Socio-Cultural Longitude

A BEYOND BORDERS column by David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Our community is familiar with the considerable challenge posed throughout nautical history of determining longitude at sea. The need for both accurate celestial observation and precise time keeping — accurate data and a precise mechanical model — stymied all efforts at geolocation until the 18th century. In Isaac Newton’s 1714 report to the Board of Longitude he wrote, “But, by reason of the motion of the Ship, the Variation of Heat and Cold, Wet and Dry, and the Difference of Gravity in different Latitudes, such a watch hath not yet been made.” The watch was made subsequently by John Harrison in 1751 — the celebrated H4.

Over the last several months nations of the world have foundered for want of policy direction. Navigating out of the pandemic and its ramifying consequences has proved too complex for elected leadership. A near-quantum life-form has revealed the limitations of our knowledge and instruments of implementation. Novel factors that are in many ways the complex analogs to those Newton enumerated in his report — his variations of heat and cold, wet and dry, and differences of gravity — have made single-factor policy recommendations fail. So what are these factors? They are not heat and cold but sociability and isolation, not wet and dry but physical and virtual markets, and not difference of gravity but differences of culture. In place of each of Newton’s classical complications we substitute complex mechanisms in desperate need of understanding, and for which we do not have a suitable Harrison H4. Of course I mean an H4 science of complex systems.

Before the H4 were several less viable experiments. None from the H1, H2, or H3 models had sufficient sophistication to solve the problem of longitude. Each model introduced a new innovation aimed at solving a single challenge — power reserve, temperature sensitivity, and wear and tear. The H4 addressed all of these with diamond pallets, the “maintaining power system,” and temperature compensators.

People the world over have acquired a passing familiarity with epidemic models, critical threshold values for transmission (R0), comorbidities, and exponential growth. But these insights into the pandemic are like Harrison’s H1–3; they focus on a few elements of the problem. The pandemic is every bit as much a problem of the non-linear dynamics of markets, the cognitive biases of decision-makers, the collective dynamics of groups, and the coevolution of biological species — humans, mammalian food sources, and viral agents.

My colleague Geoff West and I call this a complexity crisis: a two-fold event. First, it is the failure of multiple coupled systems — our physical bodies, cities, societies, economies, and ecosystems; and second, it involves solutions, such as social distancing, that involve unavoidable trade-offs, some of which amplify the primary failures.

We need models and theories to solve the socio-cultural longitude problem. To provide both citizens and leadership with ideas that they might transform into robust policy vectors. Some of those ideas are already at hand but insufficiently known and SFI has a duty to communicate these insights more effectively. But my deepest hope is that the crisis has made abundantly clear that we live in a complex world that requires truly integrated systems thinking. And that SFI will be valued not only because its science is at the forefront of rigorous methodologies, but because its problem domain is the prime meridian of the modern world.

From the Summer 2020 Edition of the SFI Parallax. Read here.



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Santa Fe Institute

Santa Fe Institute

The Santa Fe Institute is an independent research center exploring the frontiers of complex systems science.