Volatility & Systems

Our logically argued premise is, complexity causes the vulnerability. Well, not really. The argument loses ground when applied over systems.

By Priyanshu Param Shrivastava, Rashtram Alumnus

One of the most complete and profound laws discovered by scientists is the second law of thermodynamics i.e., the entropy of this universe is ever increasing. The rate of change of disorder with respect to time is positive. The nature of this universe is to become more and more random.

But staring right into the face of this law is human civilisation. From hunter-gatherers to agriculturists to the modern-era corporate world, the complexity of the ecosystem within and without humans has rapidly evolved and turned more complex. Even from a morphological point of view, the nucleic acids and their combinations have become progressively entwined and given rise to much more complex and sophisticated DNAs over the course of evolution. What causes this anomaly? If the universe does not incentivise systems to become more complex and rather randomisation in instructed in the fabric of the universe, why has life and the ecosystems surrounding life have become more complex a.k.a less randomized?

Once asked about the most under-rated thing in this world, Swami Vivekananda replied, “Time”. Time indeed is an important parameter that often goes unnoticed. Given the humongous time span of the existence of our universe, events with even the slightest of probabilities attain possibility. Complexity is just one of those random events the probability of occurring of which is very slim, but occurs anyway. 

With this anomaly resolved, the attention can now be diverted towards the nature of these complex systems. As the system becomes progressively complex, it becomes increasingly fragile. Specialised systems tend to be complex and by the virtue of being niche or specialized, they become vulnerable to volatility or change in specifics. An intuitive example is of the rock and the rock-house. The rock-house which is relatively more complex than the rock is also more vulnerable than the rock in case of an earthquake. 

The vulnerabilities of the human species were exposed to the fullest under the pressing times of this pandemic. All human systems, be it, economic, social or the human body itself, succumbed to never seen externalities. However, to our rescue came the vaccines. After what can be called one of the most erudite tasks in the history of science, researchers and their partner institutions successfully developed vaccines to mitigate the risks of coronavirus. A vaccine in the crudest of terms is a weaker, less symptomatic version of the actual virus. It tinkers with your immune system by introducing volatility in its local environment and stimulates it to produce antibodies. With antibodies in its arsenal, the body gets equipped to fight against the actual virus. You may be wondering about why this sudden detour towards the pandemic? Well, if you haven’t already noticed, something fascinatingly unique happens upon the introduction of a vaccine to the body.

Our logically argued premise is, complexity causes vulnerability. Well, not really. The argument loses ground when applied over systems that have feedback loops in place. Feedback loops are what makes a system intelligent. A common example of a feedback loop is that of the water tank with inlet and outlet water pipes. If the limit of water level in the tank is set at 10 meters, then whenever the level shoots above or fall below 10, the feedback loop informs inlet and outlet pipes to change their rates of flow, thus maintaining the level at 10. A similar but far more complex feedback loop exists in our immune system, making it possible to maintain the proper health of the body even in adversities by controlling the production of antibodies. If not for this complexity, which is present in the form of feedback loops, would there have been a possibility of survival against numerous diseases, disorders, volatility? Should we not say then that, more the complexity, more the feedback loops, more intelligent the system, more are the chances of survival?

Welcome to the second anomaly.

All living systems, which have evolved considerably over the period of time and have developed feedback loops, are much better off at thriving under uncertainty as compared to less complex systems. But this is in complete contrast with the rock& rock-house example. To resolve this contradiction, one needs to look at the striking contrast between the two systems which is the absence of the feedback loops in the rock& rock-house system. Un-intelligent systems which cannot record data and use them for improving on their next iteration will, by all means, become more vulnerable with increasing complexity. 

Hence with our improved understanding, we can re-frame our premise as, systems become fragile with increasing complexity, provided they are un-intelligent. And the vice-versa happens for intelligent systems i.e., they become increasingly robust.

Quite surprisingly, this subtle yet fundamental framework has found its application much before the modern world order came into place. In the form of political systems of ancient civilisations. 

In ancient civilisations like that of India, the political system was de-centralised and the power enshrined upon the central governing body was minimal, unlike today’s India, where majority of the power seems to be concentrated at the centre.

What this de-centralized model does is, reduce the loop of responsibility and power. For a malfunctioning of street light, poor roads or dilapidated primary schools, your local municipality is wholly and solely responsible and not someone sitting in the state’s capital. The blame game stops and owners of responsibility become available for absorbing needs for change. The shorter the loop, the quicker will be the response to change. Unfortunately, vice-versa is true as well. The longer the loops, the more difficult it is to accumulate change, and as the loops increase in length, the system barters flexibility for stiffness. The power to install change starts moving away from local to global points, thus strengthening a centralised order.

De-centralisation hence is the key for attaining robustness, since our discussion in the essay clearly presents, systems gain from randomness only if they have inbuilt feedback loops present and to have efficient feedback loops, they need to be flexible so as to absorb change quickly and prepare an adequate response, and to be flexible it needs to be short with clear start and endpoints. 

All these functionalities are inbuilt in decentralised political systems. Hence if India has to rise, it must strike a shift of power from central institutions to local institutions, from banks to decentralised finance, from state’s monopoly over the power to civil arms rights, from employment to creator economy, from outsourcing control to a political party to becoming infinite players.