Tuesday 19 July 2016

Making sense of senseless

If there is one word that should be removed from the dictionary, especially the dictionary used by news organisation headline writers, it is "senseless". I seem to have heard this word constantly throughout this summer, often prefixing "violence", but also attached to decisions made by referendum voters in the United Kingdom: the "senseless violence" of terrorist attacks in France, of the murder of white police officers in the United States, the "senseless decision" to leave the European Union.

My problem with the word is that there is a sense to everything. Nothing in a system involving the behaviour of human beings happens spontaneously; all you have to do is to look for the reason. Now that is, of course, something which certain sectors of the media do not want to do. It may be that the reasons are too opaque or complex for their readership or viewers, or may be these reasons do not suit the political perspective that the particular news organ is trying to push.

Stafford Beer once wrote that the purpose of a system is what it does. We all operate in systems, so one way to make sense of behaviour is to think about the system within which people operate. Now, there are many different systems that we could discuss, but one that concerns me is the global economic system which has prevailed for the last 30 years: neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism has been sold by its supporters as the most effective way to generate economic growth and wealth. And arguably it has succeeded in some respects, but there is also the argument that it has contributed to rising levels of inequality within countries around the world and between countries.  In addition, technologies which make other people's lifestyles more visible may be helping to create a perfect storm where people are increasingly becoming less well off than others and being much more aware of this. A situation which has the potential to explode.

And maybe this summer we are starting to see this explosion. For several years the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has spawned terrorist attacks around the world. While western headline writers like to describe these as "senseless", within the mind of the Salafist-Jihadi there is an innate logic and purpose to it: neoliberalism has contributed to the oppression of the Islamic world. The Black Lives Matter campaign has drawn attention to racial tensions in the United States, and individuals taking the law into their own hands by shooting white police officers see an intrinsic logic in this: neoliberalism has seen my people increasingly pushed to the bottom of the pile and excluded from the freedom and liberties which my country tells me I should have. Demographic analyses of the United Kingdom's electorate's decision to leave the European Union show that those areas of the country which have suffered the most economically in the last 30 years were the most likely to vote "Leave": neoliberalism has benefited a small sector of the British population, particularly those in the affluent south while the post-industrial north has been left to stagnate.

Perhaps the dynamics of the neoliberal system are now starting to generate the backlash, and people who have not benefited from the system are rising up to show that they are not prepared to take any more. So, going back to Stafford Beer's observation, what is the purpose of the neoliberal system? If it is to extract wealth from the majority for the benefit of a small minority it has succeeded extremely well. But maybe its time is up.

Let us put the word "senseless" in the bin, and start to take a more systemic look at what is going on around us in the world.

Friday 22 January 2016

Blogging moving elsewhere

I've started a new blog, attached to my professional website.

That one focuses more on the use of systems thinking in training practice.

You can find it at http://www.bryanhopkins.co.uk/blog/index.php.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

When is a root cause not a root cause?

For me one of the most fascinating aspects of systemic thinking is how it helps me to reflect on different issues that the media presents, and to reflect on how interconnected much of it is.

For example, I have just finished reading Robert and Edward Skidelsky's "How much is enough?", a thought-provoking read about how modern societies have moved away from people wanting just enough to give them 'a good life' to ones where people have an insatiable desire to acquire more and more, in the media- and advertising industry-given belief that this will make them happy. The Skidelsky's argue that this development has come as a result of the industrial revolution: mechanisation makes it possible to produce more and more, and in order to justify this production and ensure profit people need to have to consume more and more. Hence, in modern society we have completely lost the idea of being happy with 'just enough' and cannot see any alternatives to growth economies.

I then came across an article on the Guardian Online about child poverty. The article quoted the Conservative Party election manifesto as listing "… the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency". It was the phrase 'root causes' which caught my eye: root causes being fundamental issues over which we have control but below which we cannot easily analyse any further. As a systemicist I could see a questionable boundary decision.

For example, to consider 'entrenched worklessness', the Skidelsky argument is that automation is leading to the mechanisation of more and more jobs in the middle of the employment market (for example as reported from Australia). People in the low-paid service sectors and higher paid senior management and executives are less affected at the moment, so those people who are being squeezed out of the middle are chasing the limited number of low paid, less skilled jobs. So maybe we should unpack the idea of 'entrenched worklessness' a little more and question the basis on which we are relentlessly automating the workplace.

Then the issue of 'problem debt'. Our society relies on people spending more and more in order to generate growth, and the only way in which this can be delivered is by encouraging household debt, so it is hardly any surprise that some of this debt becomes a problem. Again, is 'problem debt' a real root cause or should we probe further and question the morality of an economy which relies on credit?

As a systems thinker I would hope that our politicians reflect on the systemic nature of the problems that face modern society, and try to think of ways of dealing with real root causes. However, there are always elections coming and getting to grips with real problems and long-term solutions is just not a political priority.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

A systemic view on radicalisation

Last night I went to bed after watching the news, which covered the story of a 17-year-old boy from West Yorkshire who had become an Islamic State suicide bomber. When I woke up, the radio news was talking about how to stop young people becoming 'radicalised'.

Tragic personal stories and a worrying topic of our time. But what seems to not be discussed is why young people can become radicalised this way. The standard government message is that there are 'bad people' who are indoctrinating others, and by focusing the message on this the solution becomes how to stop these bad people.

But surely there is more to it than that? To help clear my thinking I quickly drew a rich picture. A few things start to appear. The conflict in Syria must appear quite exciting and attracting to people whose immediate future does not seem very enticing. This is one thing that the media sometimes discusses, but I also wondered about how shoot 'em up computer games may also contribute to this, by creating a blurred connection between the gameplay and reality. The sophistication of modern games really do create an almost real experience, and could well make people think that real conflict is similar.

Then we have the questioning of belonging to the United Kingdom, which must be experienced by some people within the ethnic minorities. The anti-Muslim rhetoric which has been going on since September 11, 2001 means that a whole generation is growing up conscious of this negative message. What allegiance might they feel to the United Kingdom? Britain's colonial activities in the Middle East, and our post-colonial involvement in both Iraq wars are also highly relevant.

And another strand relates to a story which appeared a few days ago. Apparently, now that university education is widespread, quality employers are resorting to the 'posh test' to distinguish between people: if you have the right accent and class background you have a much better chance of getting a good job. How alienating would that be, cutting across all ethnic distinctions and affecting everyone from the working classes. Perhaps this is why radicalisation is not confined to people from ethnic minorities.

I am sure that this quickly drawn rich picture could be elaborated. However, my quick analysis illustrates how the current debate about 'radicalisation' really needs to move on from convenient, simplistic analyses to something more sophisticated if politically difficult.

Friday 30 January 2015

"Bitter Lake" - a plea for more sophisticated television

A few nights ago I logged into BBC iPlayer order to watch the latest Adam Curtis documentary "Bitter Lake".

At about 2 hours 20 minutes it is a substantial piece of work, and Curtis decided that it should be only available on iPlayer because he did not want to have to fit it into a standard television-sized slot. The reason is that the documentary, while focusing on the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the recent western involvement in Afghanistan, is more broadly a criticism about how politicians and the media simplify messages.

They do this for various reasons: because the world around us is complex and issues such as Islamic fundamentalism are happening because of many different issues, to obscure actions taken which have contributed to a current crisis, to make it possible to explain what is happening in a few minutes on a news broadcast, for example.

By taking such a long time to present the story Curtis is able to weave together a story which includes an ill-planned irrigation scheme in Helmand province which massively increased the local capacity for producing opium, American complicity with Saudi Arabia in guaranteeing oil supplies in exchange for ignoring what that country did with fundamentalist beliefs, the 2008 financial crisis, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the rise of Islamic State in Iraq and many others.

Giving such time makes it possible to explore the complexity which has led to the current crisis in the Middle East, and is quite different to the typical media narrative which is that Islamic fundamentalists are basically evil and that it is the duty of Westerners, as representatives of good, to ride in and destroy them.

Of course, that is the narrative structure of the typical western film, and Curtis makes the point that one of the key moments in the development of the simplification of history was the election of Ronald Reagan, a former actor in western action movies, as US president.

Sadly until we can as a world learn to get to grips with complexity and stop seeing the world as an action film we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past, over and over and over.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

The financial crash: rotten apples or rotten barrels?

I have just been reading Ha-Joon Chang's very interesting "Economics: The User's Guide". It was written for people just like me, who are conscious of the role economics plays in our lives but don' t really understand what it is. So it provides an explanation of key concepts and issues, relating them to the current economic difficulties in the world.

One chapter which particularly resonated with me as a systems person was Chapter 8, where he looks at the changing world of banking. What happened in 2008 was something of a mystery to me, as a crisis in the US housing market led to the collapse of the western economic system. Chang explains the phenomenon of 'asset-backed securities', and traces this back to the deregulation of the financial sector in the United Kingdom and United States back in the 1980s. Freed from the traditional role of taking savers' money and investing it, banks were increasingly able to create financial products that did not really exist and sell them on, over and over again.

What Chang describes is a classic feedback loop: deregulation made it possible for banks to create highly profitable financial products, the profit stimulated the creation of ever-more complex products which generated more profit and the merry-go-round just kept on turning. The risk protection that people thought was built into these products made it seem invincible, until, of course, the people at the bottom of the financial heap ran out of money. At which point it all came tumbling down.

At that time the British and American financial regulators said that this could not happen again, as the 'rotten apples in the barrel' lost their jobs (e.g. Sir Brian Pittman in 2009, or http://web.mit.edu/fnl/volume/215/silbey.html). Of course, no systems thinker would have believed that.

Apart from the dubious nature of this business, what also interested me were the emergent properties that Chang sees as coming out of this change.

Firstly, the magic of asset-backed securities encouraged even non-financial organisations to start playing in this new casino. In the short-term things were very profitable, much more so than tedious activities such as making things or research and development, and this made the shareholders very happy. Who cares what the future of the company is in the long-term if you can make big money in just a couple of years? So another feedback loop starts up.

Secondly, the banking industry suddenly became very attractive to young, clever people; people who in previous generations might have gone into manufacturing industry now became attracted to the big rewards and glamour of the banking world. So industry is deprived of talented people while the banking industry continues to grow. We can see here the start of another feedback loop where manufacturing in the UK and the United States becomes increasingly unfashionable and  irrelevant.

If these feedback loops continue, the outlook, in my mind, is not very bright. The Chinese manufacturing economy will continue to grow and Britain and America will just become places to recycle money. That may be good for the tiny minority working in the financial industry, but it does not bode well for the great majority in the rest of these countries.

As Peter Senge pointed out, the system always wins. This is not a system that looks very healthy for most people in the world.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Music festivals, toilets and complexity

I spent three days last weekend at the magnificent WOMAD festival in Wiltshire, England, sitting in the sunshine listening to some of the world's best musicians doing their thing. It was a wonderfully therapeutic thing to do, leaving everyday worries and responsibilities behind.

But one thing none of us can leave behind is access to a toilet, and over the course of the weekend I started to become an observer of (largely) British toilet behaviour. If you have never been to a music festival I should explain that toilets are provided in specific areas, in a three-sided rectangular area. An occupied toilet is shown by a red indicator on the door and an empty toilet by a green indicator.

I started to watch how people behaved when approaching the toilets. At quiet times people could see a door with a green indicator and would go straight to one: at such times the toilet area would seem to be full of people moving in random straight lines. But when things got busier queues would form: in moderately busy times there would be a single queue and the first person would go to the next cubicle to become free, but at very busy times there would be separate queues in front of each cubicle. My wife also observed single queues forming in front of small clusters of toilets.

What was interesting to me were the transition points. When did a person or small group decide that the best strategy was to form a queue? When did queue formation stop? I reasoned that there were various factors such as the number of toilets, British social habits regarding queueing and so on.

It seemed to me that I was witnessing a complex adaptive system in action. How people behave in a situation that seems to be related to phenomena like birds flocking (which can be represented by a simple algorithm, such as in the various implementation of boids, e.g. http://processing.org/examples/flocking.html). Without any conscious decision-making, people change their behaviour in a way which suits the new situation that faces them.

Unlike me, most people were very happy in their unconscious decision-making and continued to enjoy the world music, untroubled by concerns about complexity and adaptation. What lucky people.