Thursday, October 30, 2003


I have been reading Homer-Dixon’s Ingenuity Gapagain. The author makes the point that we are surrounded by systems that no one understands in their entirety.

I am on the way to India tomorrow (and will not be posting on the blog for a week). Now no one fully understands a modern jet airliner. The guys who understand the engines, if anyone has a grasp on so complicated a piece of machinery, don’t understand the detailed working of the automatic pilot. The pilots don’t understand either the engines or the electronics very thoroughly, but I am glad that they are flying rather than the engineers who designed the plane.

I am going on business of the World Bank, and have been reminded again as I tried to navigate their travel procedures, that no one fully understands that bureaucracy (that serves thousands of employees and consultants to the Bank). If no one fully understands the bureaucratic systems, full understanding of the program of the Bank is even further off. There are experts in mining, and medicine, and farming who work with lawyers, and engineers, and economists.

The larger society is more complex still, and growing more and more so every day. Think about how many experts in how many fields are involved to assure that the food we eat gets to our table every day.

As the recent electrical network failures in the United States and Europe have demonstrated, complex systems sometimes fail.

Working in international development, one of the imponderables is the speed with which development takes place. Communism failed more than a decade ago, and the rebuilding of different societies in Central and Eastern Europe has taken longer than many expected, and has differed in speed from country to country. The rebuilding of political and economic systems in Europe and Japan after World War II proved to be much faster than the development of such systems in the former colonies after decolonization.

American political leaders have not learned in the aftermath of a century’s experience in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Central America, and many other regions that “nation building” is a long term affair. They seem to be surprised that it is going to take a long time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I think that complexity theory (see Mitch Waldrop’s book) holds some insights. Even while no one understands fully the workings of a modern society, communally the people of a society have huge amounts of knowledge and understanding. Millions of people working simultaneously, each on his or her local piece of the puzzle, can put together new institutions and rebuild a society.

The ants building large nests are perhaps the greatest example. Certainly no individual ant can be said to understand how to build a nest. So how do large numbers of insects, each perhaps 5 mm in length, build a nest that is a meter or more in diameter? The answer is that each does a piece of the work, using what it knows, and local information, and the complex structure develops without central planning.

So too, social institutions evolve out of the efforts of many more than they are planned. The work of evolutionary economists (cf. “Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change” by Nelson and Winters) suggests a way to understand such evolution. Of course we have to take into account both the macro-planning of leaders (and the knowledge and understanding that they apply to such planning), and the general factors that influence the institution building efforts of millions of people, each working with his or her own local problems and limited understanding of the whole.

A part of the explanation of the different rates of nation building in Europe after WWII and Africa after decolonization is cultural. The knowledge with which people attacked their local rebuilding in Europe was different than that with which people attacked the building of African nations. The cultural heritage of Europeans included a lot of understanding of “modern” institutions, while that of Africans included a lot of understanding of Africa’s traditional institutions, but less understanding of capitalism, national political institutions, rule of law, professionalism, etc.

Homer-Dixon also worries about the relatively few people who have broad understanding of society in general, and of specific institutions. He cites the case of the stock market and financial systems, in which young, computer-literate traders are more and more influential, while older, more experienced people who focused on large scale economic issues is decreasing. But he is concerned with the gap between the complexity of the social, economic, technological and environmental problems we face, and the ingenuity we can collectively bring to bear to solve them. His concern is importantly whether we have the social institutions to bring our best ingenuity to bear on the most critical problems.

This concern echoes that of Edward Said, whose book “Orientalism” also figured in a recent posting. Said is concerned (my words, not his) with the dominant position of people in American foreign policy with dangerously oversimplified and self-serving views of other societies, and the lack of influence of those with more scholarly, intimate, detailed and synoptic views of those societies.

Jeffrey Sachs on Sunday wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post, decrying the loss of expertise in USAID, and the loss of influence in U.S. international development policy of those with expertise in the complex societies of developing nations.

Right on, guys!

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