Sunday, December 26, 2010

branching states

"State" here refers to a snapshot view of what's going on in a complex dynamic system.

A branching state is one that can go two or more different ways, which is to say one for which subsequent states are not just unpredictable but intrinsically indeterminate. There is a trivial sense in which this is always true, due to the impossibility of knowing precisely what's happening in any real complex system (as opposed to a computer simulation), but that's not what I'm talking about here.

A branching state is one that falls within the range of precursory conditions for more than one distinct outcome. In practical terms the art of creating and maintaining options is one of intentionally creating a branching state and delaying its resolution into commitment to a specific outcome. This is sometimes referred to as hedging one's bets, and accomplishing it without duplicate expenditure is the essence of good business management.

But branching states don't belong only to business; they're found in particle physics, music, and even the martial arts (techniques that originate in or pass through a common state which serves as an opportunity to switch between them). It's one of those general principles that form the vocabulary of systems.

Now for the point. I have a hunch humanity as a whole is either in or fast approaching a branching state, one that could go any of several very different ways. This is both scary and cause for hope. Change is a given, of course; it's the character of that change that remains in doubt.

Perhaps this would be a good time to take a lesson from business management, cultivating patience for the ambiguity of the situation, in the faith that the choices before us will become clearer with time, doing what seems best in the meantime.

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