Bifurcation Point: Complexity and World Change

It’s seems that the world, ourselves included, is now changing more rapidly than at any other time in history. I am not talking about small, insignificant changes, but about major changes, significant changes, unpredictable changes, and changes that quickly morph into other changes – the types of changes that matter, affect us directly or indirectly, and rock our world. As compared to 100 or even 50 years ago, the rate of significant change is now increasing almost constantly, and has become so much a part of our lives that we almost don’t notice it. But, there is one question rarely discussed in a realistic manner: “Is change a good thing or a bad thing?”

This is actually a very deep question that most of us never learn the answer to, because sometimes it is hard to tell the good changes from the bad ones. Many start out appearing one way, and then over time they become the other. Change seems to evolve. So change, especially change within human systems, is kind of tricky and needs to be understood. This is especially important for those of us who wish to optimize our own aging process because, no matter how old we are, we can never avoid the changes that will come.

I teach my students about how human systems change. And, it seems to me that change itself has changed. It no longer needs to be planned and instigated by a person, organization, or country; in an “if I do this, that will occur” manner, and then implemented utilizing a linear, sequential method. This was the way I was raised to think that change worked. Simple “cause and effect” combined with “holding the environment stable” assumptions. Ridiculous really – if you actually want to accomplish something. Instead, change now appears to be occurring all by itself – unpredictably – and, whatever we call this self-initiating change process, it also appears to be speeding up.

Change Begets Change

I woke up one morning a couple of months ago with the phrase “Change Begets Change” going through my head. Now, I wasn’t even sure what “beget” meant in the context of this statement, so I went to the dictionary and found that it means to “give rise to,” “bring about,” “create,” and/or “spark or touch off.” These definitions are close, but they don’t express exactly what this phrase means to me.

It is plain to me that good begets good, and violence begets violence, but what I have been thinking recently is that certain changes suddenly seem to spark off dozens of additional new changes, which in turn then spark off hundreds, maybe even thousands, of further changes. This type of change is much more interesting – because it is both unpredictable and uncontrollable. So, in this case, I think “beget” means to “accelerate.” A single change could be like sticking a match to a huge bonfire of human emotions, traditions, beliefs, learning, and growth. Changes like this do not occur one at a time, but are instead like opening a door into a whole Pandora’s Box full of new possibilities, risks, and transformation.

Maybe it has always been this way, but what seems different now is that it is happening much faster.

If this interpretation of “change begets change” is true – it implies that as our world changes, this will result in an ever-increasing rate of future world change. Like a train starting up in the station, it begins to slowly overcome its own inertia, and then quickly begins to build in speed until it reaches its desired MPH. However, the difference between this example of a train, and the world we live in today, is that when human systems start to change there are no brakes. In other words, it seems that human change tends to escalate at an escalating rate, and this escalation will continue until…?

Complexity and Change

I believe that “Change Begets Change” has become an axiom for human systems in the world today – whether you are an individual, a family, an organization, country, or the world in general. Uncontrollable change is accelerating at an accelerating rate. However, in order to entirely appreciate the truth of this axiom, one must have some understanding of “Dynamic Systems Theory” (DST), and how complexity is quickly changing the world we live in.

I have defined the term “complexity” many years ago as “an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other with accelerating frequency.” Variables can be people, ideas, organizations, entire political systems, beliefs, cultures, religions, ways of doing things, terrorism, and the list goes on and on. Almost all of these seemingly independent variables are now interacting with each other at an accelerating rate due to communications technology – such as cell phones, the internet, computers, social networking, TV, and satellite systems. Human systems change all by themselves through this type of interaction, so as communications technology spreads throughout the planet – so will change continue to escalate. And, the type of change that occurs will be uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Complexity is sometimes described as being “on the edge of chaos” – and today we are beginning to see that edge more than at any other time of known human existence. One might think the number of new interactions would level off at some point, but we forget that whole continents, such as Africa and South America, currently only have limited exposure to this technology. And, it is only a matter of time before cell phones, social networking, and the internet proliferate into nearly every community across the entire world.

In addition, the producers of this communications technology have the goal of making us even more dependent on their products, so they can make more money. In other words, they want us to buy and use more of their products, and to use them more frequently. If you don’t believe this acceleration in usage is actually occurring, all you have to do is look around to see all the dumbasses checking their cell phones for messages or texting at dinner, while driving their car, or even while walking across a busy street. Their noses seem to be constantly buried in their cell phones or notebook computers.

So, the world today not only has an increasing number of independent variables interacting with each other, but they are also interacting at an accelerating rate as our addiction to this form of stimulation progresses. This might be a big “Duh” to some of you, but what are the effects – really – of continuously rising levels of world interaction and complexity?

In the old days we interacted very little with people, ideas, or ways of doing things that were different from ourselves or what we already believed. Most of the people in each community pretty much agreed with everyone else in that community, so these interactions produced very little change. It wasn’t until the publishing of newspapers that many people got exposed to different ways of thinking – but even this was a limited form of interaction until the invention of the radio and the infrastructure that made it possible to communicate instantly with a larger geographic audience.

This has only been a little over a hundred years, and now we have TVs, computers, the internet, cell phones, social networking, and the ability to transmit huge amounts of data electronically with the push of a button. People are not only interacting more with other people who have different beliefs, values, morals, and ways of doing things, but we are also interacting more with the growing amount of information available on the internet. And, all this interaction results in change. We literally don’t have to move away from our desk chairs to learn new things and experience change anymore. The only limitation seems to be our ability to process this information accurately.

The Approaching Bifurcation Point

I am not saying that all interactions lead to change. To change our way of thinking or doing things we must feel or infuse our interactions with meaning. Every meaningful interaction (for instance with NEW ideas, people, and ways of doing things, etc.) produces small changes in one or all interacting parties. These small changes then begin to interact with other small internal changes to produce even greater personal change, which then interacts with more people and the changes they are experiencing to create even more change. Some of these small changes from the norm are reinforced by our environment and grow in magnitude, until the system reaches what is called a “Bifurcation Point” – the point of no return where the system can no longer bend with the winds of change, and is instead forced to transform its basic goals, structure, and ways of doing things. This bifurcation point is usually catalyzed by a precipitating event occurring in the environment. This is the point where complexity can turn into chaos.

I believe the world’s political, economic, social, and religious systems are either already at, or close to reaching, this point of bifurcation. For instance, in this and many other countries around the world we have seen an increasing dysfunctionality in these systems, as well as an increasing inter-connection between them. It is all now one big dysfunctional system. There are no independent pieces. We want to change these systems, but we don’t even understand how to first unravel them, much less transform them into something better.

Unrest is growing through the interactions of disgruntled people who feel there is no hope of positively changing these systems and, even if they could, what would they change the system to become? The world is evolving, so you can’t go back to a more perfect time (as if there ever was such a time), and no one I know has the ability to accurately see very far ahead into the future. Additionally, big systems have the ability to cancel out any change that is inconsistent with itself, through the law of “Compensating Feedback,” and sometimes, if we try to change things anyway to make them what we want them to be, we experience what is called the law of “Unintended Consequences.” Most of the time the best thing we can do is “do nothing,” but if we do nothing the system will change on its own – uncontrollably, unpredictably, and with accelerating frequency.

So, I believe we are headed very quickly towards a worldwide bifurcation point, and from the evidence I am seeing today it could be ugly. Complexity will rapidly change into chaos (probably when some idiot or group of idiots do something really stupid) and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am experiencing a growing realization that quite soon – in the next 5-10 years perhaps – all hell is going to break loose on this planet for a while, until the system re-adjusts its structure and goals to align with a new world order.

What we can do about this as individuals – and especially older adults – is try to influence what this new world order will become. We can work on our own development and growth – which is actually enhanced through complexity – so that when we find ourselves immersed in the chaos we can work with others to assure the new world order is based on good instead of evil, truth instead of delusion, and love instead of hate. I don’t think any of us will be able to escape the impending chaos, so we have to simply hold onto and use this time to make ourselves a more highly developed person, help others to the extent we can, and then…who knows?

A characteristic of bifurcation points is that when the system changes it changes suddenly, and its new direction of change is unpredictable. So, all I know is that you had better hold on, because we are about to experience the wildest ride of our life.

Love, Dudley