Imagine the Library of Alexandria recast in modern times: not books, but servers. What’s different about it? An electronic current can join any two ideas. Chronology becomes optional. We can scramble knowledge across time, like Scrabble letters, to see if they combine to form meaning. Around 2,400 years ago, both East and West cast lights on the workings of the world. The flashes revealed competing sources of causality. The West won in almost every important sense. “If x happens, y results.” Linear causality could be broken down, dissected, analyzed, and proven. The approach was reductionist. From it, we eventually got the Enlightenment, science, technology, and Twitter.
Twitter, though, lacks linear causality. How does one predict what will happen on the social network? The answer is murky. This is the essence of networks. They can’t be mapped into quadrants and neatly studied. The territory acts as a whole, devoid of certainty and complicated by interconnectedness.
Networks, born of reductionism, turn on their parent like ungrateful demigods. We’re loathe to admit this. The technology that begat these children is neat and orderly. X follows y with the certainty of a known correlation. The offspring refuse to respect or even listen to this.
Fortunately, we have that modern Library. The servers where ideas can be scrambled. Reductionism doesn’t match up well with networks. As my partner, Mark Thompson, is fond of saying, the hardware has left the operating system behind. No matter. We can look for other ones. Not the ones that took us to this place, but ones that we can slot in now.
“There is some deeper part of my personality that became completely fascinated with the idea that the world is always unfolding.”
– Brian Arthur
Which brings us back to those light flashes 2,300 years ago. The East’s illuminated complex causality and its fellow traveler, uncertainty. This is not a new idea. A lot of us have heard about the Eastern approach being more holistic, more systems oriented.
What is less appreciated, though, is how well it fits with an Age of Networks. This is practical, not a philosophical question. What kind of mindset should we have when looking for causality in networks? A reductionist one looks at pieces and not wholes. They are what led Ben Bernanke to say, “subprime is contained” in 2007; what led the Army Corps of Engineers to expose the population of New Orleans to catastrophic levee failures; what misleads CEOs to focus on share buybacks over disruptive innovation.
The more interconnected our world, the more reductionism self-inflicts problems, and the more we need to see in networks.
So the Eastern approach is more than just a curiosity, more than just fodder for management-book-of-the-month. It is founded on an insight that was just a few thousand years too early, and whose time has now come. This I discovered when plunging into a dry academic book on the subject of YinYang. This concept is basically a way to explain emergent behavior. Two interdependent forces that create an energy, one that transforms and regenerates. The book’s author, historian Robin Wang, summarizes the ideas in the Chinese Dao’s “way of seeing” this way:
“The world is not constructed from individual pieces, but rather is an indivisible whole taking patterns and processes of interrelatedness as its fundamental structure.”
Patterns and processes. This is practical stuff, not New Age mind candy. Designing for emergence requires that we search for, spot and understand this fundamental structure. How is energy flowing through the network? What blocks it or causes it to self-reinforce? How could that energy shift from an attractor to a positive feedback loop?
Network science, collective intelligence and biomimetics have lately emerged to help us understand emergent patterns. The questions, though, arise from a new mindset. A non-reductionist one. They are more important than the answers. They are the questions posed millennia ago and, maybe, coincidentally, the people we call Millennials are just the right generation to help us scramble the tiles and rediscover their significance. A new operating system for the Age of Networks. A Dao — the path — for designing emergence.
Diego Espinosa is a former BCG strategy consultant, hedge fund manager and Wall Street Director of Research.