Geoffrey West’s Fever Dream

Geoffrey West takes a look at the unknowability of the innards of complex systems, and wonders if big data – and a new big theory to corral big data – could act like a flashlight, revealing the inner workings of financial markets, urban communities, and ecosystems under stress.

Geoffrey West, Big Data Needs a Big Theory to Go with It

Complexity comes into play when there are many parts that can interact in many different ways so that the whole takes on a life of its own: it adapts and evolves in response to changing conditions. It can be prone to sudden and seemingly unpredictable changes—a market crash is the classic example. One or more trends can reinforce other trends in a “positive feedback loop” until things swiftly spiral out of control and cross a tipping point, beyond which behavior changes radically.

What makes a “complex system” so vexing is that its collective characteristics cannot easily be predicted from underlying components: the whole is greater than, and often significantly different from, the sum of its parts. A city is much more than its buildings and people. Our bodies are more than the totality of our cells. This quality, called emergent behavior, is characteristic of economies, financial markets, urban communities, companies, organisms, the Internet, galaxies and the health care system.

The digital revolution is driving much of the increasing complexity and pace of life we are now seeing, but this technology also presents an opportunity. The ubiquity of cell phones and electronic transactions, the increasing use of personal medical probes, and the concept of the electronically wired “smart city” are already providing us with enormous amounts of data. With new computational tools and techniques to digest vast, interrelated databases, researchers and practitioners in science, technology, business and government have begun to bring large-scale simulations and models to bear on questions formerly out of reach of quantitative analysis, such as how cooperation emerges in society, what conditions promote innovation, and how conflicts spread and grow.

The trouble is, we don’t have a unified, conceptual framework for addressing questions of complexity. We don’t know what kind of data we need, nor how much, or what critical questions we should be asking. “Big data” without a “big theory” to go with it loses much of its potency and usefulness, potentially generating new unintended consequences.

When the industrial age focused society’s attention on energy in its many manifestations—steam, chemical, mechanical, and so on—the universal laws of thermodynamics came as a response. We now need to ask if our age can produce universal laws of complexity that integrate energy with information. What are the underlying principles that transcend the extraordinary diversity and historical contingency and interconnectivity of financial markets, populations, ecosystems, war and conflict, pandemics and cancer? An overarching predictive, mathematical framework for complex systems would, in principle, incorporate the dynamics and organization of any complex system in a quantitative, computable framework.

‘The emergent is everywhere and nowhere.’

Complexity isn’t a clock. You can’t open one up and see it’s innards. There are no gears and cogs. If there was a way to ‘look inside’, all you’d find would be more complex systems. And those complex systems aren’t connected in purely physical way, made up of computable inputs and outputs: they are united by emergent behaviors: the system manifests it character my acting in ways that are inherently unpredictable, and incalculable. These behaviors arise from the interactions between the components, but reside in none of them. The emergent is everywhere and nowhere.

We have no math for this.

West might as well be saying ‘We need to be able to see into the future . It would be helpful.’ But that doesn’t mean we have a way to do it, or that it is doable at all.

The tempo of modern life has sped up to the point that the future feels closer, and since it’s only a heartbeat away it seems reasonable to imagine being able to glance around that corner and know what is about to transpire. But that’s just a feeling.

‘The more we have wired everything into everything else, the less we can know about what will happen tomorrow.’

The future is actually farther away than ever, because we have constructed a world that is the most multi-facted astrolobe, the most incestuous interconnection of global economic interdependencies, the deepest ingraining of contingent political scenarios, and the widest pending cascade of possible ecological side-effects. The more we have wired everything into everything else, the less we can know about what will happen tomorrow.

In essence, West hopes we can create a math that can pile up all the big data and crunch it, in a Borgesian infinity. A machinery as complex as the world it hopes to fathom, allowing us – or at least it– to know everything about everything.

I suspect we will have to settle for something less.

We could start by intentionally decoupling complexity that poses threats. Derivative trading, and credit default swaps are a good example. Efforts by banks and brokerages to diffuse risks, and sharing them with other finance companies leads to increased risk, systemically. When there is a big downturn the risks are amplified, and the cascade leads to huge ‘unintended’ results. The solution to this is not predicting when and how it will happen, but stopping the increased complexity inherent in derivatives and credit default swaps. The only cure for increased complexity is decoupling components of the larger system. 

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