The Fragility of our World

Notess on a book with the same name by Stefan Thurner

Part I – four types of non-fiction authors

The author of the book is a specialist in complex networks, which he analyzes at the Medical University of Vienna using Big Data. In this introduction, I take the liberty to see the author himself as part of a complex network in which he is not merely integrated but even trapped – just like any other non-fiction author. This network consists of a triad: that is, first, of the thing to be described, namely the totality of current crises; second, the author and third, the audience – the mutual relationship turns out to acquire a specific complexity. It is the third pillar, namely the audience that ultimately decides whether thoughts have any chance at all of reaching a wider public.

Although in Thurner’s book there is no mention of this complex triad – world, author and audience -, it seems to me appropriate and in keeping with his theory to make it the starting point for all further considerations. For this trinity produces four possible types of authors. First, the consistent doomsayer, whose chances of success with the large audience are almost zero; second, the crisis denier; third, the sycophant; and, fourth, the expert as savior in distress.

The doomsayer

Let us assume that our world is not only fragile, but already broke. In this case, it can no longer hope for a viable future as our economically induced environmental destruction and nuclear armament are leading into a dead end. An author who would formulate such a perspective without any ifs and buts, let alone a hint at possible salvation, would be rejected by any publisher as an unsaleable doomsayer. Publishers and agents know pretty well what people want to read and what not. The question of whether the author might be right in his pessimism is irrelevant from their point of view.

I know of only one book that dared to make such a damning analysis and yet was not only printed, but for a short time even widely circulated. It is the book of a very well-known, at the time even famous man in Germany, whom many admired for his cleverness, his encyclopedic knowledge, his eloquence and not least because of his German, which was by no means scientifically dry but on the contrary vivid and appealing. The author’s name is Hoimar von Ditfurth and his book is entitled „So let’s plant an apple tree – it’s time“. In retrospect, it may well be argued that it was the fame and reputation of the author that made the publication of this doomsday book possible in the first place. Von Ditfurth saw the world sliding into the abyss – inevitably and irrevocably. Indeed, he did so thirty-eight years ago (1985), when today’s multicrises were just emerging. Apart from forest dieback, the author’s overwhelming evidence and findings have not been refuted to this day, but his fame quickly faded after this book. The reason seems evident: an great admirer of technology and science had suddenly reconverted from Paul to Saul. For the the conclusion of his book was unambiguous and left no appeal: science and technology had not fulfilled their promises. They could no longer be regarded as messages of salvation. Instead of leading mankind to paradise, they are leading it directly to utter ruin.

This book by an uncompromising old age pessimist was to remain an exception in the German publishing landscape. Even disaster movies, which enjoy a certain popularity today, still leave a way of escape. Somewhere in intergalactic space, if not on Mars, a small number of scattered people succeed in founding a new Virginia – human history then begins anew, so to speak, and the viewer leaves the cinema with a sigh of relief and, despite everything, comforted.

The crisis denier

puts himself resolutely on the other side. If he succeeds in presenting his point of view in a reasonably plausible way, he can hope for great applause from the audience – above all, of course, from industry and other others responsible for the crisis. Any author who argues that there is in fact no crisis at all because today’s life is significantly safer, healthier and that the future is far less endangered than ever before in the history of mankind can hope for worldwide success, because this is the good news that most people and politicians want to hear.

The prime example of this denial is provided by Steven Pinker, undoubtedly one of the most intelligent contemporary authors, who with unquestionable brilliance defends the gospel of an ultimately victorious enlightenment represented by modern science and technology. Pinker is a layman in most of the areas about which he expounds with aplomb – he is a specialist only as a trained linguist – but that does not diminish his impact. That is because he meets the elementary need of large audiences to wrap the world in a rosy aura of hope. But that alone would not explain his worldwide success, as esotericists also work in this sense. His real strength and impact lies in the fact that he confirms mankind’s two-hundred-year-old belief in the constant and unstoppable progress of science and technology.

The sycophant

Crisis deniers have a hard time, of course, as soon as the thing itself – in this case our crisis-ridden reality – increasingly refuses any sugarcoating. The polar ice caps are melting, California and parts of Australia are being devastated by firestorms, ever larger parts of Africa become barren deserts, and storms of unprecedented violence are making the effects of the climate crisis visible even to the most stubborn deniers. In the end, the only way to continue painting the future on a background of gold is to violently distort the facts.

The sycophant takes a more sophisticated approach. That explains why he always finds admiring readers, not infrequently even millions of them. An author only needs to convincingly persuade us that we perform godlike feats, and immediately we shudder in silent awe of ourselves. Yuval Noah Harari is a master in the art of whipping us into a frenzy of self-admiration. There are critics who dismiss his incantations as blather and accuse him of superficiality.*1* But such objections do not diminish his popularity. Our intoxication remains even when Harari calls the big problems by their names. In his perspective, the Enlightenment remains what it claimed to be from the beginning, a doctrine of redemption and apotheosis that turns people into gods. It is this self-exaltation of Homo scientificus to a divine being – Homo Deus – that casts a spell over the profane reader. Like Pinker, Harari hardly ever speaks as an expert – originally, he was a historian of Renaissance military affairs – yet he has managed to occupy the role of acting high priest for the scientific age. He talks with aplomb about nearly everything – and the world listens to his words with rapt attention, because Harari absolves us in the name of the Enlightenment – that is, as long as we, like him, firmly believe in science and progress.

The expert as a savior in times of need

In contrast to the crisis deniers and audience sycophants, we are dealing in Thurner’s case with a genuine and rather modest expert who informs us about a field of research in which he himself is active working in a renowned institution, the university of Wien. This circumstance makes him interesting for a publisher, because the examining editor does not need to check the knowledge presented; the responsible institution guarantees respectability.

The knowledge of specialists does, of course not suffice to make a nonfiction author interesting for a publisher. If his views are too abstract, theoretical or even too pessimistic, the author’s thoughts will never reach beyond scientific journals and a handful of experts – the usual fate of the majority of all publishing scientists. The recipe for success with a broader audience includes a catchily written analysis and diagnosis of the existing problems. This can be done without whitewashing, provided the book ends with placating suggestions for therapy that should be new and surprising. Almost all well-known non-fiction authors work according to this tried-and-tested pattern. I immediately think of Erich Fromm (psychoanalysis), Fritjof Capra and Hans-Peter Dürr (physics), Ernst F. Schumacher, Herman Daly, Acemoglu (economics) and McGilchrist (neurology). Each of these authors promises us salvation based on their particular field of knowledge. With some of them it consists in a fundamental change of consciousness. This is true of non-fiction authors such as Fromm, Capra, Dürr or, more recently, McGilchrist. In contrast, authors such as Schumacher, Daly, Acemoglu, but also Thurner, call for certain targeted interventions in existing institutions.

We know that important findings in all fields of research contribute, each in its own way, to help societies cope with some of the problems they face. The proposed therapeutic interventions and reforms generally document real advances in theoretical as well as applied knowledge. But I dare say that, looking back at all the proposals so far, another finding may be equally generalized, namely, that all these promises and hopes far exceeded the measure of what was actually achieved by their means, and more than that, what at best could have been achieved.

Stefan Thurner’s book is typical of the genre of the expert as savior in that the author takes the same line. On the other hand, we have to give him credit for a high degree of honesty. It is true that he promises the reader in the very first pages that the analysis of Big Data within complex networks would help us to recognize crisis developments in good time and to control them through sensible management. He wants to convince us that Big Data research and technology when applied to the analysis of complex networks are finally providing us with a tool to detect and contain the undesirable effects of our financial, economic, social and political actions. Thurner thus remains true to the basic line that the problems caused by technology and science can only be solved by using even more of the same, that is technology and science. This kind of homeopathy – the method of fighting like with like – has been self-evident among almost all scientists for more than two hundred years.

But there is one quality that makes Thurner particularly sympathetic. He does not conceal the numerous and weighty objections and concerns that inevitably arise when we deal with Big Data. For my part, I would like to try generalizing  these objections. All our actual progress in the control of nature can be traced back to the fact that the latter behaves predictably – at least within certain limits. If an electric power plant or a cell phone doesn’t generally fail us, it’s because they are predictable machines, just as the spectacular advances in medicine can only be explained by the fact that humans, too, are to some extent machines whose defective parts we can detect, repair, or even replace.

The successes we achieve in this way are spectacular, but they should not blind us to the limitations of this progress. For example, mastering nuclear fission in a nuclear power plant works only as long as the latter is and remains a closed system. If an earthquake, as in Fukushima, or improper intervention, as in Chernobyl, transforms it into an open system, it abruptly becomes unpredictable and we lose control. Now let us turn to Stefan Thurner’s book. A critical reader will soon detect the same limits in his proposals. The promise of controlling complex networks only applies to closed systems and even to these only with the proviso of simplification. But we know that the economic, social and political systems surrounding us are never completely closed – being open, they elude predictability and the domination based on it. In fact, Stefan Thurner’s book proves that Big Data creates far more problems than it eliminates (quotes will appear in italics).

Part II – the Pardus-universe by Stefan Thurner

According to his own testimony, the author’s attention was drawn to the possibilities of analyzing complex networks by a student’s dissertation consisting of a computer game called “Pardus” which reproduces reality as faithfully as possible by having the players act as in real life. The difference: every single action of every single player is being recorded. In each development phase of this reality game, the game master is thus informed exactly in which direction the network is moving. In other words, the game master is what God once used to be, a superior being known every thought and action of his subjects. The game master recognizes contradictory tendencies before they will cause social, financial or economic tensions. Since networks are complex structures in which undesirable developments can build up to tipping points that ultimately cause the collapse of the system, the prognostic value of such monitoring systems seems obvious. This is the positive vision which the author holds before our eyes again and again: The Pardus-universe proves that complexity in social systems can be controlled.

Incidentally, Stefan Thurner leaves no doubt that the computer game Pardus is already being successfully applied albeit for purposes that have been proven to be less than commendable. The global data monopolists include the usual suspects, namely companies like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, as well as intelligence agencies and cyber departments in the world’s defense ministries. They own user data on an immense scale and normally don’t let anyone else know what information is known about whom and how it is used. And his understandable conclusion is that a complete digital copy of the planet, comparable to that of the Pardus world, poses… huge dangers for massive manipulation.

I amazed, however, that in this listing of a brave new world, in which every action of the citizen and – if possible – even his every thought is registered by a mastermind, the most obvious example is conspicuously missing. In the People’s Republic of China, Pardus is currently being executed on one-fifth of humanity – according to the very specifications that information scientist Stefan Thurner declares to be his scientific goal. Pardus is the first world with a complete digital copy. Everything, the entire history of the Pardus universe, is written down – down to the smallest detail. Every movement, every action, every change, every interaction between avatars, everything is archived.Indeed, this is the very model that is currently being applied in China. By comprehensively logging the daily life of every Chinese in traffic, consumption, exchange of thoughts  either via the Internet or the telephone, or people’s changes of location, etc., the Chinese leadership wants to prevent exactly what Thurner sees as the real danger of complex networks. The misbehavior of individual citizens could add up and trigger tipping points that throw the system off balance or even lead to its collapse. Such events would destroy the goal of development as defined by the regime in Beijing. It is to make the Chinese state economically, politically and socially the most solid and powerful on the globe – a classic goal of any great power. This goal has already been nearly achieved more successfully and in less time – merely four decades – than anywhere else in the world.

It is therefore hardly understandable that Thurner overlooks this outstanding example for the application of the Pardus game as well as the fact that it is carried out in the name of science. The totalitarian surveillance of the citizens is practiced with the declared goal of realizing stability and material progress for the entire population of China in the fastest possible way and with the greatest efficiency. Anyone following developments in China can’t help but notice the overwhelming belief in, or even enthusiasm for, science. In Thurner’s book there is a lot of talk about China, but throughout in a negative sense. We suspect that he doesn’t want the reader to notice the fact that it is communist and totalitarian China that has long since put the computer game Pardus into practice.

Nor is it true when Thurner claims that this restriction of freedom… such as surveillance networks… does not /exist/ in Western civil society. As he himself concedes elsewhere, it is practiced just as extensively in Western societies by large corporations such as Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. They exercise private control over citizens, whereas in China control is in the hands of the state. Even before the rise of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence, private Western companies have been practicing comprehensive control of their employees. China as a whole behaves like a huge corporation, where everyone is sworn in to the goals of the management (the Chinese Politburo).

Even though Thurner underplays the fact, the resounding success of the Chinese Pardus system certainly proves the author of The Fragility of the World right. He does not even need to demonstrate to us that on a small scale certain subsystems can already be successfully stabilized, e.g. the financial system. With the understanding of the financial system as a complex, dynamic network system, its stabilization becomes a technical problem – with technical solutions. China is showing the world in many different areas how to conceive of the state as an automaton, where – so it might seem – all problems can then be solved in a purely technical way, at least as long as the state succeeds in forcing its citizens to place their actions (and, if possible, even their thoughts) entirely at the service of the goals set by the regime.

In fact, Thurner always thinks of China, even if it is taboo for him to declare it a world-historical proof of an applied Pardus game. For he cannot close his eyes to the success of this country. For example, it was able to raise the percentage of the population that has health insurance from ten percent in 2004 to 95 percent in 2016. China has also been able to make extreme progress in the fight against poverty… Market economy and industry seem to function smoothly even in dictatorships. I would add that there they even function particularly well as all factors that endanger their efficiency may be eliminated with scientific methodology.*2*

This success does, however, presuppose a closed system – because only under this condition do the parameters remain predictable. We saw that this proviso is not guaranteed even for systems as manageable as nuclear power plants. As in Fukushima or Chernobyl, an earthquake or human error can lead to unpredictable catastrophes. To a far greater extent, of course, this is true of human societies as a whole, as Thurner himself acknowledges when he says that the underlying complexity of /western civil society/ is scientifically indescribable at present.

But the limits of the Pardus game, and thus of scientific analysis and the control of reality, are not merely the result of complexity – China is a highly complex society like any other, yet this country demonstrates scientific analysis and control in terms of progress and stability (at the expense of freedom) better than any other. Complexity – even that of complex networks – can apparently be controlled. Only one thing will always elude this control: the fact that all natural systems are open and therefore never completely predictable.

China too had to learn this in the meantime. In its fight against the Corona pandemic, this country strictly adhered to the guidelines of science, i.e. the advice of leading experts. The temporary quarantine of large numbers of people gave this country two years of resounding success. In this country of more than one billion people, the number of infected persons was close to zero while in the United States about one million died in the same period. But then the unexpected happened. A far more contagious variant of the virus made it impossible to continue the policy of containment – it would have been necessary to quarantine virtually the entire country and risk a total collapse of the economy. Again, it was the scientific experts who recommended a radical change, but this change had serious consequences. Overnight, so to speak, the health care system is suddenly utterly overloaded – now it is China that is likely to suffer the death of millions of people. Like earthquakes, human error, or even unpredictable human needs (e.g., for freedom), the virus represents that portion of the unpredictable that comes with any open system.

The existence of each individual human being as well as that of entire economic, financial, social and political systems usually remains controllable – at least within certain limits. This circumstance explains why every single one of us has developed his or her own survival strategy and why mankind as a whole has succeeded in this so well that from isolated hunter-gatherers eight billions of the most successful living species could emerge. But the openness of every natural system and the fact that it is therefore never completely predictable is demonstrated to us vividly just at the present time. No one foresaw two hundred years ago that it would be our very success in the multiplication of material wealth through the use of fossil fuels that now threatens to overheat our globe and destroy human life. The poisoning of the environment by CO2 together with a thousand other residues of the raw materials processed by modern industries could simply not be foreseen. We proceeded in a scientific way thereby realizing that overwhelming progress that tempts authors like Yuval Noah Harari to rave about Homo Deus. But our calculations did not mention the toxins and the devastating effects caused by them – this was to be the open flank of modern industrial society.

Stefan Thurner is not blind to this fact. For him, this is one more reason to propagate analysis with the help of Big Data. After all, this would make it possible to comprehensively control the process of global warming in order to detect dangerous tipping points in time and avoid system collapse. But Thurner is enough of a realist to reject radical cures, because they would only replace the evils of global warming with others – equally drastic in the short term. We simply don’t want that while we protect ecological networks, economic and social /networks/ collapse and mass unemployment, social unrest, poverty and political chaos would be the foreseeable consequences… If we suddenly turned off the energy tap, it would be like cutting off the air to our society.

But if radical cures seem unfeasible, might it not be that we no longer have any chance at all to still avoid the overheating of the planet? Thurner proves his honesty when he admits that, according to leading experts, the right time for successful intervention has already been missed, because reaching the target (of two degrees) is no longer possible at all, according to Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, founder and former head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). And once we’re at two degrees, we’ll soon be at four degrees through a series of feedback loops, he estimates. John Rockström, another expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, foresees consequences for our species that, I would like to add, would be far more drastic than even the most terrible wars. „With a world four degrees warmer, it’s hard to see how we can fit a billion people, or even half that number, in it,“ he said.*3* Will Steffen, renowned climate scientist and IPCC collaborator, sums up his findings in one sentence: „The most likely scenario at present is collapse.“

What therapy does Thurner’s book promise for achieving a rapid phase-out of CO2 emissions? His prescription is as follows: First, the formulation of planetary rights. Second, the commitment of large segments of the population to these rights, and third, the creation of an executive power – an institution – to monitor compliance with planetary rights.

Two points in this list of measures correspond to the usual commitments made at climate conferences, which have had no effect so far and are unlikely to do so in the future. A single point – the same one I repeat mantra-like in all my work, namely the creation of an executive power, had already been demanded by the historian Arnold Toynbee. It could provide effective remedy. But Toynbee also knew that the partial renunciation of national sovereignty, which is a necessary condition for the creation of such a global executive, will not take place voluntarily but at best after mankind has suffered a more or less great catastrophe – we know that the European Union too was the result of the catastrophe of two devastating fratricidal wars.

*1* In his book „Ship of Fools“, British anthropologist Christopher Hallpike does not mince his words.

*2* Thurner, as I said, is of course aware of the objection that China will immediately impose itself on any critical reader of his book as an embodied real-world application of the Pardus game. To eliminate this association as much as possible, he compares the communist regime several times with the totalitarian Hitler dictatorship – in my opinion quite wrongly. Just to mention one misleading parallel, the bloody oppression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang can only be superficially compared to the mass murder of the Jews. The communist regime has nothing against minorities, provided they accept the goals of material progress of a secular state and the role of the party as the guiding authority in this process. If they do, the same opportunities for advancement are open to them as to the Han Chinese. This is entirely in keeping with the classical tradition of ancient China, where the bureaucratic elite of literati – called philosophers by Voltaire – saw the goal of a state in the preservation of prosperity and social peace. The unlearned masses had a right to material welfare, but they had to keep their mouths shut when the government of educated literati decided for them how this goal should be realized. Hitler, on the other hand, spoke openly about the need to invent the Jews if they did not exist. He needed enemies towards whom he could direct hatred and murderous instincts. The Jews were pushed out of all offices even when they assimilated completely. Yes, they were persecuted precisely because many of them were more successful than the Germans themselves.

*3* How optimistic, by comparison, the forecast of the well-known Canadian ecologist William Rees. According to him, the world could possibly get by with two billion people, given our current resource consumption. I quote him in my book Yes, we can – no, we must.

I am pleased by letters, but I will not publish any more comments.