Pandemic and Network Pandemonium

Updated: May 9, 2020

I commence this blog under a waxing half-moon, gazing down from a strangely silent sky, glinting through the tender green leaves of a northern Spring that flutter silently in its dark light, on the 30th of April, in the year of the world-pausing pandemic, 2020. Long have I pondered what, if anything but utter collapse, could cause us to cease plundering our beleaguered biosphere long enough to consider what we have actually learned about its self-sustaining, self-organizing mysteries--and thus, perhaps, our own. Many a chaotic twist and turn in our headlong quest for the 'control of everything' has been imagined. But not this one. It never occurred to me that we, the entire global population, hell-bent on consumption, could suddenly slow down, stay home, pause.

I am struck by the notion that this crisis, outside the desperate triage zones of hospitals and nursing homes in cities hard hit by the virus, could be one of such 'quiet desperation.' The word pandemic derives from the Greek pandemos, constituted from pan, for all, and demos, for people. There is nothing here about disease per se. Indeed, the term epidemic does not, at its Greek roots, have "disease" in it, but is composed of epi, for upon, and demos, for people. Yet in contemporary usage, a pandemic is a particularly pervasive epidemic, a disease that severely affects a large number of people then subsides. Thus a pandemic is a condition of illness, or dis-ease, that afflicts "all the people."

Though only a small fraction have actually sickened, all of us are being 'afflicted' in some way, For most, the familiar routines of our relationships and work have been altered or 'put on hold,' while a few must work harder than ever to keep those in isolation supplied with food and medical care. What ever confidence we had in the future a few months ago, we are now beset by a 'pandemic of anxiety' about 'what comes next.' A pandemic is obviously extremely disruptive. In this regard, it has a curious connection to another word: pandemonium. This word is defined as "wild and noisy disorder or confusion, and uproar--as in, a pandemonium broke out." Though many cities appear eerily empty and the skies silent but for birdsong, surely one could say there is pandemonium in our economies, politics, and personal feelings.

Pandemonium has the Greek roots of pan, for all, and daimon, often translated as demon. But daimon (also spelled daemon), in its ancient usage, it is sometimes translated as a divinity or supernatural being, or as an inner spirit and guiding force. While most of us might consider COVID19 to be a "demon" with which we are "at war," could we possibly understand it as a daimon--as the arousal of a "guiding inner spirit," or 'pan daimon,' that is 'visiting' us all?

The ancient Greek god Pan was identified with the general animating spirit of wild nature, though also with the herding of flocks, done by shepherds in the wilder parts of the country side. He was depicted as half man, half goat. His appearance was thought to induce terror, perhaps like that associated with a stampeding heard of cattle. Thus the word panic is derived from his name. The meaning of pan as "all" also indicates his pervasive role in 'inspiring' life in the natural world. He is not a god of "high Olympus," but an earthly spirit of living vitality, playing his pan pipe flute and ever stimulating the creative eros of Nature.

Why would I begin my blogging about the unacknowledged role of self-organizing systems, and how these, not we, "make the world," with thoughts about pandemonium? What might its undertones of demons and daimons have to do with feedback networks in systems science? Firstly, because this metaphor so vividly illustrates the unpredictably self-directing, thus un-controllable, yet "world making and breaking" behaviors of such systems. The self-directing agency of our social and economic system networks has just done what we least want it to do. It has abruptly altered its purposeful behavior. It has suddenly been swayed by a new flow of feedback. We, the interconnected nodes or agents whose interdependent interactions collectively give rise to its purposeful behavior, have been dragged into a "new world order" that none of us expected, much less intended.

The panic associated with the god, or system-animating spirit, Pan, has the quality of what is referred to as "criticality" in systems science. Flows of feedback in complex systems such as civilized society are partly disorderly even when generating relative continuity. That is because they are actually generating their continuity out of ongoing instabilities that allow interactions between aspects of the system to "synchronize" overall operations--as in how the subsystems of your body organs and brain process feedback flows to generate the relative continuity of 'you'. Their self-ordering is emerging from elements of disorder.

This has been referred to as "self-organizing criticality." But shifts in the types of feedback and how it moves through the system's network of nodes, links, and hubs can increase instability and disrupt the existing ordering of a "critical" state. Disruption can prompt either a transformation of the overall system, say from democratic to authoritarian, or lead to its disintegration and collapse. A simple, physical example of criticality is found in the "phase changes" of substances such as water. The structural network of liquid water reaches criticality when near freezing, when it becomes a solid--or boiling, when it becomes vapor. So, following the metaphor of Pan's pandemonium or panic, when feedback patterns in a complex self-organizing system like an economy or society is sufficiently disrupted, the system can shift to a new state of self-organizing criticality that transforms its overall forms and functions--or to collapse into unregulated chaos.

A second motive for thinking about the COVID19 crisis in these terms is how it has promoted our social and economic systems to alter their typical operations while another, much more catastrophic global condition has not. The meta-system of our planetary biosphere, life on earth as we know it, is in also in crisis. Its feedback networks are unable to maintain their self-organizing state of criticality. The ways our human systems operate have so disrupted the networks of natural ones that their self-sustaining agency is collapsing. The result is a Sixth Mass Extinction of plant and animal species, ecosystem collapse on land and sea, and runaway heating of the earth's atmosphere.

Devastating as the suffering and death toll of the COVID19 virus is, and will be for some time into an utterly uncertain future, its impact is minimal compared to the looming effects of ecological collapse and exponentially accelerating abrupt climate change. Despite 30 years of dire warnings and ever grimmer scientific evidence, the latter catastrophes (which will devastate us all) have done nothing to restrain or even slow our disruptions of the biosphere upon which we all depend. Yet suddenly, confronted with the daimon of this pandemic, we have voluntarily paused our gluttonous 'wild pandemonium of exploitation and consumption' and traded it, as it were, for our anxious isolation amidst the "confusing uproar" of our crashing economies and social systems.

Have we, has our civilized system network, been visited by Pan? Is our pause a kind of paralyzing stampede that could send us off into an entirely new cultural orientation? Clearly, in the uproar of this moment, many aspects of how our system networks actually do, and do not function, as well as for what hidden purposes (the rich get richer even during economic crisis, the poor get promised assistant that never arrives), has been crudely laid bare. From our digitally connected yet physically isolated view of this pandemic, we have been given the opportunity to examine the actual purposes and priorities of our supposedly democratic political system and its claim to act "in our best interests."

But if we are to act differently, we must first come to understand our own science of feedback in complex systems. We must learn to perceive how feedback flows are "weighted" to promote certain "hubs" or subsystems. We would have to experience our systems as willful agents acting for purposes we did not intend, to understand that systems have 'hidden motives' which arrive from network structures. That means we have to undergo the pandemonium of a "metanoia," a radical change of mind and worldview that results in a new configuration of our own network's self-organizing criticality. To do that we would have to 'stop' doing and thinking as we have been--as if the world were 'machinery' we can control.

If we accept the limits of our ability to control systems, and understand that 'people in power' tend to serve the purposes of existing network structures rather than control them, we might learn to 'negotiate with' our social and economic networks. It is possible that the latter could re-self-organize so that they functioned for the purpose of supporting the self-sustaining agency of natural ones. Alas, that seems most unlikely. But, for those who really want to understand 'what the hell has happened,' and why we have not acted to alter course, the revealing concepts of complex systems science await you.

In subsequent posts I will attempt to explore what is being revealed and how only a "network perspective" can enable us to understand both the immediate predicaments of the pandemic and the hidden, world-devastating purposes of our existing socio-economic systems. Here we will encounter both "parasitic demons" and the adaptive guidance of "inner daemons" influencing our behaviors. But just which aspects of our systems turn out to be demons and which daimons will be extremely difficult to determine. Here the paradox of the god Pan, as symbolic metaphor, is worth remembering, as he both in-spired Nature's self-ordering systems and did so by sometimes prompting the disruptive panic of pandemonium in their feedback networks. As with mythology, complex systems science reveals a world shaped by unpredictably purposeful non-human forces, arising from feedback within and between systems, that are beyond our control--yet can react unpredictably when 'provoked' by our human manipulations.

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