Our Time in the Desert

Spending “our time in the desert” carries a long-running history in Western religious and philosophical literature. The desert provides clarity of analysis to the Observer by escaping the subjectivity of densely-populated areas. Whether prophet or philologist, escaping the world of privileged life to find an alien world without our feelings, fears, and troubles; this has long been a clarifying moment. However, as we will find, even the “desert of the real” no longer holds the same significance. We have experienced to many living deserts, too many virtualizations of false lifelessness, smiling at us and walking around out of habit.

In Western philosophy, the desert represents a partial answer to what the world might be when it is absent of life. Many of the problems of philosophy emerge out of linguistic or stylistic flaws, existential particularized instances that thought transforms into generalization prematurely, or abstractions that take on a “life of their own” and run amok in the civilized mind. The spectacle of human society is too full of symbols and signs, leaving the philosopher in search of “bare life” in the wilderness, to at last secure a hold on the sublime. There is immediately a textual question, were one to note it: why the desert? Nietzsche, like his own retreat to Switzerland, has Zarathustra retire to the mountains. Henry David Thoreau escapes to Walden pond, painting a scene of a small cabin among American pines, praising self-sufficiency. In similar fashion, we may try our own hermitage to mountains or forests to escape the confused misrepresentations of society and fashion. The desert, in contrast, represents an alien reality, one that does not welcome us or praise us, a physicality that humbles the consciousness that believes reality manifests for life.

In the process of enduring the desert, we see an escape of the noise, light, and concerns of Others. Yet this escape requires there be something to escape into as well. The desert holds the appeal of an absence of signs, representation, and symbolic exchange. The comforts of the mountain or the forest still let us believe we can make a home, then construct a metaphysics that justifies our selfish human privilege. The alien forms of the desert, self-sufficient without the presence of human mechanization and machination, reveals the Observer’s alienation. The unintended consequences of society become clear in the desert of the real. The alien landscape of human lifelessness reveals the alienation of human society. Then we see that enclosure within the social machine encroaches upon individual moral systems of valuation and signification.

For this, we must strip representation down to bare life, then even forget life itself. At the extremes, the cosmos is a lush paradise, phenomenon created by the human mind and for the human mind; else it is an enormous desert, a system of objects that entraps us, an enormous machine in which matter is more real than our lives ever might be.

The inescapable social machine creates the need to distance thought from its comfortable privilege, opening the individual value system to the experiments of alien reality. The long-running contemplation of inhuman reality as a desert represents a stance on metaphysics. The weight of our decisions in the desert are the moral responsibility of bare life; every metaphysics carries extreme implications for moral systems.

Plato told us that there is a perfect and sublime realm of pure forms, triangles, circles, concepts, and virtues, all complete and wholesome in the full light of the sun. Meanwhile human existence is a sad misrepresentation of the true reality, like shadows cast on the wall of cave, create by puppets and trifles in a flickering fire. The allegory of the cave inspires a long lineage of mathematicians, astronomers, and rationalists, all trying to wake up from the dream of this world so that they may see the true world in all its sublime glory. This effort to deny the significance of bodily life makes its way to the Rationalists, like Descartes and Spinoza. The rationalists insisted that a perfect reality lay outside the material reach of humanity, except through total conceptualization and pure reason.

Aristotle takes a more encyclopedic approach (an apt description of the method by William James). Describing the attributes of human experience, cataloging the ideas found in agreement, and attempting to summarize the most probable and consistent explanation for the full sum of human belief, Aristotle established the framework for the division of our major sciences. The lineage of Aristotle, ending with the British Empiricists, insist that the material perception of humanity is the only reality upon which we can base our judgements. Anything abstract is either self-evident, as the result of a system of abstract machines like 1+1=2, or they are generalizations of experience, hypotheses that must undergo continuous experimentation for validity.

Insisting on exclusively a priori grounds, Descartes builds out a moral system based on the perfection of axiomatization, aspiring to find God-given precepts as pure as mathematics. Descartes wants an ontologically self-evident deity, with a moral code as self-contained – in the absence of any believer – as Euclidean geometry. Insisting on exclusively a posteriori grounds, Hume insists that human nature and justice must arise from probability, experiments, and patterns.

As good literary critics, we must look to the context of these arguments and read between the lines. The foundations of metaphysics and physics, its implications for ontology and epistemology, these were the formal concerns of their arguments. Between the lines, the first modern philosophers were finding that the “pagans” of Rome and Greece were not so different from Europeans and that the divine right of kings ought not trump the sovereignty of individuals. On the one side, the rationalist denial of the validity of human life and the Christian attitude toward worldly pain and desire, whatever the intended consequences, had resulted in abuses of despotism, outlandish inequality, disposability of slaves and peasants, as well as a long series of wars, killing and torturing lives in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Hume’s skepticism laid out a groundwork for methodical naturalism that had terrible implications for personal beliefs about the burden of moral responsibility humanity bears. By what means do we justify enslavement, castration, starvation, domestication, or carnism – there is no grounds for any of these injustices without a social machine producing it. Empirical logic dictated that the ontological argument for a deity only gave the cosmos itself the name of God. All the injustices of human life, and many abuses against nature, originate in human prejudices, perpetuated by justifications provided by organized religion.

Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumber” and likewise startled into action all Western philosophy that followed. Hume stated, “All knowledge degenerates into probability.” Indeed, centuries of improvement in stochastic econometrics proves above all that the average human keeps economics and statistics as far away from their domesticated habits as they can. Probability of two united representations of the senses provide us with increasing certainty, but generalization of correlation into causality can only be an optimism bias imposed by the mind itself. Necessity, power, force, causal agency are thus projections of the mind superimposed on the consistent union of representations in the constant conjunction. Like heat, color, weight, sound, taste, and smell gain signification relative to the context of the Observer, Hume closes the book on generalization from certainty of probability. There is no cause and effect, nor causality and causal agency at all, only a probability we forecast and trust based on consistency of experience; “Anything may produce anything,” and by implication, any king, master, government, or religion who tells your otherwise are deluding you for the purposes of undeserved access to resources, labor, and moral hypocrisy.

Kant takes the extremes of the two approaches and attempts a “Copernican Revolution” by embracing both sides wholesale. Kant argues that the mind produces causality, not as a forecasted probability, but as a category of the mind itself. The representations of the senses, cause and effect, are all produced by the mind, as are space and time, but the mechanical determinism we see outside the mind tells us nothing about the freedom of the will “inside” the mind. The machine may look predetermined and predictable from the outside, reactive within a chain of causes and effects, but the ghost within this shell is free and moral. While causality is consistent beyond a reasonable doubt, the feeling of freedom of the will and moral valuation is likewise consistent beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, he argues, it must be the mind itself that adds everything other than freedom of will and pure reason to our representations of space, time, appearance, and causality. This lensing applies to the perception of other rational agents, and any of our interactions among intelligent beings, so their determinism and our freedom cannot contradict one another.

Based on this approach to bridging the gap between free will and determinism, Kant builds causal agency upon the synthesis of internally true freedom and externally apparent determinism. Without insisting on the rationalist freedom necessary for moral choices or insisting on the naturalist determinism necessary for moral consequences, Kant breaks the world in two. On one side of life we find the phenomena that the mind generates, but on the other side the mind builds this upon the numen of metaphysics, the thing-in-itself about which we can reach no conclusions. This separation is essential to the moral agency we take for granted anyway, because in a purely deterministic world we would have no ability to make choices, and therefore bear no burden of responsibility; while in a purely free world we would have no control over the outcome of our choices, and therefore bear no burden of responsibility. When we begin with the axiomatics of Western philosophy, it is only if we are both free to make choices and the world contains enough determinism to link our choices to consequences that we bear any moral responsibility for actions.

Kant short-circuits the arguments for either extreme by separating human reality from actual reality. This allows for the belief that each choice is its own causa prima without undermining our responsibility for the consequences in deterministic perception. However, this separation, and the postulated numen as a thing-in-itself devoid of human perceptions, built a wall between humanity and the metaphysical realm. The intended consequences of this mechanization lay in finding a logically necessary system of morals. The unintended consequences of this machination are precisely where philosophy finds its desert: a world of numen in which mind refuses to live.

While Kant placed a wall in the individual mind, separating the senses and intellect from the metaphysical reality of the thing-in-itself, Hegel takes this license into senseless material abstraction, under the premise that any narrow view of the material whole may find through its self-reflection the complete understanding of the whole.

Schopenhauer criticizes the entirety of Kant’s approach, saying that it is recycled Platonism. Ironically, it was only Kant’s popularity that drew so much attention to Hume’s methodological naturalist skepticism. Schopenhauer surveyed the full history available from multiple cultures for the first time since the fall of Rome, finding new insights in Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucius, and Taoism. In practice, Kant’s method was too convenient for the morality that submits to the prevailing ideology. If the creation of phenomena occurs in the mind of every self-conscious rational observer, and moral imperatives only apply to self-conscious intelligence, Kant’s prioritization of human valuation over the will expressed in all forms-of-life violated the principle of sufficient reason; instead, Schopenhauer argued our physical experience itself alienates us, the world of representation separates itself from the metaphysical will as a lonely expression of selfish altruism among the collective desire for consciousness.

The will was Schopenhauer’s thing-in-itself, and the will-to-live was far more coextensive than humans or civilization. In the world of will and representation, we experience thorough determinism of signs and even the choices we believe we make are representative interpretations of the movement of the one will; as generator of the forces driving all representational things. Finally, we arrive at the desert of Western philosophy. Stripping away the layers of representation, removing the system of values, both in concept and precept, and anything specific to the strategic goals of the human species, he lands upon the will by wandering into the desert, realizing the will cannot stop willing. Simply, being cannot stop becoming even throughout infinite revolutions and recurrence:

But let us suppose such a scene, stripped also of vegetation, and showing only naked rocks; then from the entire absence of that organic life which is necessary for existence, the will at once becomes uneasy, the desert assumes a terrible aspect, our mood becomes more tragic; the elevation to the sphere of pure knowing takes place with a more decided tearing of ourselves away from the interests of the will; and because we persist in continuing in the state of pure knowing, the sense of the sublime distinctly appears.

Schopenhauer, World as Will and Idea Vol. 1

The inescapable desert of pure knowing led him to immense pessimism, and he believed even the honesty of systems like Stoicism and Buddhism were insufficient for this desert. At one point he articulates this as a conversation among two friends, one wishing to be certain of the eternity of the soul, the other explaining the foolishness of wanting such assurance. In the end, the two call each other childish and part ways with no resolution; this may have been the underlying insight of all his philosophy, that all representation is childish non-sense. The will-to-live expressed in any one life was helplessly biased, and only self-conscious intelligent humanity was fully aware of the terrible burden of moral responsibility implicit in the recurrence.

Supposing anyone agrees to the groundwork of the pessimistic view reacts in the negative, treating its conclusions with any level of anger, indignation, and indolence, where might such a warrior take his passion? For this we find Friedrich Nietzsche, ready to reject the asceticism of any collective religion. He paves the way for a new method of nihilist existentialism that requires individualist positivism. While religious systems had long founded their origins on the ideas of prophets spending their time in the desert, seeking the truth-in-itself, Nietzsche rejected the notion that anyone may meaningfully appropriate these insights from another.

Going even further than Feuerbach or Schopenhauer, Nietzsche deploys his powers of literary criticism to show how the organization of religions around the insights of prophets provides us with the opposite guidance exemplified by their embrace of the desert. We ought to echo these as free spirits, creating our own system of values, not follow blindly the dogma institutionalized complacency. Within the mechanization of an ideological, dogmatic, axiomatized belief system, built in the shadow of these warrior-philosophers, we find the machination of the priests and clerics who, too weak to spend their own time in the desert, prevent all others as well.

The only answer for Nietzsche is to run into the desert, like a camel that has escaped with its burden, shrug it off, become a lion, and battle the enormous dragon “Thou Shalt” so that one may become a child, making new games and values:

“In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust […] he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.”

– Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil

Nietzsche sets the tone for the personal responsibility to become our own prophet in the desert, a warrior-philosopher far removed from the falsehoods of entrapment in the social machine. Albert Camus, who fought as a rebel during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII, took this moral responsibility as the essential meaning of human existence.

In the face of immense human suffering and depravity, surrounded by casualties of war and hopelessness actualized through countless suicides, Camus likewise found a desert in which we must fight for meaning and purpose. He called this desert the “absurd” – the self-consciousness speculative reality we experience, that is neither the material objects nor pure representation of mind. Representation distances us from the simple possibility that consciousness can distrust itself for some strategic reason; or that humanity repeatedly utilizes abstractions to justify murder. Therefore, we must revolt against the absurd and continuously fight for meaning.

It is here that the full history of philosophers rejecting naïve realism, with comprehensive skepticism that we may ever attain objectivity, finally reaches its absurd conclusion from the phenomenologists, that nothing is certain, “evoking after many others those waterless deserts where thought reaches its confines. After many others, yes indeed, but how eager they were to get out of them!” The desert of the real is the end of the power of thought, a limitation few philosophers were willing to accept.

This inability to find justification in knowledge of reality forces the burden of responsibility for our actions on our own shoulders. Thought will not attain certainty of material determinism or spiritual unity. We can only look to other humans for the depravity of the absurd. The mechanization of institutionalized values, which machinate unintended consequences, should not become our complacent acceptance.

“At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there […] to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.”

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

When we reach this realization, that nothing human can be certain, that nothing behind or under perception justifies our life, pleasure, suffering, or death; this is where all the interesting and dramatic intricacies of systems of living representations occur.

The absurd is a desert of the mind, the distance or distortion that lies between what the material of the cosmos might be without representation in consciousness and signification by intelligence. The absurd is everything that painfully fails to make sense, such that we reject the validity of our senses, or even put an end to sensory experience. The revolt against this denial and delusion described by Camus, as well as the reality of our moral systems within the social machine, reflects the prophetic independence of Nietzsche’s warrior-philosopher.

Camus concludes that if the absurd is the quintessential defining attribute of human life, he must maintain the discipline of methodological naturalism in his authentic appraisal of the system: “I must sacrifice everything to these certainties and I must see them squarely to be able to maintain them. Above all, I must adapt my behavior to them and pursue them in all their consequences” (Ibid).

He likewise takes stock of the problem of re-valuation of all values and the cowardice to do so. While Nietzsche treats this fear with disgust, Camus treats it with empathy. The desert of the real, the fact that we and all those we love will die, that the world will forget us and everything we ever hoped or desired; to fear the reality of this supposition is only natural:

“But I want to know beforehand if thought can live in those deserts. I already know that thought has at least entered those deserts. There it found its bread. There it realized that it had previously been feeding on phantoms. It justified some of the most urgent themes of human reflection.” Ibid.

For Camus, there is no doubt of how difficult and terrifying it may be to reconsider everything once held valuable, meaningful, and true. An individual re-valuation of all values must proceed when we finally strip away the mechanization and machination that filter our reality. Our time in the desert reveals the alienation and denial that it has brought us, that we are party to the machine, and it prevents us from prioritizing with any lucidity or acumen.

Bertrand Russell summarizes the long-running battle for objectivity similarly in Some Problems of Philosophy, and the alienation it represents, saying, “If we cannot be sure of the independent existence of objects, we shall be left alone in a desert — it may be that the whole outer world is nothing but a dream, and that we alone exist.”

Unfortunately, we have a new problem today. The same mechanization of general intellect implicit in capitalism is a machination that undermines virtuosity and moral responsibility. The interlinked supercomputers in our pockets free us to access more information than ever, but too much information too fast leaves us unable to find any significance in it. This is the decisive step in the process of alienation humanity pursued with the successive objects placed between us: tools, weapons, religion, governments, enclosure, property, currency, contracts, machinery, corporations, computers, the spectacle. The “war of all against all” described by Hobbes, the social machine can finally reduce our natural state of civil war to isolated individuals, so long as they carry their own chains of self-enslavement in their pocket.

We no longer find enclosure in the social machine mechanization of labor, we enclose the machination alienation within our personal machine. The spectacle and virtualization prevent us from reaching any desert of thought and any authentic life. In Simulacra & Simulation, Jean Baudrillard calls this problem hyperreality: “Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” When social engineering precedes our understanding of rational normative valuation, when the full globalization of economic Oedipalization leaves us with no unaltered experience, we are only able to recognize patterns that Others created ahead of time for us to recognize.

Hyperreality is the universally unauthenticated life. It represents a loss of significance by managing all mystery ahead of time. We do not experience any event authentically because the genuine physicality experience is not the anchor, a virtual experience anchors us ahead of time. If we go camping, virtualization anchors us to what camping is and who campers are through movies, commercials, and social media. To be certain, this is not a new and unexpected result of technology, it is the very essence of technology. Where we once spent time in the desert to escape the representations of the social machine, now we recognize its total inescapability.

Philosophers once inspected the distinction between the world of the mind and the world the mind perceives, some claiming everything was virtual, others claiming everything was machines. Repeatedly, some dualism became established, such that our virtualization, though developed and enclosed by machines, we could feel confident we could escape them. Today our understanding of either loses its innocence, precisely because we finally know how to engineer the patterns. It is no longer a few power-hungry men and the herd instinct of the masses that develops the unintended consequences of our morality, we can no longer claim ignorance or escape. Today we are all party to the data, the algorithms are intentional, and intelligent people fight to manage or mismanage the collateral damage.

“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory […] It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself. – Baudrillard

Just as the chains of hyperreality prevent us from knowing the distinction between the real and the virtual, between our mechanization and our machination, the desert of the real is no longer a problem between us and material physicality, nor between us and the social machine. Now the absurd reality is within us. As we trace this lineage of the desert, we come full circle to the machines and automata from which self-consciousness attempted to distance us. The remainder of our philosophy will face the ethical and political dilemma in which we awake, to understand the moral weight of decisions, even if these we pursue in a dream within a dream, even if our awakening is only to another dream. We must establish what moral values ought to carry significance regardless of how deep in Plato’s cave we might be. Any mechanization that prevents this personal responsibility to life and existence is a machination.

Regardless of its original evolution, the intended consequence of formalization in written language was to bring humanity together. Abstraction became a powerful tool, trading on the currency of truth-values. Generalization allowed anchored, consistent existential instances to become probable patterns that we could exchange and test against reality. Once language became typography, the rules of grammar formalized and analyzed, and the lexicon of significations network into a matrix of signs, we realized the tool meant to bring us together resulted in our separation. The signs of language are simulacra, words that have definitions prior to our experience of an object. Together, full literacy creates a simulation of the world that we project upon it, distorting its significance. The signs of images in media do the same, so that instead of recognizing an object as a particularized word, we have experiences the name, the image, and the normative reactions of others in advance. Finally, we take all these simulations and place them on our own body, first in the pocket, then as wearable, with a goal to achieve further integration. Virtualization consumes us prior to any experience of reality.

Our time in the desert of the real means that we cannot look to a higher or lower plane of existence, or base our morality on the significance of rules outside ourselves. Now there are no rules outside us, only the axiomatization of our simulations, rules which we either manage or mismanage. For Schopenhauer, the desert was our capacity to resist the will and engage in pure simulation. For Nietzsche, the desert was the struggle to create new systems of significance and new patterns of understanding. For Camus, the desert was the absurd distance that alienates us from objectivity. In Baudrillard, we finally face our desert of the real, that the loss of any objectivity leaves everyone equally speculative, in a simulation we create and cannot escape. We are party to all the unintended consequences of the system and must build a better machine.

Sublime Simplicity

O sancta simplicitiatas! In what strange simplification and falsification man lives! One can never cease wondering when once one has got eyes for beholding this marvel! How we have made everything around us clear and free and easy and simple! how we have been able to give our senses a passport to everything superficial, our thoughts a godlike desire for wanton pranks and wrong inferences!–how from the beginning, we have contrived to retain our ignorance in order to enjoy an almost inconceivable freedom, thoughtlessness, imprudence, heartiness, and gaiety–in order to enjoy life! And only on this solidified, granitelike foundation of ignorance could knowledge rear itself hitherto, the will to knowledge on the foundation of a far more powerful will, the will to ignorance, to the uncertain, to the untrue! Not as its opposite, but–as its refinement! – Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Rebellion, Bigotry, and Due Process

To build a legacy that will truly last, we need consistency of self-identification in addition to experimentation. This takes balance. An over-reactive system may adapt quickly, but it will fail to scale in complexity.

A complex system too rigorous in its resistance to change, cutting down strange attractors and emergent organic leadership that opposes its orthodoxy, will find itself maladaptive. Such a system, if made of relatively independent actors, will produce schisms, splits, and offshoots due to the excessive fundamentalism of its self-identification process. Instead, we systems builders want the robustness, strength, and adaptiveness that results from the tension between tradition-rooted cultivated practices versus the spontaneous pursuit of fashion and buzz. This tension is healthy so long as it drives the continuous experimentation engine of the organization, allowing signals to emerge and backpropogating message errors. In other words, we should expect “just enough” sibling rivalry at any level of the organization. We should expect triangulation and escalation of signaling.

Experimentation requires tension, but discovery requires due process – the fair treatment of both sides in a conflict resolution.  The essential role of the systems builder is the promotion of self-awareness. A system unable to recognize its own constructs and correct them is unable to change. We see all too often that power need not be taken from someone so long as they believe they are powerless. Similarly, an executive order is rarely an effective mechanism for introducing lasting adaptation, but it can be quite effective as a signal for the system self-organize against.

A cultivator of adaptive systems does not generate unrealistic and unreasonable new rules in an effort to artificially push the system in a new direction; rather, we make the existing rules of interaction and exchange visible and known equally. Where the rules allow differentiation, we make the logic behind such distinctions known, trusting that an adaptive system will correct itself. We do not employ attrition warfare – one ideological information system against another – instead we maneuver against the broken logic of the enemy system. In this way, organic leadership does not pursue the wholesale destruction of an opposing nation, religion, economic institution, or political party. This is folly, as the diminishing returns of attrition warfare depletes energy, resources, and public support. Those are people on the other side of our wars, after all, and our monstrosities in the pursuit of victory easily turn public support against us.

Instead, wherever there is differentiation the systems builder ensures there is equal access to knowledge of the logic behind apparent unfairness. We encourage open rebellion and take even the least realistic signal seriously, as this is preferable to letting the system stagnate while an insurgency is festering behind closed doors.

To maintain our persistence, to balance tradition and stability with experimentation and responsiveness, we must above all ensure due process and the faith of the public that due process provides fair treatment in any conflict at each level of the system. It is decentralization of local process enforcement that allows systems to experiment. Equal access to escalation of justice will resolve critical reinterpretations. We do not need, as a systems-builder within an overarching complex adaptive system, to control the rebellion of progressives and early adopters nor the backward quasi-bigotry of instinctually late adopters. We must only ensure the system is healthy enough to re-inform itself based on the outliers, trends, and signals.

Scaling Like Organic Systems

A System

A system – as we will define it – consumes resources and energy to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. Not only does is produce value it does so in a way that sustains its own existence. If we consider Henry Ford’s early Model-T production system that assembled automobiles, the raw materials – rubber, coal, plastic, steel – were meaningless as an unformed heap. Along the way, the “intrinsic” economic value of the raw materials were destroyed and could no longer be sold for their original price as raw materials. At the time, there would have been no resale value for many of the assembly pieces, because Ford created an entirely new value network and disruptive business model to create a market that could properly assess the value of the non-luxury automobile. Yet, once assembled, the assembly line put these pieces together to create value greater than the sum of its parts.

An example of a relatively simple organic system is a single-celled organism like some species of Plankton our oceans. A plankton lacks sophisticated embryogenesis, there is no differentiation of multiple tissue types, no embedded systems, and no coordination mechanism across cells. Nevertheless, the simple biochemical processes and the internal workings that complete these processes have continued for billions of years by not only producing its own self-maintenance, but also by managing to reproduce. There is a surprising large amount of DNA for such a simple, small, organism – but why did this legacy of code begin amassing in the first place? Whether we venture to call it “divine” or not, there was certainly a spark of some kind that began an explosion that has yet to collapse back into chaos and the dark.

Even with these simple systems, where we can trace each exchange in the value-transformation process, including materials, structures, energy, and ecological context, the sum total of the Model T and the factory that produced it is more than its parts heaped separately in a pile. Our difficulty in understanding such systems is a problem of multi-fractal scaling. For now, let it suffice to say that making a variable in a system better may not result in a linear change in outcome.

 

A Complex System

We have major issues understanding how (or worse yet, why) a system consumes resources and energy to produce value in excess to the sum total of the elements and energy amassed in the absence of the system that produced it. This problem is only compounded when we begin embedding specialized sub-systems within an organism. In the example of an automobile factory, we could say that every cell of every person is a system, that each person is a system, and that each distinct functional area, separated by distance, is a system. The accounting and finance “system” and the inventory and assembly “system” must interplay as part of Ford Motors, a system in its own right.

So we can define a complex system as having embedded sub-systems, causing the observer to not only see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but the observer may also slip into a “confusion of levels” if they attempt to manipulate a part of a system to shift the outcome of the whole. Worse yet, confusion of levels can have disastrous, non-linear results that are the opposite of the intended change due to confusion of cause and effect. When sub-systems are embedded within each other, their interrelationships may act on differing scales, either in time or place. So we must careful when attempting to improve a complex system. We must use empirical process control to chart the change in systems outcomes rather than simply optimizing subsystems in isolation.

 

Multi-Fractal Scaling

A fractal is a pattern that repeats self-similarly as it scales. One of the most common fractal scaling patterns in nature is branching. From the trunk of a tree, to major its major limbs, to twigs, and finally leaf structures, this fractal scaling pattern enables a lifetime of growth cycles. Leaves can bud purely based on opportunism, in a relatively disposable manner. This is because the tree, as a seed, has all the legacy of generations of trees locked inside it. The tree does not aspire to be “the perfect tree” or assume that it will grow in perfect sunlight, humidity, soil pH, and water availability. The tree does not get angry when a major branch is broken off in a storm or struck by lightning. Instead, its fractal scaling pattern is prepared for intense competition for sunlight in the sky and resources from the ground. The tree’s scaling pattern has risk mitigation “built in” because it grows the same in the middle of a field with frequent rain as it does in a dense forest.

We see this branching strategy throughout nature, from ferns to human blood vessels. However, an even more effective approach to self-similarity comes from multi-fractal scaling. The ability to adaptively select between more than one repeating pattern or differentiated patterns based on scale requires a different kind of fractal: time-cycle. It is not just the branches of a tree that result in an environment-agnostic strategy for growth, it is the adaptation to cyclical daily growth, scaled to cyclical annual growth, than scaled to multiple generations of trees that grow. This final step is an important one. Multi-fractal scaling is not only the source of novelty and adaptiveness “built in” for a single tree, it repeats at an even larger scale as a species competes for dominance of a forest. Multi-fractal scaling encourages “just enough” opportunism to enable small-scale experiments that can be forgotten without loss at a greater scale, or thrive when conditions change.

 

Adaptive Multi-Fractal Scaling

The strength of multi-fractal scaling, from branch to tree to forest, is its total reliance on empirical process control.  The legacy code is a confusing jumble of competing messages that a human mind, attempt to “engineer a perfect tree” would attempt to simplify and beautify. That legacy code, however, wasn’t written with any intention of crafting a perfect tree. That code was written to create a minimally viable reproductive system. It is built for one thing: continuous experimentation.

Continuous experimentation happens at each level of multi-fractal scaling, risking economics appropriate to its scale to find asymmetric payoffs. An Oak tree risks very little per leaf that grows over the entire course of its life. In a dense forest, however, that continuous experimentation of growing leaves higher and more broadly opportunistically based on local returns on investment can suddenly break through the forest canopy or unexpected fill the hole left by another tree’s broken limb. An Oak tree does not require centralized control of where leaves will grow or which limbs to invest in. Instead, the legacy of continuous experimentation enables multi-fractal scaling that competes locally and opportunistically.

Again, we do not need to understand what spark set this fire ablaze, we only need to see that it is still spreading and we are a part of it. Over-simplification of superficial outcomes will lead to poor decisions about inputs. Organic leadership relies on context, structure, and enablement of continuous experimentation. Organic leadership is a “pull” system that relies on scaling patterns for decentralized empirical process control. Artificial “push” systems force requirements and attempt to bandage the inevitable inefficiencies of a non-adaptive system.

 

A Complex Adaptive System

A complex adaptive system does not merely take in resources and energy to produce itself and reproduce itself as a unified “whole” that is greater than the sum of its parts. It does not merely embed subsystems with multi-fractal scaling and decentralized control. A complex adaptive system also operates with a continuous experimentation system built in to its normal framework of activities. When we make the leap from an Oak tree to the human body (or any other mammal on Earth), we can truly appreciate just how complicated it is to improve the health of an individual, or an entire population, when we observe the interrelationships of various physiological and socioeconomic systems and sub-systems. Creating lasting change is not only complicated in terms of finding the correct level and understanding the full ramifications across the entire system, each complex adaptive system is also continuously experimenting and will adjust against such changes based on short-run, local, decentralized opportunism.

To care for a complex adaptive system requires not only an understanding of inputs, processes, and outputs, but also the multi-fractal scaling of continuous experimentation that maintains long-run viability. When short-run economics are working against long-run viability, it is not sufficient to reward “correct” behavior to counteract short-run opportunism.  Instead, we must shift the context of local decisions so that short-run opportunism serves long-run viability.

Accidents Will Happen

Accidents may seem to the observer to be unintentional, but continuous experimentation is built to test the boundaries of success, to ensure that precise empirical process data is also accurate for the needs of viability. In other words, if you’ve ever accidentally tripped and fallen, or accidentally loosened your grip on an egg and dropped it on the kitchen floor, this was a natural element of complex adaptive systems quietly running experiments.

Embedded in our own human code, our sub-systems are all built for continuous experimentation as a method of calibrating precision to accuracy, using multi-fractal scaling on short, long-short, long, and distributed cycles. A short cycle is an immediate reference point for an event, using data held in working memory, and is reactive to immediate changes. A long-short cycle compares current data to immediately recognizable patterns of events, more embedded memory or conditioned responses that have proven useful over time even if we assume the event is an occasional outlier. More significant, painful events can skew our “normal” for decades and even become passed to the next generation as part of our genetic code. A long cycle has been stored to our genetic hard drive for future generations. A distributed cycle is a socioeconomic artifact that requires a medium of exchange and may last for centuries.

As humans, our multi-fractal scaling of continuous experimentation results in the creation of complex adaptive socioeconomic systems. Our legacy code drives us toward exchange, tooling, building, and reproduction because the experiments that are in motion are far from complete.

Like our occasional fumbles and falls, our social systems produce results that appear to be accidents with no guilty party, pure coincidences of circumstance, which occur due to failed experiments. Organic leadership harnesses this natural propensity for decentralized opportunistic experimentation by encouraging it but setting boundaries for it, feeding it but ensuring checks-and-balances from opposing interpretations, and guiding it by changing context and opportunity rather than directly managing outcomes.