Thursday, January 20, 2005

The trouble with nonlinearity

There is no good way to graph our thought processes. But if we did, I think the way in which we perceive and act in the world would look like a series of gently sloping lines. We expect that the future will look pretty much like the recent past. We expect trends to be more or less continuous. The stock market will go up. Gas prices tomorrow will not to be too different from what they are today. Our regular lunch place will have one of the items we always get.

Our modern technical way of life is built to cushion the ebb and flow of food and water and energy that nature might bestow on us and to make them a constant stream. The light switch works. The heat goes on. The car starts. But, when something goes awry, we get peevish and often disoriented. We think it's unfair that the world has sent us a little piece of nonlinearity. But, even as we get hit again and again by breakdowns in our routine, we expect the nice gentle sloping curves of our mind to be restored. And, they often are after a struggle and some anger. And then, we get used to the new state we are in, lulled once more into the linear experience that makes us feel safe and in charge.

This classic graph shows that we zip merrily along a road even as the traffic increases until at some point we end up in a traffic jam. And we wait and we wait, and we fume and we fume. But, we fume because we think this shouldn't happen. And, we seem to forget such things happen regularly almost as soon as they are over.

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Our love for the predictable sloping lines of our minds makes pronouncements that we risk a nonlinear future--runaway global warming or a sudden and enduring energy crisis--seem impossible to accept or even entertain. "That's not how things work," the mind tells us. And, then we get outward reinforcement. "People have predicted terrible things before, and look, we're fine," the skeptic says.

That's the trouble with nonlinearity. The skeptic is right until the precise moment when he or she becomes very, very wrong.

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