The main idea behind complex systems is that the ensemble behaves in way not predicted by the components. The interactions matter more than the nature of the units. Studying individual ants will never (one can safely say never for most such situations), never give us an idea on how the ant colony operates. For that, one needs to understand an ant colony as an ant colony, no less, no more, not a collection of ants.
This is the intro to an intriguing online essay by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best known as author of The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, and one of the most interesting (if also infuriating) writers about systems there is.
The piece is called ‘The Most Intolerant Wins: the Tyranny of the Small Minority’, and as the title suggests it shows how in some circumstances the interactions of the parts cause outcomes for the system as a whole that, looking at the components, might seem impossible.
For instance: in the US most soft drinks are, apparently, kosher. Strict kosher observers make up only a tiny fraction of the population – so how come? Because while kosher-eaters won’t touch non-kosher lemonade, the reverse is not the case: non-kosher people will happily quaff kosher drinks. The asymmetry means that for the shopkeeper it’s a no-brainer: to satisfy most customers he needs only stock a range of kosher soft drinks. Gradually, what was a minority choice comes to dominate.
Hence Taleb’s minority rule: in given conditions, a majority will find itself adapting to, or dominated by, the preferences or will of an intransigent minority, even a tiny one.
Once you get this, there are implications everywhere. One of the conditions for minority rule to work is that complying should not entail extra cost for the more flexible (or indifferent) majority. That’s the case for kosher lemonade, which is no more expensive than other varieties – but not for kosher (or halal) meat, whose slaughter methods levy a cultural cost which many non-kosher eaters are not prepared to pay. If they were aware of it, organic and Fair Trade producers could conceivably benefit from the minority rule much more than they do. Currently their goods are typically much more expensive than the competition. But if they could bring prices down of the level of non-organics, many more outlets might quietly make them the norm, avoiding the cost of stocking both organic and non-organic ranges.
Taleb’s rule can also work in more sinister ways. In Michel Ouellebecq’s brilliantly imagined novel Submission, a minority Muslim Brotherhood party gets itself into power by making it easy for a disillusioned, jittery French electorate to accept a relaxed Sharia law in return for a quiet material life and an almost Gaullist programme of family respect, educational reform and strong leadership.
Or how about a striking commercial example that I came across as I was thinking about Taleb’s piece. For two decades, the giant US chemicals and seeds firm Monsanto has successfully sold a strain of soyabeans genetically modified to resist its potent (and lucrative) Roundup weedkiller. The snag is that as Roundup use has intensified, so has growth of ‘superweeds’ resistant to it, with drastic consequences for farmers’ livelihoods. In response, Monsanto has developed, and marketed, a new soyabean strain called Xtend, which can withstand not only Roundup but a second type of herbicide. The newer chemical has yet to gain regulatory approval. But this has not prevented some hard-pressed farmers from planting the seeds and spraying them with older, highly volatile formulations of the chemical – laying waste thousands of acres of neighbouring fields planted with the older, pre-Xtend seeds. It is now reported that many farmers using Monsanto’s older soyabean strain are being forced to adapt to the minority and adopt the new one to avoid being wiped out by their neighbours.
Actually, although this is a battle that Monsanto might win in the short term, Big Agriculture may be in the process of losing the GM war – ironically because its scientific intuition does not stretch to the workings of complex systems. Its hardball tactics (lobbying, propaganda, smear campaigns against opponents) have radically misfired. Convincing a majority with no strong feelings to eat GM is beside the point; what matters much more is that its methods have created an immovable obstacle in the shape of an irreducible nucleus of people who will never, ever touch GM food, and who, like Taleb, actively proselytise against it. The fact is that the flexible majority who don’t mind eating GM will also consume non-GM. So, since there is minimal cost penalty, food manufacturers will eventually bow to the obstreporous minority and remove GM ingredients from their products – and this is exactly what is beginning to happen.
Finally, consider soaraway executive pay. There is no evidence, empirical or moral, in favour of current pay levels (on some calculations, the higher the pay the worse the corporate performance), and almost no one outside the charmed circle even tries to defend them. Yet they keep on rising inexorably year on year.
On the other side, of course, sits an obdurate blocking minority (those receiving those amounts) who will never voluntarily surrender their licence to pocket a fortune – that after all is the unspoken prize for reaching the top. Colleague CEOs on remuneration committees are naturally loath rock the boat they are also sitting in, fund managers with the same incentives as corporate managers are more concerned with what’s happening to the share price than to the CEO’s wallet, and the same goes for individual shareholders. Which is why it is safe to bet that self-regulation will continue to fail, and that short of an explicit change in corporate governance or company law the pay ratchet will continue to click merrily upwards.
There is much food for thought here. Leveraging this kind of systems dynamic isn’t easy or obvious, particularly where it involves hard-to-manage cultural or other prohibitions. Some of the most potent examples are (fortunately) difficult to replicate. As Taleb points out, the steady rise of Islam in the Middle East was driven not only by Islamic marriage rules (to marry a Muslim woman a non-Muslim man must convert, and any child with even one Muslim parent is Muslim) – but also by the fact that conversion is a one-way street. As Salman Rushdie can testify, public apostates risk death. A favourable asymmetrical rule plus draconian enforcement makes for a pretty powerful ratchet.
But other minorities can take heart. As we have seen, the softer version – unyielding at the core, emollient at the edges – can also take non-systems-aware opponents by surprise. The key is utter intransigence on the central principles, and what Taleb calls ‘skin in the game’, or commitment. Perhaps the anthropologist Margaret Mead was reflecting on the minority rule in action when she famously wrote: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’.