Thursday, May 26, 2011

Self Organizing After the Tornado

Tornado in central Oklahoma, 1999. Credit: NOAA
Last night, I switched on the television to check the latest news about the ongoing string of tornadoes in the US. Anderson Cooper was on CNN, interviewing people who were having trouble locating their friends and family members. The network was resorting to publishing photos and phone numbers of the missing to try and reconnect people with their loved ones. Several videos were shown of injured and exhausted folks waiting in line for hours on end to talk to a representative of FEMA or another government agency, sometimes just for permission to go to their neighborhood and look for the missing.

We should not, in 2011, be responding to disasters this way, with all we know about how people self-organize following disasters. It is well-known from studies of the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and several other well-studied disasters that people develop ad-hoc communication networks to help each other cope with the aftermath of a disaster. Our disaster response strategy should reflect this knowledge, but it doesn't. We continue to react to disasters as if people were members of a military unit and can be ordered around, instead of working with their natural tendency to connect and care for one another.

Some of the complexity scientists studying disasters and response efforts using a complex systems approach include Carter Butts at the University of California-Irvine, Noshir Contractor at Northwestern University, Louise Comfort at the University of Pittsburgh, and others. I will be writing future posts with more details about the insights these complex systems scientists have found about how people respond to disasters.  

We can, and should, use technology to facilitate the natural self-organization potential that people possess. However, relying on television broadcasting and telephones, particularly when the cell phone network has been damaged, is not bringing the full potential of our technological abilities to bear on this problem. Here are just two examples of more up-to-date efforts to apply what we know from complex systems science to disaster response:
  • Google's people-finder project has been used to reconnect folks after several recent major disasters, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in New Zealand and the recent flooding in Australia.
  • The Emergency Mapping Service, an international organization combines GPS satellite data with on-ground information to produce maps that first-responders can use as they carry out their relief efforts. 
An excellent blog, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, focuses on the implications that complexity science has for foreign aid and humanitarian response in both disaster settings, as well as situations involving chronic conditions of poverty, drought, famine, etc.

In future posts, I will explore this topic in more detail. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When Our World Changes

Available for Kindle and Nook


In early October, 2001, when we were all still reeling from the attacks of September 11, I put pen to paper, to deal with my sense that the world had fundamentally changed. I started to write, because that's what I always do when faced with events in my life that I don't understand and am not coping with. I'm a writer, and writers write to make sense of their world.

And before long, I realized that the reason I felt the world had changed in fundamental ways, was because it had. I had a strong feeling that we were in the midst of a world-wide transition of such dramatic proportions that it might be the type of change complex systems scientists refer to as a bifurcation.

During a bifurcation, the attractor that characterizes the dynamics of a system changes abruptly and discontinuously, and the forces that governed the behavior of that system also change in fundamental ways. What used to organize the systems workings and operations, no longer does, and what has replaced that previous organizing force is not immediately obvious.

Because I knew that bifurcations are extremely disruptive but also indicate that a new organizing principle is coming into existence, I realized that the chaos and confusion we were experiencing was only temporary, as was the sense of unity and singular purpose that many of us also felt. A new world was coming into existence and we didn't yet know what it was, although those first few weeks held many clues about the new reality we would soon come to refer to as the "post-9/11 world."

Now, almost ten years later, it seems as if we might be closing a chapter in that post-9/11 story. The death of Osama bin Laden has brought to a conclusion one of the defining characteristics of the new world that came into existence that day, and just as it was nearly ten years ago, we really have no idea what the new world that awaits us will be like. The ongoing popular uprisings in the middle east and north Africa provide more than a hint of evidence that our world is going through another bifurcation.

A few days ago, I re-issued the essay that I wrote in those early weeks following September 11, 2001, this time in electronic form for the Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-readers, formats that didn't even exist at the time this essay was first drafted. The essay, originally published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in their print publication, IONS Review, was widely distributed, and even translated into Spanish at one point. 

The scientific language has changed somewhat (the field was known as "nonlinear science" or even "chaos science" back then, but most people now refer to it as "complexity science") but I have decided to leave the old language intact. Despite the slight change in language, the concepts remain extremely relevant, and can help us navigate through turbulent times in society as well as weather the dramatic upheavals we all experience in our personal lives. 

If you don't own a Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook reader, you can still read this essay using one of the free Nook apps or free Kindle apps available for almost any computer platform.

Finally, I would like to send a big Thank You to IONS for publishing my essay in the first place and for permission to re-issue it at this time. Check the IONS website for more details about their ongoing work in the juicy interface between science, spirituality, religion and consciousness studies.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Even More Adventures in Publishing

I received an automated email from Amazon last night saying, basically, "Congratulations, your book has been published," which didn't surprise me too much since I'd just finished uploading my fifth short story to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing site. 

The next line was very exciting, though, and invited me to set up an Author page on Amazon.com.  I've seen these pages for other authors, but didn't know how to initiate the process. I dropped what I was doing, followed the links and instructions provided in the email--and within (literally) twenty minutes, I had my new Author page!

As with e-publishing itself, the process was extremely easy and fast, and I was even able to provide RSS feeds for my blogs. I was also invited to link my twitter account to this page, so all of you who don't follow me on Twitter get the great privilege of reading my latest tweet on Amazon.

I have a couple more short stories to upload, and will then turn my attention to re-publishing an essay I wrote in October 2001, just weeks after 9/11, in which I explain how the world encountered a bifurcation that day when planes crashed into the twin towers in New York. The points made in that essay remain valid today, nearly ten years later, so stay tuned for the re-release of my essay, "Life Lessons From the Newest Science."