Maybe it’s simply because I’ve been reading a book about complexity theory over the weekend, or maybe it’s because I just have a weird way of looking at things, but following the recent turn of events in Iraq (and especially of course Najaf), I can’t help noticing how something which in the grand scheme of things is apparently so small and relatively insignificant can be having such a huge global impact.
Indeed at one point it did really seem to be the case that the whole future of the world economy might have turned on the posession of a set of keys (obviously the Clavis Universalis, or could it be that all the delay is due to someone having a spare-set cut on the quiet: meantime the price of Brent crude spikes up and down).
Now obviously what is happening is not a fitting subject for frivolity, nor is it my explicit intention to open a further debate on Iraq in this ‘post-ette’. What I want to draw attention to is the extraordinary inter-connectedness of things. An apparently minor cleric, in what was previously a fairly obscure part of the planet, seems to be engaged in a stand-off with the president of the most powerful state, and while all this is taking place the future of all our livelihoods hangs in the balance. This is something new, isn’t it?
Surprisingly it seems what we are observing is extraordinarily consonant with some recent work in random graph theory carried out on a pretty abstract level by two US-based theorists, Strogatz and Watts, in the late ninetees. Summarising enormously, in their original work S&W started out with a model of a fairly ordered network and started adding connections between nodes at random. What they found was something which the scientific world in general found pretty interesting. The addition of each additional random connection was having minimal impact on the clustering component of the net, but it was having a huge impact on the number of degrees of separation between nodes: before random linking the measure had been up around 50, after tossing in a few links they found this had suddenly dropped to 7.
Now to present a rather abstract, but at one and the same time rather interesting, question: isn’t the process of globalisation rather akin to throwing an increasing number of random connections into what was a previously fairly ordered and structured system? Mightn’t this be a fruitful way of looking at things?
Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie has long been arguing that the principal beneficiary of Greenspan’s monetary easing in the US has been the Shanghai housing market. I can’t recall what the final outcome of the investigation into the last foot and mouth outbreak in the UK actually was, but at one time there was the perfectly plausible speculation that it could have arisen via a sandwich purchased in Asia being thrown into the UK rubbish system. I myself have posted here on how the reduction of the water table level in China may impact on European bread prices, etc etc.
What we seem to need are some new measures of degrees of sensitivity.
And to return to the original point: perhaps the big news from Najaf isn’t who is (or isn’t) in possession of a given set of keys, nor the poor unfortunates who are being blown apart in the neighbouring streets. No, the big news is the impact that all this is having, in real time, on a much, much wider stage.
Update: now we do know that “all the world’s a stage”, but this news in from the Financial Times does only add to the heightened theatrical dimension of what in reality is a huge tragedy being played out before our eyes.
“Negotiations to return the keys of the Imam Ali mausoleum to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, stalled over demands by Mr Sadr that a committee be formed to audit treasures held underneath the tomb that is at the centrepiece of the complex.
Mr Sadr’s spokesmen said on Monday that the debate was now about who would take part in the committee, claiming that they do not want to be accused of looting the goods held in the shrine. These are believed to include ancient carpets and precious jewellery.”