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Social physics: Are we at a tipping point in world history?

Does history have a grand narrative, or is it just a random walk to no place in particular? And is the world as we know it about to change?

Credit: fotofabrika / Adobe Stock

Key Takeaways
  • This moment in history feels different, as if we really are on the cusp of something epoch-making for good or ill. Does that mean we're at a tipping point?
  • If we are, then we can ask two questions: (1) Does history have a grand narrative? (2) Is there an arc to history?
  • Social physics, which is a branch of complex system theory, can help answer these questions.

This moment in history certainly feels different. The assumptions built into the Cold War and post-Cold War political order that I grew up with are evaporating. Digital technologies are pushing us into entirely new and unknown social forms at speeds that make even the last century’s change seem languid. And, most importantly, the planet’s climate is changing rapidly in ways that are likely to push hard on our global project of civilization. Looking at all these movements of politics, culture, and even the planet itself, it is hard to know if there are greater forces at work or whether it is all just a random mess of chaos.

In other words, is there an arc to history, or is it just a random walk to no place in particular?

Now, I am just a simple country astrophysicist and not a historian, so my perspective on this question skews in two directions. First, I do think (and write) a lot on the history of science and technology. I am particularly interested in the way science and culture have been braided over the last five centuries to create this high-tech, energy-intensive version of human civilization. Second, a new and fascinating transdisciplinary field of social physics is emerging that combines history, statistical mechanics, and data science to look for deeper (and even predictive) patterns during human events.

So, beginning from these two perspectives, let’s ask the question again in two different ways: (1) Does history have a grand narrative? (2) Is there an arc to history?

Does history have a grand narrative?

A grand narrative is a constellation of ideas and stories that attempts to make sense of a particular moment in history. The Enlightenment is an example of a grand narrative. Beginning in the mid 1700s, people across Europe began assembling a set of new ideas about a society based on reason and equality. They were rejecting the old feudal social and religious orders and seeking to replace them with something they imagined would be better. Science played an essential part in this conception of “better.” The already stunning progress of science served as a model that Enlightenment thinkers believed could be used to progress toward something more just, free, and equitable. In this way, the Enlightenment thinkers believed there was a grand narrative for their moment in history, and by fleshing it out in ideas, they provided a kind of mental blueprint for what followed.

Looking at all these movements of politics, culture, and even the planet itself, it is hard to know if there are greater forces at work or whether it is all just a random mess of chaos.

But was that blueprint really followed? Or is it just in 20/20 hindsight that we pull something out of the randomness of events and call it “The Enlightenment”? It is, after all, easy to see how random events can shape history. There is the old ditty about how “for the want of a shoe the horse was lost.” That random event leads all the way to the loss of a kingdom. It is hard to deny that randomness and chaos also play a part in the course of events.

Is there an arc to history?

So, let’s ask the second version of our question: Is there an arc to history?

This is where social physics comes in. Social physics is really just a branch of complex system theory (which is a field you can expect a lot more posts on because it is currently blowing my mind). Complex systems embrace everything from cells to microbial colonies to ecosystems to financial systems to human societies. It is truly a transdisciplinary field that uses insights from all kinds of domains to build something entirely new. One of those insights is the recognition of how randomness can play a central role in pushing a system from one “state” to another.

Complex systems are, well… complex. There can be many variables or degrees of freedom that comprise them. For a social order, it may be the level of economic output, income inequality, literacy, life expectancy, and so forth. What is amazing about complex systems is that, in spite of this complexity, they can settle into stable configurations for long periods. You may have kings and lords and clergy and serfs for 1000 years or more. During that time, random events are always happening. Things like bad harvests occur, and they may lead to bread riots in the villages. But somehow those random events do not perturb the system’s stability.

Tipping points

But then there are moments in the system’s evolution when it begins nearing what are called “critical points” or “tipping points.” The background dynamic of the system is ripe for being blown up. It is only at a critical point that a random bread riot can suddenly escalate into a storming of the palace, which then leads to an overturn of the ruling council, which then possibly leads to an entirely new social arrangement.

For me at least, complex systems help us understand how the two forms of the question about grand narratives get put together. The arc of history is not smooth, and it is not determined beforehand. Randomness as a social system approaches critical points is all important. But grand narratives spun by writers, philosophers, artists, politicians, and scientists can create a background of ideas. As you near a tipping point, those ideas can get picked up and amplified to become the organizing principles for the new arrangement that emerges.

So, the big questions now become: (1) Are we near a tipping point? (2) What are the new ideas that stand ready to take us someplace new and better?

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