Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Change required for change - a common conundrum

I have witnessed an interesting trend from experts lately. And probably have for a long time, but only recently noticed. They all simply state the obvious - change can happen when change happens.

Maybe an example would help me explain. I watched an interesting movie lately called Where in the world is Osama bin Laden. The guy from Supersize Me goes in search of bin Laden, and along the way interviews an expert on the Middle East. He says, that peace will come, but whenever the process gets started, someone goes and blows something up. Only when people stop fighting for long enough can we begin the peace process. To translate – when peace comes, peace comes. The ‘process of peace’ is peace itself – so where on Earth do you start?

Another example. On the news a few nights ago, an expert on eating disorders said (and I’ll just paraphrase) “that people need to accept their eating disorder and overcome their emotional attachment before therapy can take place”. So, therapy only works if you’ve already cured yourself!

This got me thinking about the origins of change. If the experts can at best say that change comes because change comes, where did it really come from?

I think I’ve found an answer in agent-based computational modelling (ACM). What is that you might ask? Well it’s basically a computer tool that can show how the individual actions of agents (people) in an environment can generate order on a macro level. You simply give each agent a set of rules to live by, and then run the program. As the agents interact with each other and their environment, they simply follow the rules, and you often get amazing patterns occurring.

ACM has been used to show how cooperation can emerge from a population of selfish individuals. As they interact they learn how cooperation can bring beneficial outcomes. But occasionally one of the agents stops cooperating, and depending on the strategy of the others, they can all act selfishly again. But then, cooperation can build up once more.

There are parallels between this and the dilemma of peace in the Middle East. When peace appears to be on its way, one agent stops cooperating, then all the previous cooperation collapses. Then the whole thing starts again.

ACM also has found that long periods of cooperation actually reinforces cooperation by making individuals tolerant of small discrepancies from other agents. But at some point agents will begins to abuse this tolerance. They will free ride, until there are so many free-riders that the others stop benefiting from cooperation, and we start the process once more. The optimistic finding of one of these models is that after a few long periods of peace, a final period of peace emerged that was sustained until the limits of computational power. My only concern is that in this model agents lived forever, and my suspicion is that if agents reproduce, due to lack of experience of the population, the chances of getting to this point are much lower.

Anyway, the expert was right the peace is needed for peace.

The big feature of ACM is that radical changes can appear to happen spontaneously in an environmental where every agent is simple following the same set of rules. Individual actions change even though the rules they are applying stay the same. So the eating disorder person may simply one day ‘snap out of it’ simply because the unconscious, instinctual rules tell us to – just like the got us into it in the first place.

I would like some more examples of change requiring change if you have any.


  1. Cameron,

    Great work. You are doing a service to our community by thinking a little deeper about our lives.Hopefully it's contagious! Have you thought about the fact that when describing complex ideas or events, a grammatical error can have serious implications? Taking the time to proof read will show intelligent, discerning readers that there is some substance to the mind behind the blog.

  2. Stuart,

    Your comment is very much appreciated. And yes, I know my grammar needs attention, and proof reading often gets neglected. I am writing a thesis at the moment, and find that I can't proof read my own work very well, as I seem to only read what I thought I wrote, not what's on the page! But I will definitely take this on board for future posts.
    Thanks once again