by Carl Dyke

I try to keep relatively current on science / speculative fiction because of the reading circles I lead in that genre for our accreditation-driven “Quality Enhancement Plan.” So I just finished reading a short novel by Connie Willis (better known for The Doomsday Book, up next), Bellwether (1996). Why did I read this one? Well, it’s what Overdrive offered as immediately available while I waited for any of the other books I had cued up to check back in. An accident. But as it turns out, it was very interesting, because Willis is trying with some success to work with chaos and complexity and the dynamics of scientific discovery.

As a story, there’s not much here. The main character, Sandra Foster, studies the dynamics of fads and fashions for a research corporation called HiTek. One of the running gags in the book is all the faddish corporo-bureaucratic acronymized gyrations “Management” forces the researchers through, complete with “simplified” paperwork in dozens of pages and cryptic, jargony instructions. It’s good for about one giggle for a guy reading the book because of a Quality Enhancement Plan, but is quickly overdone and tiresome, like these gyrations themselves. There’s also a surly, self-absorbed, incompetent millennial gofer named Flip who keeps showing up and driving the plot. Because she’s an actual presence, she’s among the most irritating devices imaginable, even worse than white whales and old bears deep in the Yoknapatawpha woods. Sandy cluelessly circles and then unsurprisingly hooks up with another geeky scientist, Bennet, a biologist who works on group behavior and learning, and yet is personally immune to fads and fashions. “It isn’t that he doesn’t care what other people think. It’s just that he doesn’t see what it has to do with him.” Well that sounds familiar.

And it goes on and on, with Sandy meeting obstacle after infuriatingly gratuitous obstacle in her quest to figure out why hair bobbing became a thing during the 1920s. It’s actually a great cultural studies topic and anecdotally well-researched by Willis, but Sandy’s field awareness and analytical level are somewhere around advanced undergrad, which gets annoying real quick too. She semi-obsessively collects data on fads both historical and contemporary, for some reason trusting Flip to make copies of her clippings over and over again despite impressively comprehensive evidence that it ain’t gonna happen and they’ll probably get lost, trashed, and/or drowned in Coke. Sandy is, in fact, pretty much just as incompetent as Flip, consistently failing to perceive and act on the obvious. “Just because people are experiencing things doesn’t mean they have any insight into them,” she observes. Yes indeedy. At least she’s relatively good-natured about this, unlike many academics I know who this description would fit. In the climax, via corporate trials and tribulations Sandy and her boy combine forces to study the learning behavior of sheep, which act just like the cartoon sheep cynics compare people to. Because Willis is comparing people to sheep, get it?

The slapdash device-mongering of character and story kept trying to throw me out of the book. But alongside all of that crud the book is explicitly and substantively complexity-themed, and that definitely changes the game. I wanted to see what Willis was going to do with that. She’s interested in how science works, and she’s post-Kuhnian in thinking that it works chaotically. How do fads happen? How does science happen? By luck; by accident.

Scientific discoveries are the same way. People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, “The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance.

So, the kind of luck and accident that need all sorts of conditions and processes to self-organize into emergent transitions of practice and understanding. As it turns out, every damn irritating thing in the book, all the distractions and confusions and derailments and frustrations, ends up being conditioned through a discovery agenda into a breakthrough:

Scientific breakthroughs involve combining ideas no one thought to connect before, seeing connections nobody saw before. Chaotic systems create feedback loops that tend to randomize the elements of the system, displace them, shake them around so they’re next to elements they’ve never come in contact with before. Chaotic systems tend to increase in chaos, but not always. Sometimes they restabilize into a new level of order.

I especially like this theme of disruptive cross-connecting and field-hopping as the means to creative emergence. She cites all sorts of examples of this, including Newton’s apple, Poincare’s bus, and Feynman’s bongos. In fact, to hear her tell it, ‘normal’ science never discovered anything. It takes a trip outside of the box.

So far so good, if we accept for a second the implicit dissing of field competence and condition-setting in the run-ups to transformations. But it turns out that Sandy and Bennet, despite being able to reel off impressive accounts of complex systems, interaction and scale dynamics, non-linearity, iteration and feedback, and irreducibility, are both committed to the view that emergence requires a single essential catalytic factor, the ‘bellwether’ of the title. This is dramatized first by their discovery that to get the sheep to do anything they need an actual bellwether, a sheep that’s just a little out in front of the herd, that wanders just a little more purposefully than the rest. It is then cemented for the whole discussion by the ‘discovery’ that [SPOILER ALERT] the worse-than-useless FLIP was actually the catalytic agent who, by her ubiquitous bumbling, maneuvered and forced and prompted and enabled the systems breakdowns that so productively brought Sandy, Ben, and sheep together in just the right alignment to figure out how new things happen.

Well. At least this deus ex machina of progress is not an intelligent designer or the Spirit of Reason or the Great Man / Woman or even self interest and the invisible hand, although the latter probably does a better job of defocalizing the dynamics of systems. But it’s still smuggling back in that dream of the single effective variable, right when we finally have the tools to get over that once and for all. It’s so much easier that way though; so much harder to imagine how the dynamics themselves could assemble into outcomes without anything in particular ‘driving’ or ‘causing’ or even in an older sense ‘ordering’ them.

But, I also wonder if this is the genius of the book. What if Willis meant the book itself to be a bellwether? She wouldn’t be able to go all the way to complex systems in one step, although she could gesture at that. The deus ex machina of the bellwether may be about as far as the herd of regular sci-fi readers are ready to go at the moment. As I think about how to teach complexity, I can see how packaging it in familiar forms and pulling its teeth for a second might just be good marketing. A dopey romance? Frustrating workplace bureaucracy? Overworked pseudo-critical geek cliche’s? I can see how this would be just the strategy to move some readers closer to a tipping point of enlightenment. Now, is that how learning and persuasion actually work? The book says so, and maybe also practices so. I’m not so sure, but from the standpoint of complex systems without the deus ex machina, I’m not sure how possible it is to make any kind of change on purpose.


13 Comments to “Bellwether?”

  1. I’m working on it, though on first reading it looks like the standard flinch. If you’re looking for the standard reference to the Diplurans, it’s Bitsch and Bitsch (2000)

  2. Heh. Why yes, I was fumbling for that reference just the other day! And right, totally the standard flinch. The interesting further question for me is whether she knew it was (there are little clues this might be the case) and so it’s a pedagogically strategic half step rather than a plain lacuna.

    Got started on The Deeper Genome and it’s making good sense so far. You already had me primed to think of gene-stuff as dynamically interactive rather than statically constitutive, so I’m just flowing right along with that.

  3. Back to Willis (who, of course, I haven’t read and never will).
    One of the pieces I did for Framework: the Finnish Art Review, back in the good old world, was “Uniform and Standard: The Epistemology of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”. It was about hard vs. soft edges, war as the great simplifier (including the wars fought out on American city streets), nationalism, and related matters. It said of El Qaeda, …they have no truck with insignia of any kind.” This tribute to the venerable oriental sage Lame Pun was far from adventitious, since one of my points was to call attention to the complex punning of “uniform” and “standard”. I was reminded of the piece the other day while I was reading about the fate of the Stars and Bars in South Carolina. It was, whatever it has become, the standard of the Confederacy in the War Between the States — known elsewhere as the Civil War. It managed to remain honored as that standard for about a century and a half. John Ford, born Yankee, and a childhood victim of anti-Irish vituperation in Massachusetts, tried heroically to solidify a place of honor for that standard, folded into a livable mutual story of the war in the movie houses of both the North and the South. Rent, in particular, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, though all three cavalry movies work at it. But, as they say, the time for erasure may have arrived. As usual, “erasure” stands in for “forcible prohibition” — presumably as a “solution” to whatever “problem” is defined. A radical simplification has to be imposed.
    Now let’s think of the strategic capacities of erasers (and, while you’re at it, delete keys). One scenario is that in some copies the offending stuff is erased, and in other copies it isn’t. You can see how that will happen with the Stars and Bars. Unfortunately, that scenario traditionally leads to war. The other main scenario is the creation of palimpsests, for which, the crappier your eraser the better. I think that the most charitable reading of Willis is that she’s trying hard to create a palimpsest — as I was in “Uniform and Standard”. She uses the resources of science/ speculative fiction, and produces a lame narrative for the purpose; I used a whole bunch of lame puns. (That can be weirdly successful. The local menopause mafia has a mania for reducing life to lunch. In one case they even set up a sort of club to organize and promote lunching. Three or four years ago I dubbed them the Truffle Hounds, and (until now, probably) they think that’s cute.) At any rate, in a desperate attempt to preserve the complexity of multidimensionality such erasural strategies are one of the few options. How in the world to consider the offensive intelligently when any consideration of the offensive offends? What would the Obeast say?
    Ford’s strategy, by the way, was to submerge and preserve the honor of the Confederate standard in the exigencies of a more pressing war: that between the 7th Cavalry and the “Indians”. (Custer had only recently been erased; and he too had to be re-dimensionalized.) At 6:30 tonight we’ll get the next installment of the cognitive gymnastics.

  4. Yes, so good. For what it’s worth I think a certain kind of progressive patience has worn out with the excellent Ford strategy, encouraging for ‘just getting along’ as it once was. Somewhere between “Birth of a Nation,” redlining, the Southern Strategy, Ferguson, and Charleston, it became clear to just about everyone with progressive eyes in their heads that letting the Confederates keep their dignity didn’t pay off for Blacks. Except that it did, and Weimar is another cautionary tale we might mention here, not to get into the ‘dignity’ argument in the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. So ‘in the end’, that is, at this point in a morally disappointing developmental history, that pathetic little creep Dylann (Storm) Roof and the Stars and Bars are available as both palimpsest and synecdoche for the whole history and practice of white supremacy and the heroic resistance thereto. That the complete destruction of one’s enemies and their symbols is the prerogative of the dominant is an irony often lost nowadays.

  5. Under the heading “complexity is having the capacity to simplify” (dedicate, concentrate, etc.) — I think:
    One of the traditional safety valves has always been that as the right (racists, jingoists, et alia) when flush with power, real or imagined, do something that scares them to a halt. Or something happens, like Naziism etc. that kicks them into unity mode. There’s never been anything inevitable about that — anything structural in the dynamics — but it happens. From that point of view, Donald Trump is heaven sent. Without stomping on Huckleberry, the Koch’s etc. a line can be drawn. The code for the line drawing is as usual “bad for business” folded into the readily available moral righteousness, but it will do lots of work, including the confounding of the extreme view on immigrants. And it will be another occasion to crow about “American democracy at work”, and obviate the necessity for doing anything real, as usual..The written-over sloppy erasures will still be legible next opportunity.
    The Weimar republic is an interesting catch. There are lots of two plus twos about Weimar that I’ve never added up.
    Italian Fascism is as always an interesting contrast. There, everything that comes along, from any direction (Cavour, Giolitti, the doppio petto, AND Mussolesi) simply reorganizes the surface structure of the deeply entrenched feudalism we’ve talked about. Of course Il Gattopardo and, say, the Tavianis’ La Notte di San Lorenzo are classic treatments. Don’t forget: for once the trains were on time — e allora?

  6. Although I haven’t been following in detail, this is interesting to watch in the Greek situation. There it seems you’ve got an intricately layered impaction of state clientalism, like Italy, that’s probably become more urgently unsustainable due to a generally poorer plunderable substructure and lack of the institutional heft it would take to just take up the slack by printing money, as the U.S. does. Germany, whose prosperity is due to repeated infusions of cheap labor from Southern and Eastern Europe, now plays the angry padrone demanding his rent on the hovel, while casting itself as the defender of fiscal responsibility. And meanwhile we’re told that there’s both too much capitalism, and too little. I have to admit, I have a great deal of difficulty working out whether capitalism has even started yet in any meaningful sense in some of these places, let alone reached the end of the line. Where is the surface and where are the depths? My answers tend to be all over the place, so I can certainly understand the appeal of the simplifications.

  7. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to continue this particular conversation productively. (I’ve got a lot of near zero RAM jobs on my hands right now getting the barn squared away, weeding, jugging Japanese beetles, mowing, etc.) So far, there are too many things at stake at the same time. Surface and depth is the issue over and over again, but getting past the metaphor to something deeper (oops) is very hard, and as problematic as can be. For instance, everything we’ve touched on raises questions of “sovereignty” — but with a dispersion of meanings that leaves me not knowing what I’m talking about. Sovereignty is another of the “prohibition of access to regions of the otherwise possible state space” family of praxes: that is, authoritative articulations of the behavioral mine and thine. Thus it joins “capitalism” — especially in the sense that it raises the same sorts of puzzles — and specifies “independence”. Wonderful. Now all we have to do is figure out what independence comes to, dynamically, politically, and symbolically (that is, ideologically) in the age of the UN, ISIS, the EU, US Civil rights, IMF, etc. Merely saying this shows how strained traditional understandings are, along with the fragile array of institutions an practices that have evolved. In a sense, everything we thought we knew is at risk in everyday politics. And we haven’t even gotten to environmental issues yet.
    So from the point of view of someone trying to think intelligently about things it’s back to the drawing board, and, very possibly, the drawing board is too far back to be reachable.

  8. Well said. but how stubborn are we. The Candide option is oh so attractive.

  9. “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” Gramsci said. Here we are, might as well keep cracking.

  10. Here’s an article from the latest Atlantic entitled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” It begins:

    “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense…”

  11. Just so you know that someone is paying attention, thanks for the Atlantic link. Beyond that, words currently fail me.

  12. This stuff is all over my feeds, so I’ve seen a bunch of the things they discuss, but this is a great roundup. Haidt is in bad odor with liberals for this kind of analysis, and for taking conservatives seriously and not leaping to the defense of the cause. So of course I like him a lot.

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