Discover more from Emergent Outcomes
Complex tipping points
In an instant everything can change
This is not the first post I expected to write for my newsletter.
You see, my brother has been living in Kyiv for the past year with his Ukranian girlfriend as they built a life together. We keep in touch frequently, and each week he recounted the arts, culture, and vibrant young community they continued to discover in the capital city. She had just finished her Masters degree and was embarking on a new career with her valuable fluency in four languages.
They sensed tensions as Vladimir Putin made threats to Ukraine and ordered troops to surround the border. While conflict seems ongoing in the eastern region this seemed maybe different. Taking heed, they moved to the western city of Lviv in case tensions escalated. Still, they seemed dismissive that an all out war could emerge. They were not alone. Together they reassured friends and family that they had a pulse on the situation.
By February 23rd they decided to take action and flee if military activity happened outside of the Donbas region - eight hundred miles away and where skirmish is common. Easy to feel like that is a different world.
February 24th by noon they were on train to Poland seeking refuge from the largest European land war since WWII as bombs scattered the country.
I won’t claim to deeply understand the history, culture, and nuance that triggered this war. But I do know that at any scale humans are complex, unpredictable, and irrational. As a society the choices of individuals compound and move through a network of interacting fears, intent, and dreams.
This quality gives us character, creativity, and variety; it also makes us prone to tipping points, where in a moment life changes and a new normal is now. Sometimes that change is direct - like escalation of bombing between two countries - and sometimes the change is one of context - like life after a new world order.
Tit for tat
In 1980 Robert Axelrod, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, held a tournament to test various strategies of prisoner’s dilemma using computer simulation.
In prisoner’s dilemma two agents can either choose to defect or cooperate with each other. There’s a payoff table that rewards mutual cooperation, but incentivizes individual betrayal.
In essence, a prisoner's dilemma is a situation of Moloch. Much of Axelrod’s research drew on situations of war and political strategy.
After many rounds of play the simplest strategy for mutual success emerged: Tit for tat.
Start by cooperating
Copy your opponents next move
Over the long run this simple strategy consistently resulted in the highest collective payoff.
Poetically, given the inspiration for this post, this strategy was submitted by Anatol Rappaport, a Russian mathematical psychologist born in what is today’s Kharkiv, Ukraine. He dedicated his life to the science of conflict and resolution.
Of course life is not so simple. The cost of failure can be mutually assured destruction and we don’t always have the luxury of testing our decisions in a lab. Imperfect choices and human interactions can change everything overnight. Life is real, consequences are meaningful, and the future is uncertain. All I can hope for is peace and resolve. God help us all.
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live.”
― Daniel Quinn, Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Meditations on Moloch - An famous essay musing about collective action problems and their roots in society.
Tipping Points - a Santa Fe Institute working paper by Scott E. Page and PJ Lamberson on the science of tipping points
Madeleine Albright interview on Tim Ferriss podcast - Former US Ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State under Bill Clinton reflects on a life of international relations
Letters from an American - newsletter by Heather Cox Richardson that is always insightful, relatable, and informative
Regenerative Economics blog post by Curve Labs - proposes a new incentive system for the economy of natural resources