command. The Chief was beyond scrutiny and his orders were executed
without question. This is not exactly what happens in a democratic structure
and chain of command. In the Middle Ages, Popes and Emperors dictated
their orders without any popular consultation: the time from the issue
to execution of an order was minimal. Efficiency and effectiveness were
the immediate result. Even if the communication was slow (a messenger
from Rome to Paris would take 3-4 weeks to arrive) the simplicity of the
executive structure more than compensated.
With the introduction of democracy and of the check and balance system,
things have radically changed and the efficiency of the direct chain of
command of primitive societies was lost.
Today we communicate in nanoseconds but the time to conceive and execute
in the participated bureaucratic environment is of geological order.
Some fossil of the old
effective structures remains in our modern society and we find it in organised
crime. That is why it is efficient.
I am not carelessly promoting a return to monocratic regimes or for the
sake of efficiency the reinstatement of mafia-like governance: better
be careful with what one writes! The problem is not democracy
but its implementation. We cannot manage democratic government with two
hundred year old structures and procedural cultures.
Churchills famous observation that democracy was the worst system
but the only acceptable one has been protecting an inefficient status
quo for too long.
Information and data-processing technologies available today could bring
back to democratic government the efficiency lost in centuries of slow
decay from democracy to democratism, without sacrifice
for the government of the people and making it effective.
The first quality leap of the information environment was made in 1455
with Gutenbergs invention of the press. Radio (beginning of 1900)
has been the second revolution used between the two Wars, during WW2 (Roosevelt,
Churchill, Mussolini, Hitler) and right after WW2. TV was the third media
revolution (1960) and we are today looking at the fourth huge change with
cable TV, Internet, satellite supported communication systems and optic
The last revolution is still difficult to assess: the great difference
with previous information technologies is the users participation potential.
Internet is not a one-way system or top-down tool. It is a network of
millions of connected users that can become producers of information with
potentially awesome consequences on the information environment.
This powerful tool is being suffocated by the stupidity of the millions
of purveyors of such things as Viagra, penis enlargement pills and pornography.
This is a consequence of the total freedom that should be the matrix of
the information revolution and the last useful confirmation of the invincible
power of stupidity - The curse of Homo sapiens, the triumph of Homo Insipiens.
Nevertheless if this way of using the system triumphs, we have to acknowledge
the fact without moralist whingeing. So be it.
First of all, let me supply you with some interesting and paradoxical
truisms about mistakes:
"Do not fear mistakes.
There are none. Miles Davis
The only mistake I ever made was not listening to my gut. Lee Iacocca
A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients
to plant vines. Frank Lloyd Wright
The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.
A mistake is not a failure. It is something that goes wrong... and then
you fix it. You never fail until you stop trying. Suzie Heyman
If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner.
A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional, and are
the portals of discovery. James Joyce
An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in
a narrow field. Niels Bohr
A man who has committed a mistake and doesn't correct it, is committing
another mistake. Confucius
There are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth -- not going
all the way, and not starting. The Buddha
A life spent making mistakes is not only more honourable, but more useful
than a life spent doing nothing. George Bernard Shaw
Mistakes show us what we need to learn. Peter McWilliams
Mistakes live in the neighbourhood of truth and therefore delude us. Rabindranath
Our 'mistakes' become our crucial parts, sometimes our best parts, of
the lives we have made. Ellen Goodman
"A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. Albert
When I make a mistake everyone can see it, but not when I lie. Johann
Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make
mistakes. Mahatma Gandhi
When I have listened to my mistakes, I have grown. Hugh Prather
A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned
to your advantage. Edwin Land
I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes
and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom
and knowledge. Igor Stravinsky
A just cause is not ruined by a few mistakes. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Every calamity is a spur and valuable hint. Ralph Waldo Emerson
Do not be embarrassed by your mistakes. Nothing can teach us better than
our understanding of them. This is one of the best ways of self-education.
I'd rather make a mistake than do nothing. Harry Chapin
Mistakes are part of the dues one pays for a full life. Sophia Loren
The person interested in success has to learn to view failure as a healthy,
inevitable part of the process of getting to the top. Dr. Joyce Brothers
Some of the best lessons we ever learn we learn from our mistakes and
failures. The error of the past is the wisdom and success of the future.
Not many people are willing to give failure a second opportunity. They
fail once and it is all over. The bitter pill of failure is often more
than most people can handle. If you are willing to accept failure and
learn from it, if you are willing to consider failure as a blessing in
disguise and bounce back, you have got the essential of harnessing one
of the most powerful success forces. Joseph Sugarman
Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your
enthusiasm. Winston Churchill
A series of failures may culminate in the best possible result. Gisela
Error is discipline through which we advance. William E. Channing
You always pass failure on the way to success. Mickey Rooney
Weinberg's Principle: An expert is a person who avoids the small errors
while sweeping on to the grand fallacy.
What looks like a loss may be the very event which is subsequently responsible
for helping to produce the major achievement of your life. Srully Blotnick
It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation. Herman
Best men are often moulded out of faults. Shakespeare
Show me a thoroughly satisfied man, and I'll show you a failure. Thomas
I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please
everyone. Bill Cosby
My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure. Ashleigh Brilliant
Learning is never done without errors and defeat. Vladimir Lenin
I want to suggest to you today, that unless we have a tolerant attitude
toward mistakes - I might almost say "a positive attitude toward
them" - we shall be behaving irrationally, unscientifically, and
unsuccessfully. Now, of course, if you now say to me, "Look here,
you weird Limey, are you seriously advocating relaunching the Edsel?"
I will reply, "No." There are mistakes - and mistakes. There
are true, copper-bottom mistakes like spelling the word "rabbit"
with three Ms; wearing e black bra under a white shirt; or, to take a
more masculine example, starting a land war in Asia. These are the kind
of mistakes described by Mr. David Letterman as Brushes With Stupidity,
because they have no reasonable chance of success. John CleeseReading
all these truisms, witty remarks and opinions about mistakes is enlightening.
The general attitude towards mistakes seems to be a positive one.
However, an important part of the drama is missing here: none of the witty
thoughts or one-liners shows any concern for the sacrifice and sorrow
that our mistakes may cause to others. It looks as if we were the only
ones to suffer or to learn from the consequences of our mistakes: Regrettably
this is not so.
Even if it seems that mistakes are a very common occurrence, they are
not the subjects of any training. The whole awesome monument of knowledge
and education has the grand goal of avoiding mistakes by teaching how
to do the right things, but no theoretical information is supplied about
the very conceptual texture of mistakes. What are they made of, where
do they come from, how do they happen? One would think that the best way
to avoid something is to have a good knowledge of it.
Anyway, after having received our positive education and training we go
into the real world and start from scratch "learning by our own mistakes".
But still we know nothing about them, their "structure", their
conceptual form, their environment and habitat, the recurring dynamics
of their occurrence, their intimate relationship with our way of thinking
and with our "culture". It is only later in life that we start
to wonder, Why did I do that?
I will make an attempt to fill this gap with an exploratory note. The
matter is certainly worth an in- depth treatise, but this is just a cursory
perusal that I hope will encourage further thinking by interested parties.
A preliminary check from the dictionary is always useful:
Mistake: a wrong action or statement proceeding from faulty judgement,
misunderstanding of the meaning or of the implication of something;
A wrong choice derived from ignorance or from faulty information, a deviation
from a coded practice or from accepted behavioural paradigm.
I am not at all happy with these definitions: the idea that a mistake
is necessarily and immediately "wrong" is arguable and the idea
that it is due to "faulty information" or "misunderstanding"
is also an unacceptable limit in a general definition.
Moreover to introduce the concept of "wrong" is extremely dangerous
given the moralistic ambiguity of it. What is "wrong" and what
is "right" is matter for another debate. Wrong compared to what?
And right compared to what? For whom? Even utilitarian ethics may find
it hard to negotiate this area, under a rigorous "Darwinist"
assumption. I will simply dismiss the problem with a warning against any
"teleological" interpretation of whatever. The whole process
(whichever process) has no "goal". The presumption of a "goal"
is the entrance to a world of obscurity.
There can be mistakes made on perfectly correct information or competent
assumptions: there are always many options supported by the same solid
evidence and exact information.
My definition of mistakes would be something
The decision or the choice to do something or to proceed in some way which
"later" turns out not to be the best thing to have done or the
best way to proceed in the given circumstance.
By this definition of mine the mistake is actually a mistake only when
you can see or prove that a different decision or choice would have been
better. Lacking such proof, there is no mistake.
When a decision is made it is usually justifiable or understandable: it
becomes a mistake only afterwards and only if a better alternative can
be shown to have been available in the same circumstances. It can be years
or just seconds after the decision is made. You may have the sudden vision
of the mistake you are making in the same moment in which you pull the
trigger and shoot, or you may be lucky enough never to know. Again there
is a problem hidden in the term "better": define "better!
It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time
If mistakes were the outcome of wrong or faulty information "mistakeology"
would be an easy science: faulty information? OK mistake! Game over, end
Unfortunately mistakes are made even when we have the competence and the
right information. Which makes the matter more complicated and more challenging.
Decisions are usually made on the assessment of the alternatives: I would
say that decisions made on a 99 to 1 chance are not difficult, but the
real world is very seldom like that. Your options come usually at a rate
of 48/52, 49/51. To put it bluntly it does not take a rocket scientist
to choose between muck and money. Unfortunately though mucky money, or
muck with some amount of money are the common occurrence.
There must be a generating "matrix"
of mistakes that is subtler and more suggestive than ignorance or faulty
information. Or, better, let us say that mistakes generated by ignorance
or faulty information are not interesting: they can be detected easily
and responsibilities may be easily identified.
I think that the true "matrix" is a cultural paradigm - A code
that is rooted in our culture or in the values that drive our behavioural
pattern in an implicit, subliminal, unconscious way.
If my assumption is true, our mistakes are "typical" of our
personality/character. This also means that we always make the "same"
mistake or that our mistakes are always of a similar "genre".
It could be a useful process to list our mistakes (we are the only ones
who know them) and find their generating "matrix", or the general
set of "values" that induce them. Which does not mean that we
will be able to prevent them and avoid them. It only means that we may
be able to identify the specific situations and behave with more caution
while negotiating through them.
Dammed: I have done it again!
Elements of "generating matrixes".
Gender, race, nationality, language, education,
profession, physical appearance & condition, political beliefs, social
status, hierarchical level, income, greed, compassion, ethical values,
religion, wealth, age, Zodiac sign, environmental background & context,
health, panic, fear, serendipity
For the same individual
these "elements" may play a different role in different moments
of life or in different circumstances, but the general "pattern"
of the matrix over the years will have a specific individual identity.
Its like the weather: the set of elements is the same: temperature,
radiation, relative humidity, wind velocity, barometric pressure
for a given place the "pattern" of their combination yields
a specific climatic identity. It will never snow in Scarborough and the
chances of having a fresh Southwesterly wind setting in at 11.30 are pretty
high every day, in the summer.
The third lecture will deal with the science of complexity and chaos:
I will peruse through a short history of the new discipline and its main
masters (Monod, Prigogine, Lorenz, Kauffmann, Johnson, Mitchell). I will
also analyze the potential of the science of complexity for the possible
better management of information and knowledge.
If analytical reduction to parts and elements is what keeps us from holistic
comprehension of complex realities, we must re-invent our learning modes.
The amount of literature on this problem is enormous: It seems a lot of
people have written a great deal about how to teach and how to learn -
Thinkers, pedagogues, cognition scientists.
As a result of my research, the following description is the one I like
The best method for analyzing human
cognitive behaviour lies in the analysis of the task rather than in attempting
to analyze the methods used by the human to solve the problem.
The practical learning iterated cycle is:
Action 1, comparative assessment 1, feedback 1,
Action 2, comparative assessment 2, feedback 2,
Action 3, comparative assessment 3, feedback 3,
The cycle builds up a set of data that continuously enriches the assessment
stage and feedback through a consistent memory
of data and experiences.
The pre-school child learns by following a process that has been deleted
from our adult minds and that we must recover.
Anyone who has carefully observed the learning processes of a small child
would have noticed the powerful teaching content of the action/assessment/feedback
cycle. The learning process of a pre-school infants mind is not
hindered by grammatical or rational rules: the process is naturally holistic.
Lets have a closer look at the task analysis:
When I hammer a nail into a block of wood, with each strike I have empirical
experience and store information.
After the first strike I already have a considerable number of experimental
inputs that I use to inform me prior to the second.
Each strike is different, each informed by the preceding one and informing
those that follow. The learning sequence is repeated with each new nail:
the more or less cautious testing attitude is gradually abandoned
and shortened while the operator develops more expertise.
The feedback gradually draws from a wider set of memorized
data increasing the expertise and the overall efficiency of the operation.
A breakdown of the experience would include the following elements:
· The sound indicates the precision of the strike and the resistance to
· The amount of penetration at each strike indicates the percentage of
nail that has already entered into the block;
· The two elements inform on the tenacity of the connection that the nail
· The sound changes completely when the nail is totally stuck in the block:
any further hit is useless and can actually weaken the connection reducing
the attrition between nail surface and wood through heat and vibration;
This learning sequence action/comparative-assessment/feedback is confirmed
as we increase the number of experiences (i.e. nails hammered).
We can then write a nail-hammering manual: with a very detailed description
of the learning experience and all the related observations (depth, sound,
The manual of the perfect nail hammerer may be useful to reduce the learning
cycle, but if you compare the ability of a nail hammerer who has put in
100 nails, but has not read the manual, with the ability of a nail hammerer
who has only read the manual, but has never struck a nail, you will see
that the one who has learned by doing is much more capable than the one
who has learned by reading.
My conclusion is that action is a
holistic learning process and is much more effective than an
analytical reductionism learning process.
The amount of information gathered through practical operation and the
amount of internal relationships between each piece of information is
much more complex than any descriptive manual can ever be.
To confirm this conclusion scientifically, I would have to compare 1000
theoretical nail hammerers with 1000 practical nail hammerers granting
all of them the exact comparable environmental conditions: I am applying
for a grant in order to carry out this very modest research project!
Many peculiarities of craftsmanship are also the result of the personal
subjective attitude of the operators. Some of them are useful, some just
a matter of style, more or less indicative of effective ability.
It is undoubtedly true that in order to become a smooth operator one has
to hammer a lot of different nails, with a lot of different hammers into
a lot of different blocks or planks of timber and in many different positions.
The difference between the expert and the beginner is very obvious to
This observation in agreement with the power law of practice. This law
simply states that the logarithm of the reaction time for a particular
task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials
taken. Qualitatively, the law only states that practice improves performance.
However, the quantitative statement of the law and its applicability to
a wide variety of different human behaviours -- immediate-response tasks,
motor-perceptual tasks, recall tests, text editing, and more high-level,
deliberate tasks such as game-playing -- have suggested it as a structural
feature of the learning process.
One last comment: The operation of hammering a nail can be regarded as
a complex operation for the purpose of this exercise. To make my point
clear, imagine the operation of hitting a golf ball with a 3 wood for
a 400-yard drive instead of hammering a nail.
A question that has always been the subject of much debate is whether
the reading of a manual helps a beginner to cut his learning time or to
make him a better operator?
Rivers of academic blood have been shed on this matter. There is no clear
answer to the question. Preliminary theoretic study is sometimes useful,
sometimes useless and sometimes even damaging, sometimes possible and
sometimes not. There are no certainties.
Let us consider the case of languages: To learn the grammar and syntax
of a foreign language before starting to talk maybe useful, but it is
not necessarily so and can sometimes be a hindrance, because the fear
of making mistakes delays the process of learning to speak.
An infant learns a different language with a very direct and practical
procedure: he learns by listening and speaking, i.e. in a holistic manner.
An adult can do the same thing. Had he not forgotten how to do it.
This is yet another example of how complexity can be dealt with through
a holistic approach whereas analytical procedures fail.
Whereas we all have a more or less sophisticated idea of the meaning of
this word we may not be familiar with the mathematical definition of it
and with the recent history of mathematical speculation in the field.
According to the Dictionary (Webster)
Chaos: State of things in which chance is supreme; nature that is
subject to no law or that is not necessarily uniform; the confused unorganized
state of primordial matter before the creation of distinct and orderly
forms; confused mass or agglomerate of matters or heterogeneous items
that are hard to distinguish, isolate, or interpret.
According to Edward Lorenz, the meteorologist who produced the first simplified
mathematical simulation of the atmosphere (MIT 1956) a Chaotic system
is a system that is sensitively dependent on interior changes in initial
The peculiarity of such a system is that any event that can take place
can happen at any time. There is no mandatory, necessary or predetermined
sequence of events.
Sensitive dependence on initial conditions is the key to conceptual understanding
of Chaos and its interesting to know that we are indebted for the
first glimpse into that scientific territory to the French mathematician/genius
Henry Poincaré. He wrote in his essay Science and Method
If we knew exactly the laws of nature and the situation of the
universe at the initial moment, we could predict exactly the situation
of that same universe at a succeeding moment, but even if it were the
case that the natural laws had no longer any secret for us, we could still
only know the initial situation approximately. If that enabled us to predict
the succeeding situation with the same approximation, which is all we
require, and we should say that the phenomenon had been predicted, that
is governed by laws. But it is not always so; it may happen that small
differences in the initial conditions produce an enormous error in the
latter. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon.
(See the butterfly story)
Lorenz ran into chaos more or less accidentally while he was trying to
set up a system of equations capable of representing, in a simplified
but significant way, the dynamics of the atmosphere and his purpose was
dynamic meteorological forecasting (as opposed to statistical forecasting).
He was working at the MIT before the computer age and his
first computer was a Royal-McBee LGP-30 with an internal memory of 4096
32 bits words that performed a multiplication in 17 milliseconds and a
full line of numbers in 10 seconds. One third of the memory was needed
for the standard input and output programs (what we call today the Operating
System - OS). By chance, luck and intelligent intuition Lorenz was eventually
able to write a set of equations that represented a model of a deterministic
non periodic flow: the embryo of which, many years later, became
a dynamic atmospheric circulation model. Lorenzs model had 12 variables:
Present day atmospheric modelling tools used for weather forecasting have
some five millions variables.
Heres the story of the original discovery made by Lorenz:
In order to follow variations in weather conditions Lorenz set up a system
in which he fed a set of initial conditions into the computer and allowed
it to run on showing graphically the values taken by a single variable,
such as temperature, over a long period of time. On one occasion he wished
to examine part of one run in greater detail and fed in the conditions
taken from an earlier run. To his surprise the computer produced a markedly
different sequence from the original printout. Eventually Lorenz traced
the source of the discrepancy. The initial conditions of the program,
stored in the computer memory, had used the number 0.506127, correct to
six decimal places; the printout however gave only three decimal places,
0.506. Lorenz, like everyone else, had assumed that so small a difference
could have no significant effect. In fact, a small difference can, over
a long period of time, build up to produce a large effect. Moreover, the
way the difference affects the outcome is very sensitive to small changes.
Technically this is termed sensitive dependence on initial conditions.
More graphically, it is called the butterfly effect, from
the idea that a single butterfly flapping its wings in China might, weeks
later, cause a hurricane in New York.
The butterfly effect occurs because the weather depends on a number of
factors temperature, humidity, airflow, radiation etc. and
these are to a certain extent interdependent. Thus the way the temperature
changes depends on the humidity, but this depends on temperature. Consequently
equations relating these factors are nonlinear - a variable
is a function of itself. And it is this non-linearity that causes the
sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The weather is a system that
repeats itself, but it repeats itself in an unpredictable way.
There are a number of similar nonlinear systems
the study of such
systems has come to be known as chaos theory.
It is interesting to note that Lorenz was proceeding from mathematics
towards reality: i.e. he was trying to set up a system of equations that
could simulate a non-periodic behavioural pattern. He was not measuring
a number of variables of a physical system and trying to put them into
a set of equations.
An intriguing aspect of chaotic sequences is the concept of attractor
(a name invented by Ruelle in 1971) and even more intriguing is the concept
of strange attractor.
The terminology may be confusing and misleading. It took me a while to
understand what the two concepts actually represented.
Lorenz supplied the best description (The Essence of Chaos, page 39):
If we take a look at some real world phenomenon
that has caught our attention, we are likely to find that certain conceivable
modes of behaviour simply do not occur. A pendulum in a clock in good
working order will not swing gently at times and violently at others;
every swing will look like every other one. A flag in a steady breeze
will never hang limp, nor will it extend itself directly into the breeze,
no matter how long we wait. Subfreezing temperatures will not occur in
Honolulu, nor will relative humidity of 15%. The states of any system
that do occur again and again, or are approximated again and again, more
and more closely, therefore belong to a rather restricted set. This is
the set of attractors.
When the graphical representation of the set of values of an attractor
has a very identifiable pattern or appearance it is called a strange
The presence of strange attractors is partly responsible for the
recent surge of interest in chaos.
An attractor is a recurring set of values in a chaotic phenomenon and
a strange attractor is the striking appearance of some of the attractors
when graphically represented.
It is the discovery of strange attractors that suggested the possible
existence of some intrinsic order beyond,
within, or on the margin of chaos.
Lorenz calls the attractors the heart of
Chaos. Which maybe a romantic, but it is not a stimulating
The assumption of a possible order beyond chaos
has led to speculation of possible control of chaos.
In my opinion, all the work in this area is flawed by a serious conceptual
contradiction: Whereas the very concept of chaos is the victory of uncertainty
and indeterminism over historic determinism (Marx et al), the speculation
of inferring control of chaos through mathematical modelling is fundamentally
If the lesson of chaos is to be learned, the logical sequence goes from
the measurement of the real world to its eventual probabilistic representation.
According to Websters Dictionary:
Complex: having many varied interrelated parts, patterns or elements
and consequently hard to fully comprehend.
Complexity: the quality or state of being complex.
Not much to add there: Complexity and chaos are often used as synonyms
even if they are not. It is true that chaotic systems are always complex
but it is not true that complex systems are always chaotic, even if we
may perceive them as such.
Fractals are diagrams generated by more or less simple mathematical or
geometrical rules. The exercise of generating a fractal tree is very simple,
but when the rules are more sophisticated the process can become highly
complex and chaotic. There is an intriguing connection between
fractals and chaotic non-periodic systems: strange attractors are usually
My remote assumption here is that fractals could be useful to represent
a consistently measured and codified complex reality.
For a thorough treatise on fractals see Benoit
Mandelbrot How long is the coast of Britain.
Stuart Kauffman and the Santa Fe Institute
In his three compelling books (see Bibliography) Stuart
Kauffmann, starting from the scientific fundamentals of Schrödinger,
Prigogine, Lorenz and connecting Biology, Physics, Mathematics, Philosophy
and Semantics, seeks with bald assumptions the unified field
of Science. His starting point is that, as the complexity of systems increases,
endogenous self-organization trends set in. He assumes this and provides
many supporting examples, but no hard evidence. From that he goes on (Investigations
The Ghadiri experiments open the door to
work on self reproducing molecular systems in complex chemical reaction
networks where the substrates and products are all peptides. The field
of molecular diversity, generating trillions of more or less random DNA,
RNA, and protein sequences, means that we can create complex reactions
at will. Since DNA, RNA, and proteins can all bind to, and presumably
also catalyze, reactions concerning the other classes of polymers, there
is no reason not to seek autocatalytic and collectively autocatalytic
systems of DNA, RNA, and protein species simultaneously.
Nor is the search for self-reproduction limited to linear polymers. Julius
Rebek at Scripps has created a self-reproducing molecular system based
on heterodimerization of complex organic molecules, calixarene urea.
So, in the American vernacular, (watch this! note
of LM) self-reproducing molecular systems are a done deal.
With all the revolutionary consequences such as:
ð The first real hints of a general biology and a broad basis of life
in the universe.
ð New concepts about the origin of life on Earth.
ð The first hints of a new technology based on self-reproducing evolvable
ð The hard, hard push to explore a terra nova
I wish to say that life is an expected,
emergent property of complex chemical reaction networks
if so, we
are birthed of molecular diversity, children of second generation stars.
Kauffmann extends the consequences of his revolutionary assumptions to
the fields of ethics, semantics and economics, but I will leave him for
a while. After Kauffman, a lot of
the complexity debate has dealt with information, knowledge
management, system optimization and schools of thought and businesses
have thrived on this idea, selling it for whatever their scope and purpose.
A radical change
I am fascinated by Kauffmanns assumptions and I accept them for
what they are: In due time we will see if his theory is right or wrong.
His supporting documentation is impressive, but as he himself frequently
advises, it is not evidence. His thoughts represent and maybe are beyond
the thinking of many others in the debate. James Lovelock was one, who
proposed the idea of an environmental global unity and made the mistake
of calling it Gaia thus irritating the lay conscience of scientists. Gregory
Bateson integrated the concept of evolution with the idea that species
evolve with their environment and the process could be better referred
to as co-evolution. Prigogine deconstructed the deterministic view of
the world and proved that there cannot be such a thing as
was probably the first to introduce the concept of self-organisation in
complex systems with rigorous mathematical theoretical support.
What I particularly like about the whole complexity, chaos, end of certainty
debate is the fact that historic determinism is definitively overruled
by this debate, which I consider very timely. So many mistakes have been
made by people who thought to be historically right and so much suffering
has been caused by this arrogant mindset that the end of it must be blessed
One of the most compelling emergences from the debate is the olonomic
peculiarity of the universe: a system made of parts where every part contains/represents
the whole system.
The other point that I gather from this debate is that an experimental
representation of a phenomenon can lead to its holistic understanding:
this very basic suggestion, so clear in some of the observations made
Lorenz, has been lost in subsequent development of the complexity
debate. I would like to recover the powerful suggestion with a proposal
aimed at knowing what is actually going on.
I apologize if the preliminary discussion for this proposal took a rather
long time, but I think that the elements of the preliminary discussion
will prove to be useful for the understanding and possible implementation
of my proposed knowledge machine.
My idea is simple: Instead of progressing from the general theory towards
praxis along Kauffmanns lines, let us see if we can approach the
problem from the other direction.
Let us start from the facts and see if we can derive from them a comprehensive
(holistic) vision of reality.
In the fourth lecture I will try to explain how understanding the concepts
of complexity and chaos may help us in our daily lives. I will present
the general outline of a possible method of codifying and processing information
in order to identify current trends at various levels of specificity.
We are observing the birth of a science that is no longer limited to idealized
and simplified situations, but reflects the complexity of the real world,
a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend
present at all levels of nature.
(Ilya Prigogine The end of certainty, 1997)
The more precisely the position (of a subatomic particle) is determined,
the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
uncertainty paper, 1927)
Heisenberg had a shocking but clear realization about the limits of physical
knowledge: the act of observing alters, at least at the subatomic level,
the reality being observed. To measure the properties of a particle such
as an electron, one needs to use a measuring device, usually light or
radiation. But the energy in this radiation affects the particle being
observed. If you adjust the light beam to accurately measure position,
you need a short-wavelength, high-energy beam. It would tell you position,
but its energy would throw off the momentum of the particle. Then, if
you adjust the beam to a longer wavelength and lower energy, you could
more closely measure momentum, but position would be inaccurate.
The [Heisenberg] theory yields a lot, but it hardly brings us any closer
to the secret of the Old One. In any case I am convinced that He does
not throw dice.
(Albert Einstein, writing to Max Born, 4 December 1926)There is no consequential
relationship between Heisenbergs principle of indeterminacy (the
uncertainty principle) and the first attempt to describe non-linear systems
and dynamics (Lorenz 1956), hence chaos and complexity (Santa Cruz Collective
1977), but some logical likeness is striking. Heisenberg states the limit
of physical measurement (the act of observing alters the reality being
observed). The sciences of complexity state that the very concept of chaos
defies its definition.
Heisenberg had his intuition while dealing with subatomic particles; Lorenz
while working with macro-scale atmospheric dynamics; the Santa Cruz Collective,
Prigogine and later the Santa Fe institute while dealing with protein
It is useful here to quote Heisenberg again: The path is there because
we observe it. The connection is there because we sense it.
There is one interesting factor about these different experiences: they
were all transferred to absolute contexts and to a level of universality
that was not in the minds of the original authors.
Heisenberg found that you couldnt measure the speed of a particle
and its position because if you measure the speed you are bound to change
its position. The translation by the philosophers was: the act of observing
alters the reality being observed. But even beyond that, Heisenberg inferred
that even when you talk about something that something is
altered by your talking
Kauffmanns statement that in some protein cultures some variations
that lead to self reproduction may occur, is being pushed towards the
assumption that there is order at the margins of chaos, and now the whole
complexity debate is referred to the widest possible conceptual definition
of knowledge. The question that has been at the very heart of philosophical
research for quite a few centuries remains:
The never-ending question: What is it all about?
There is some interest in that strange transfer. It is usually
philosophy that grasps the very general truths whereas physical experiences
can only verify them.
Heisenberg found the principle of indeterminacy while working in his lab
or while trying to think of a physical method to measure the speed and
the position of subatomic particles. After that the principle became a
very general philosophical statement: the act of observing alters the
reality being observed. When you analyse something you change it, so you
can never be sure of what you have actually analysed, the actual event/phenomenon
or that phenomenon as changed by your observation: Tantalising!
Heres is an excerpt of a conversation on the subject between Einstein
and Heisenberg as reported by the latter:
From Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond, Arnold J. Pomerans, trans. (New York:
Harper, 1971), p. 63.
Heisenberg: "We cannot observe electron orbits inside the atom...Now,
since a good theory must be based on directly observable magnitudes, I
thought it more fitting to restrict myself to these, treating them, as
it were, as representatives of the electron orbits."
"But you don't seriously believe," Einstein protested, "that
none but observable magnitudes must go into a physical theory?"
"Isn't that precisely what you have done with relativity?" I
asked in some surprise...
"Possibly I did use this kind of reasoning," Einstein admitted,
"but it is nonsense all the same....In reality the very opposite
happens. It is the theory which decides what we can observe."So here
we are, after fifty years of theoretical mulling.
We live in a complex, chaotic world that we try to analyze and understand
with a grossly inadequate mindset - the assumption that we can control
the uncontrollable by means of its categorization into elemental parts.
Many attempts have been made to simplify the problem. People faced with
this impossible task decided that there is no need to know the whole complex
process. We can rely on just one or two basic undeniable dynamics and
hence draw our conclusions.
The demographic time bomb is one of the most popular all encompassing
dynamics: Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) two centuries ago and very recently
Paul & Anne Ehrlich have been elaborating on this. The Planet will
not support 12 billion inhabitants so before we reach that number some
radical culling will take place, one way or another: war,
famine, plague, nuclear war, and/or climate change
Another prophet of the die-off is Jay Hanson (see his website
dieoff.org) who combines global warming, demography and oil depletion
to forecast the end of happiness on the Planet within the
next ten years. This is also known as the Olduvai Theory after R. Duncans
The simplification of a complex reality to one or two of its variables
cannot be accepted as a valid assumption. Major changes will occur on
account of overpopulation and oil depletion, but human settlement on the
Planet will not come to an end for that reason. Radical catastrophic adaptation
will eventually prevent the end, at a very high cost. What radical
adaptation, how and what cost? We could know something more and
possibly devise alternative strategies if we had a better idea of the
present complex dynamics as they effectively develop and not according
to a simplified paradigm.
A set of parameters could be better: demography, oil depletion, food production,
and water scarcity.
Again, my objection here would be that such a set does not have any redeeming
potential: it is a doom-laden set, and I believe that the system may have
a chance for a rebounding potential before the final catastrophe, or during
Some famous studies chose a set of parameters and played with them to
see if they could find the limits of growth or go beyond
the limits of growth: At the time (1960s) this was a groundbreaking
experience and for me, still today, a great reference if the necessary
corrections are made.
The strange thing is that deep in our unconscious minds we are all quite
convinced that there is that particular thing which is connected
with all the rest and can give meaning to it all. Is this wishful thinking,
delusion or another cultural fossil? Is there actually such a thing as
King Arthurs Holy Grail in the field of information?
Our assessment of the world is substantially affected by our inner paradigms:
we have the tendency to project our inner categories as structures for
our understanding of the reality around us. This could lead to other ways
of grasping a holistic sense of what it is all about or what
is actually going on, viewing the world from a different standpoint
than our specific selves. If we forget about our individual
ego and try to put ourselves into a collective, social, environmental
ego, we may be able to see things differently. Not necessarily in a holistic
way, but maybe in a way which is not strongly tainted by our mindset.
The results may not be exciting, but it is a good exercise to go outside
our psychologically fenced and protected territory and to try to see what
a collective/social soul could see.
In a similar way, we could try to overcome the specific time limits
of our assessment of the World: Instead of thinking in terms of years/decades
let us try to think in terms of centuries or millennia and project our
perception of the present situation into that time frame.
Any effort to escape the current antropocentric ways to perceive
the environment can be useful to minimize the powerful subjective condition
which is inherent to our natural way of assessing what is around us.
About a different conceptual
The problem with time comes out whenever any attempt is made at understanding
what its all about, probably because time is the most
subtle and damning entity or dimension we have to deal with. Mass, volume,
space, sizes, light, colours, heat and sound relate almost directly to
our physical tools for the perception of the environment around us: we
can touch, feel, see, hear, compare
but time is ineffable. There
is no direct tool in our body to sense it but the process of aging: our
cells change, perish and are constantly disturbed by time.
The mechanical measurement of time is conventionally related to the astronomical
movements of our planet, but our perception of it is thoroughly subjective
and beats any attempt at standardization.
Seconds seem to last hours when we are in pain and days pass in seconds
when we are happy. Things that happened twenty years ago are perceived
as having happened one or two years ago, while things that happened a
week ago are perceived by our memory in the far away past.
When we are young, time seems endless and as we get older the fact that
time is a limited entity becomes disturbingly evident.
The most significant thing we do with time
is to plan or to think ahead: programs for the coming week, month, season,
and year. We set forth deadlines, goals, and targets for us and for the
community we are responsible for. So the present has already gone because
we live it performing tasks and things that had been described long ago.
Programming and planning maybe useful from a social and economical point
of view: for banks, financial institutions and governments, but for individuals
is a waste of life.
Life is living what happens, not what has been programmed or planned to
happen. In some way things planned have already been lived.
Of course one could argue that nothing always happens according to plans:
so there is some sense of life even in going through carefully planned
"agendas", but the forward expectation is certainly damaged.
Newtonian physics, relativity and quantum physics have not yet been able
to find an agreement on time and none of the three time
entities seems to accommodate the human feeling of time.
If we are to find some different way of knowing things and of learning
about what is around us we most certainly have to solve our problem with
The big questions are if time has an arrow (which means starts from somewhere
and goes somewhere else), if it has always been or if it started with
the big bang, if it will go on forever or if it will eventually end with
the big crunch (the opposite of the big bang).
Some authors even argue that there is no such a thing as time: it is a
non-entity. Time does not pass, it does not flow: we change, we pass.
As Balbour says: there is not an instant in time, time is in
I remember a few years ago stating as a general life assessment rule a
rather cryptical motto:
"Here and now ...forever". Think about it: it's not completely
Time is things happening. If nothing happens is there no time?
The more things happen the more time, the less things happen the less
Time is only now, tomorrow is not yet and yesterday is gone.
Time is our consciousness of it: there is no sense of time when we are
not conscious (knocked out by anaesthetic), but our cells perish even
while we are unconscious.
We are time-conscious in our natural sleep because when we wake
up we know that we have slept, we remember dreams (more or less vaguely)
and the sleeping experience.
Our body has a natural clock hidden somewhere in the metabolic processes,
but that clock is not available to our conscious mind.
Time may be the process of decay of the physical environment, the process
of achieving maximum entropy.
Time can only be represented by changes, movements or processes: in absence
of which is only a rational concept.
Thus we have a keen perception of time in its relationship with speed
as distance/time and that perception saves us from horrible accidents
every day when we drive a car or cross the street. We cannot easily dismiss
So, there is time according to Newton, time according to Einstein and
Poincare and time according to Schrödinger and Heisenberg, but there
is also a different time as a condition on human memory, mind and body.
We perceive time because events happen one after the other: night, day,
weeks, months, seasons, get up, have breakfast, go to the office, read
the newspaper, grow up, get married, have kids, grow old, die.
We also see things change accordingly: trees, flowers, clouds, weather,
This is the natural reason for our instinctive deterministic attitude:
the event B happens after the event A and thus we see it as a consequence
or determined by the event A. Which, regrettably, may be true in a lot
of happenstances, but never necessarily, or unconditionally true.
Nature has imposed on us the expectation syndrome. Since nights always
follow days, the set of events B will always follows the set of events
A, we assume that as a normal rule or necessary condition.
We get confused when we use our human time paradigm for astronomical events
and we say that stars shine: we should say that stars were shining a few
million years ago. We will never see the real sky above us. Possibly no
human being will ever see it.
To attempt a holistic vision of the World we must overcome the condition
imposed by time linearity and by the consequent inevitable determinism
and expectation syndrome.
The events, changes and sequences of happenings are different for different
places and for different observers. Their ranking in terms of importance
and impact are different. The vision of the environment or the history
they define will be different and possibly conflicting.
If we conceive sets of events and processes and we organize and assess
those events for specific scopes we may obtain different images of the
World around us. With the appropriate choice of sets we may be able to
control the expectation syndrome, for a specific purposes. Like
focussing an image or zooming into it.
The perception of time could be radically different and suggest completely
different evaluations and assessments.
It is impossible to process events in this way unless we use a powerful
data processing tool.
Enter science fiction
How do we recover a holistic approach
for the comprehension of complexity today? That is beyond the
possibilities of the analytical mindset.
If we think about the kind of organisation needed to deal analytically
with the task, it would be some gigantic beaurocratic institution.
The amount of information to deal with is enormous, produced in millions
of words every minute around the world. Gathering, selecting, and processing
it, would be an unmanageable operation. The professional multidisciplinary
competence to sift through, evaluate and assess each news item and event
would involve thousands of people and an incredible amount of hardware,
with offices and agencies scattered in many cities of the world
a structure unthinkable without a budget in the range of billions per
year. If it were ever to be set up, the chances are that its operation
would be a nightmare and the output would be a huge indecipherable mass.
It is also very difficult for Western Culture to recover the mindset and
the means of the Eastern culture: Centuries of assumed rationality
and pragmatism will not be bridged in a few decades. If we are ever able
to recover from this situation it will be by means of the same technology
and mindset that brought us into the quagmire: only used in a different
What could be the self-organising innate process capable of
producing some order at the border of this non-linear chaotic and highly
complex state of affairs?
The only thing I can think of is a properly devised application of the
formidable data-processing potential of the computer, able to deal with
billions of data per second.
The problem is how to go from the billions of words to a formatted package
ready to be processed to yield a usable representation or image of what
is actually going on.
The process should be born within the complex dynamic non
linear system: news and information should be issued or produced, with
its own inbuilt codes. Suppose any producer of information
(basically each one of us) codifies his/her output according to content,
social and political relevance, geography, financial impact, environmental
it should not be too difficult to forward the codes to collecting
devices properly placed on the WWW and equipped with processing
For the sake of this exercise, let us imagine that this part is feasible:
Any producer of information can codify its product with a code and forward
the code to a proper collecting device on the WWW.
What kind of code?
The code should qualitatively and quantitatively (where possible) profile
the event according to its relevant features. For example:
® financial qualification
® economic relevance
® energy relevance
® environmental relevance
® geographic location
® extension in space
® duration in time
® genetic-biologic relevance
® social qualification
® political qualification
® cultural qualification
® ideological qualification
® criminal qualification
® religious qualification
® bottom up/bottom down
® mafia qualification
® military qualification
® arm traffic relationship
® drug traffic relationship
® direct interactions
® Forwarding address
Clearly, such a sophisticated codification requires specific disciplinary
competence: but who is more competent and knowledgeable that the producer
of the information himself? Something similar is currently done today
with the ISBN book classification: i.e. a codification (numbers or bar
code) produced by the same author of the book.
The processing algorithm
Let me say a little about the kind of processing that should be carried
out on the package of codes.
To describe the type of processing, we have to imagine the kind of output
we want from the knowledge machine.
We can imagine either a literary product or an image output.
The literary product can be envisaged as a descriptive trend
similar to the CIA trends. The algorithm will produce the descriptive
trend, picking up parts of pre-edited sentences from a huge sentence
reservoir or glossary.
The elemental parts from the glossary will collate into an
understandable descriptive profile that will tell us to what kind of holistic
trend the millions of input codes lead.
The image could be a landscape organized in regions related
to specific features of the profile (financial, economic, social, environmental)
represented in various colours according to urgency, gravity, severity
etc. To add information content, readability and flexibility to the image
this could be organized in diagrams that show the landscape associated
with a third dimension (time? space?
). The algorithm will paint
the ongoing scenario choosing the colours from a palette.
Each colour will relate to a feature of the scenario and the combinations
related to interactive features. At a glance one will be able to grasp
the planetary holistic situation. Specific images could be drafted for
specific problems: like environmental decay related to fertilizer abuse,
or the Carbon dioxide fallout of ongoing activities, the distribution
of drug related criminality, belligerance around the World, morbidity
The problem with this sketch of futuristic computer giants is not so much
its feasibility: fifteen years ago WWW would have been classified as the
dream of a madman. What is worrying is its consistency with the definition
of a holistic way of comprehending the total complexity.
The shift from bits and elemental parts to the whole takes
place within the processing algorithm, so one could well say that its
the old trick played at a huge scale over and over again. What we are
supplied with is the final output of a machine that still operates on
elemental parts to produce the holistic landscape or scenario.
The catch is that the machine operates on millions of individual
inputs and integrates them according to a computing process absolutely
inconceivable for the human brain. Is this a condition capable of securing
the shift from bits and pieces to the Whole?
This depends very much on the sophistication of the algorithm and on the
articulate representation of the codes: how much space/time interaction
can be played through the codes. What degree of specificity can they contain
and deliver to the process. The sensitivity of the code must be matched
by the sensitivity of the input operator and by the actual degree of specific
knowledge in the field. But even then, the sophistication of the mathematical
set of equations can play a major role.
A lot can be contained in the algorithm: literally millions of variables
can be played and each specific feature of the code (even if ranked over
a 0 to 10 scale) can then be processed with very sophisticated equations
where thousands (millions) of interacting factors can be simulated. The
limit is the actual scientific knowledge of phenomena, but whatever is
reasonably known can be processed. Hypothetical simulation of unknown
combinations can also be processed and depicted as hypothetical assumptions.
We can let our imagination provoke further thinking on this subject: the
effects of Ocean temperature fluctuations due to El Nino on fish depletion
in the Indian Ocean; or the effects of the Ozone Layer on orange plantations
in Western Australia; or the consequences of European Union subsidies
to rice farmers in the Po river valley on employement in Japans
software industies - Poppy farming in Bolivia and jobs in arm factories
The reactions of my friends, colleagues and critics to this sketchy proposal,
range from curious, puzzled, outraged rebuttal, serious embarrassment,
patronising understanding, friendly worry (like in you ought to
see a doctor Lorenzo), cool non-commitment (like in:
you probably should go fly a kite
), positive listening, all
the way to
enthusiastic approval (like in: yeah, great, cool
man, go for it
. I list here some of the most common objections:
Shit in, shit out: the machine will not give you anything
more than what you put in.
I do not know: I would never be able to have any parameter play with thousands
of interacting variables and I would never be able to represent a trend
scenario with a colour landscape fed with literally millions of
different colour shades. Nobody suspected the existence of strange
attractors when they first started the diagrammatic representation
of non-linear games. The shit in shit out paradigm was true when only
little data and very simple algorithms were played with. When the data
are in the millions and the algorithm is capable of processing millions
of variables, there may be a different story. The sheer number of data
will level individual subjectivity and specific mistakes.
Look at what has been happening in the field of weather forecasting in
the last twenty years: Complex weather patterns are simulated with algorithms
that have thousands, if not millions, of variables. Yet still the weather
forecast over 30 days is unreliable, but you can rely on the 24 to 48
hrs forecast which you definitely could not do twenty years ago.
Who is going to input the codes?
The most competent body: the same that produces the information in the
first place. This is interesting because it would comply with the intuition
of the Santa Fe people that complex systems have a built-in self-organisation
dynamic mechanism that automatically sets out order.
Who will define the codification system?
This will be one of the key operations of the project: the codes have
to be easy to use and very sophisticated at the same time. Capable of
profiling events and information through a wide set of qualitative and
quantitative parameters. Potential interactions may be included and also
rated in the code.
Why would people bother to codify their information?
Basically for the same reason they put the telephone number on their business
If you take part in the process you will have access to the output and
specifically to the output related to your specific piece of information.
If you produce information you are interested in knowing how that information
compares with what is going on in the whole picture. The degree of consistency
The codes will be subjective and not reliable for an objective output
One or two or ten codes, but not millions of them and subjectivity will
tend to flatten out with the number of entries.
The whole thing is a monster from the organisational point of view:
This same objection was made when the WWW was first proposed: In fact,
once the codes and their format are established and the algorithms set
up (which will be a huge expensive task) the whole system should coast
Who is going to pay for the holistic project?
After the first injection of capital and labour once rolling on the WWW,
the system will pay for itself and it may become a golden goose. if you
deliver trend scenarios for 5 dollars each you can easily
sell millions of them on the www - Like they are selling horoscopes now.
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