Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Welcome to the Futur(ICT)

I am at a meeting in Italy that is thrashing out the proposal for the FuturICT project, a leading contender for the EU’s Flagship Initiatives scheme which seeks to provide huge funding over ten years for ‘transformative’ initiatives in information and communications technologies. FuturICT is to my mind the most potentially transformative of all the shortlisted candidates, but we’ll see what happens. In the meantime, it is very exciting to see what is being planned. It is in the light of this initiative, and after discussion with its leader Dirk Helbing, that I put down the thoughts below a week or two ago. It seems that events like this one are now almost daily adding to the arguments for why we need something like FuturICT. But Lord knows if we can wait ten years for it.


This must be said first: no one really understands what is going on. It’s generally acknowledged that Twitter didn’t cause the Arab Spring – but what did? Labour has been right to avoid pinning the riots on the government cuts – but then, what do we pin them on? Every economist has an explanation for the financial crisis, different to a greater or lesser degree than the others. But it happened somehow.

Can you imagine these things happening two decades ago? The riots in Croydon, Beckenham and Bromley, were not like those in Toxteth and Brixton in the 1980s, not least precisely because of their location, but also because there was no forewarning: the police were justified in saying that they’d had no precedent to prepare them. For all that it looks superficially like the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Arab Spring too was something new. And if the financial crisis was like the Great Depression, we’d know what to do. It was partly about risk hidden so deeply as to cause paralytic fear; it was also about instruments too complicated for users to understand, and about legal and financial systems labyrinthine enough to permit deception, stupidity and knavishness to thrive.

What is qualitatively new about these events is the crucial role of interdependence and interaction and the almost instantaneous transmission of information through social, economic and political networks. That novelty does not by itself explain why they happened, much less help us to identify solutions or ameliorate the unwelcome consequences. But it points to something perhaps even more important: the world has changed. And it is not going to change back. The poverty of the political response to the riots is understandable, because, although they do not like to admit it, politicians are faced with uncharted territory and they do not know how to navigate it. This is a dangerous situation, because it means that the pressure to be seen to be responding may force political leaders to improvise solutions that fail entirely to acknowledge the nature of the problem and therefore stand a good chance of making things worse. Harsh sentencing and housing evictions might conceivably reassure the public that there are strong hands at the helm, but there is no credible, objective evidence that they will prevent recurrences in the future. That we can one moment celebrate the power of social-network technologies to instil change and mobilize crowd movements, and the next demand that these technologies be shut down in times of civil unrest shows that we have no idea how to manage these things, or even what to think about them except that somehow they matter.

In retrospect, the significance of the terrorist attacks almost exactly ten years ago now looks to be that they marked the advent of this new world order – one of decentralization, of fears and dangers so diffuse and distributed as to be impossible to vanquish and perhaps even to define. And what was the response on that occasion? Old-fashioned declarations of war between nations, which are now revealed to be not just ineffective but disastrous. The assassination of Hitler would have probably halted a war; in assassinating Osama bin Laden, there was no war to stop.

This is why politicians and decision makers need to learn a new language, or they will simply lose the capacity to govern, to manage economies, to create stable societies, to keep the world worth living in. Here are some of the words they must come to terms with: complexity, network theory, phase transitions, critical points, emergence, agent-based modelling, social ecology. And they will need to learn the key lesson of the management of complex, interacting systems: solutions cannot be imposed, but must be coaxed out of the dynamic system itself. Earthquakes may never be exactly predictable, but it is possible that they can be managed by mapping out in great detail the accumulating strains that give rise to them, and applying local nudges and shocks to relieve the stressed and minimize the danger and costs of crises. There is no political discourse yet that permits analogous answers, not least because they require investment in such things as unglamorous data-gathering techniques and long-term research that carries no guarantee of quick fixes.

Aspirations towards a science of society date back to the Enlightenment. But not only have they never been fulfilled, they now need to recognize that they must describe a different society from the one in which Adam Smith or even John Maynard Keynes lived. There is some good news in all this: we now have the conceptual and computational tools to create a science that can model the state we’re in – not just politically and socially but environmentally, for no answer to the global crises of environment and ecosystems will work if it is not embedded in a credible socioeconomic context. We cannot, in all honesty, yet know how much any of this will help. Perhaps some ills of the world will always elude rational prediction or solution. But if we don’t even try, it is hard to avoid concluding that we’ll deserve all we get.

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