De-Nerding the Integration of Emergence, Fractals, and Uncertainty

I read The Black Swan about a year ago when Hunter recommended it. Since then I’ve been diving into the world of scale-free networks and emergent systems, and I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for Taleb’s idea of fractal randomness.

In essence, Taleb argues that shit happens. It always has, and we might as well get ready for it to happen in the future. He rejects the idea that randomness happens only in neat bell curves, which are useful when systems are built for a particular scale (ie the length of a snickers bar) and completely useless when systems operate without regard to scale (ie the number of computers infected by a particular virus.)

Towards the end of the book, Taleb hand-waves at the notion of fractal randomness, which sounds really flippin’ cool but which I can’t seem to find anything on. (Lovely and brilliant man, but his website looks like a word doc that got the shit kicked out of it in the playground.) I think I see what he’s getting at. I’m not certain that I can de-nerd the integration of emergence, fractals and uncertainty but here’s a shot:

What’s the difference between a box and a tree? (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) A box relates to the world at one scale, and a tree operates across scales.  If you’re a 2’x2’x2′ box, then 2′ is about all that you have to say to the world. Things can go into you if they’re not bigger than 2′. You can stack on something if it’s around 2′ or larger, and it can stack on you if it’s around 2′ or smaller. What’s the probably that a box coming out of a 2′ box factory will be exactly 2′? Probably pretty good. That probability probably looks something like a bell curve.

Compare that box to a tree. A tree relates to the world across scales. Picture it’s root system. The trunk of the tree needs to get water and nutrients from the soil, so it shoots out roots to get them. Those big roots ALSO want to get water and nutrients from the soil, so they shoot out smaller roots, and so on and so on until you’re down to a microscopic level. The tree does one basic thing, drawing matter from the soil, across a wide range of scales. As a result it’s geometrically far more complicated than the box. It’s not going around saying “2 feet,” it’s going around saying “water” from the molecular level from the molecular level all the way up to the width of its trunk.

Got it? When relationships operate at a particular scale (like the box), you get bell curves and neat, easy geometry. When relationships operate regardless of scale (like the tree) you get batshit-crazy geometry and a wholly different kind of uncertainty.

The interesting thing about fractal uncertainty (and Black Swans), is that Taleb’s NOT saying that anything can happen. As Taleb outlines it, he’s actually making a pretty clear prediction about what kind of crises to expect. He’s not saying that the box factory will suddenly pump out boxes 2 miles high, or that the laws of physics will up and change on Tuesday. He’s saying that anything that can happen at a small scale in a scale-free system can also happen at a large scale, provided that the basic relationships stay intact. Can your small business fail? Well guess what: so can the global economy, and probably for the same basic reasons.

Taleb isn’t telling us to throw our hands in the air and just expect the unexpected. He’s telling us to watch the systems around us for changes that can scale up, and to be do our best to be ready when they catch us off guard.

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