The big news item of the moment is the growing threat of a swine flu pandemic. The speed with which this disease has spread is yet another reflection of our interconnected world. In earlier times diseases tended to travel slowly from place to place, often with localized events; the Third Pandemic started in China in 1855 and slowly traveled around the world until the 1950s. With the availability of cheap air travel, things can happen much faster today.
The primary question is what do we do about this risk? The New York Times columnist David Brooks observes:
In these post-cold war days, we don’t face a single concentrated threat. We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and, as we’re reminded today, possible health pandemics like swine flu.
He goes on to present two possible approaches:
So how do we deal with these situations? Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?
After providing a brief discussion of both options, he comes down in favor of the decentralized, bottom-up approach:
A single global response would produce a uniform approach. A decentralized response fosters experimentation.
The bottom line is that the swine flu crisis is two emergent problems piled on top of one another. At bottom, there is the dynamic network of the outbreak. It is fueled by complex feedback loops consisting of the virus itself, human mobility to spread it and environmental factors to make it potent. On top, there is the psychology of fear caused by the disease. It emerges from rumors, news reports, Tweets and expert warnings.
The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.
I’ve written about emergent phenomena before, and I’m generally in favor of approaches that promote it. But it’s important to realize that the outcome of a bottom-up approach is tied to a larger context. Without proper guidance and values, free-wheeling emergence can lead to anarchy.
There’s an excellent article – Command and (Out of) Control: The Military Implications of Complexity Theory – that offers an interesting take on Brooks’ dichotomy. The author John Schmitt starts with a discussion of traditional command and control theory, which he says is based on a mechanical world view inherent in classic Newtonian physics. This approach relies heavily on a top-down approach, with those on top striving to control both their organization and whatever larger situation they’re confronting. The “centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats” that Brooks talks about reflect this traditional kind of command and control.
However, like Brooks, Schmitt has problems with this approach. He starts by describing traditional command and control:
The natural result is a highly proceduralized or methodical approach to the conduct of military operations—war as an assembly line. Newtonian command and control tends to be highly doctrinaire—heavy on mechanistic and elaborate procedures. The mechanistic view recognizes that war may appear disorderly and confusing but is convinced that with sufficient command and control we can impose order, precision, and certainty. We can eliminate unpleasant surprises and make war go “like clockwork.” Just as the Scientific Revolution sought to tame nature, the Newtonian approach to command and control—especially with the help of the information-technology revolution—seeks to tame the nature of war.
But there’s a problem, as Schmitt notes:
The Newtonian paradigm offers a neat, clean and intellectually satisfying description of the world—and of war. There is only one problem: it does not match most of reality.
Schmitt goes on to describe war – and the world – as an open, dynamic, complex system. As such, it is impossible to control in a traditional, top-down way:
One of the defining features of complex systems is a property known as emergence in which the global behavior of the system is qualitatively different from the behavior of the parts. No amount of knowledge of the behavior of the parts would allow one to predict the behavior of the whole. Emergence can be thought of as a form of control: it allows distributed agents to group together into a meaningful higher-order system. In complex systems, structure and control thus “grow” up from the bottom; they are not imposed from the top. Reductionism simply will not work with complex systems: the very act of decomposing the system—of isolating even one component—changes the dynamics of the system. It is no longer the same system.
All of this is pretty much in line with what Brooks said in his column. However, in viewing our options as either “centralized control” or “decentralized control,” Brooks misses another alternative. Schmitt presents an approach that encompasses input from those at the top and those at the bottom:
Rather than thinking of “command” and “control” both operating from the top of the organization toward the bottom, we should think of command and control as an adaptive process in which “command” is top-down guidance and “control” is bottom-up feedback…All parts of the organization contribute action and feedback—”command” and “control”—in overall cooperation. Command and control is thus fundamentally an activity of reciprocal influence involving give and take among all parts, from top to bottom and side to side.
From this perspective, we might agree with Brooks’ argument to “create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.” However, we should also have in place institutions – like perhaps the World Health Organization in the case of a pandemic – that can serve as resources for relevant information and avenues for collaboration among those decentralized authorities.
Such an arrangement assures that all involved are seeing the whole picture – both the forest and the trees.