In complexity science, a phase transition is an abrupt shift from a state of relative chaos to a state of greater order, or the reverse, that occurs as a result of the behavior of the components that make up a system. Phase transitions represent a holistic change in the overall arrangement and dynamics of the system’s structure, which often leads to a qualitative change. Most people are familiar with the basic phase transitions that are taught in high school chemistry, such as liquid water freezing into ice under cold temperatures. During this transition, the H2O molecules are transformed into a more stable configuration, from a liquid phase to a solid one. More complicated phase transitions occur in nature, and the process occurs at varying levels of abstraction. A more complex example is when flocks of birds fly in unison, forming shapeshifting geometric patterns that seem to constrain and partially guide the pack, a phenomenon that is stunning to watch. We can even think of the emergence of human civilization as a phase transition, in which chaos collapsed into order. Phase transitions are crucial to understanding emergent phenomena, as it is the means through which higher levels of organization come about. They also occur in a wide range of systems, including biological and social systems. While the chaotic state of affairs in America that have emerged since Donald Trump took office seem like they could be leading to a new dark age, where qualities like truth and logic are not valued, it is more likely that we are experiencing the natural growing pains that occur just before a phase transition to greater order and functionality takes place.
It is worth emphasizing that for such a transition to occur there must first be some chaos in the system. It has been commonly said that emergence of higher levels of organization happen at “the edge of chaos.” If conditions are too stable, the flexibility required to evolve into something new is simply not there. In fact, complexity theory and chaos theory are intimately related, as complexity is often a result of the self-amplifying cycles we see in well-known chaotic systems, like weather systems. Self-amplification explains how a tiny gust of wind created by the flapping of a butterfly’s wing in Brazil could conceivably spiral into a tornado on the other side of the world weeks later. This is known as “the butterfly effect,” but this sort of unbridled self-amplification can occur at different levels of complexity—even at the level of human society.
Through feedback loops, messages—like political propaganda in the form of articles and memes—can quickly become amplified and pervasive. For example, imagine that someone shares something with their network, then those people share it with the people in their network, who share it with their networks, and so on. This exponential process is especially common in our age, the age of social media and virality, and it is part of the reason for the great division we are currently witnessing in America. Tribalism is a consequence of the mass psychological effects caused by the rampant spread of highly politicized journalism and meme-length social commentary. Because our cultural worldviews—like our religious affiliations, ethnic identities, and political ideologies—make us feel comforted and safe, news stories and posts that are politically charged are subconsciously perceived as existential threats by those who hold the opposing worldview. The current political polarization is due to the emotional effects of the self-amplification of viral material that threatens one’s worldviews.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Behind the scenes, there are other dynamic processes playing out, many that will have positive effects. Now there are more ways to socially connect with people than ever, allowing greater information flow. This inevitably promotes greater awareness and knowledge. It is also a mathematical fact that increasing the number of connections between nodes increases the computational power of that network. If society is seen as being composed of various human networks with each individual being a node, then social media must create some powerful network effects.
While one could argue that hyperconnection among humans could be harmful if the information being spread is misinformation, it is important to recognize misinformation is only effective if people are already uninformed, gullible, or susceptible to bias. Instead of seeing society as having fallen into a post-truth era, we can look at what’s going on as illuminating a problem that was already present, but grew out of control. Whether you are on the Right or Left, you are likely well aware that there is fake news, biased news, and news designed to entertain, since that is what drives clicks and ratings. Even those who consume and spread fake news often know that what they are spreading is biased, or somewhat disingenuous. The problem will persist for some time, but at least our awareness of the problem has matured. Furthermore, the misinformation problem has catalyzed some very serious efforts to combat the spread of fake and biased news, such as watch-dog websites, and even AI programs, that are specifically designed to allow people to better judge the authenticity of a story or “fact.” The Trump era didn’t create the misinformation crisis, it exposed it. The potential existed long before, and now we are learning how to stomp out that potential.
What’s more, in the midterm elections, the voter turnout numbers reached new highs. More people are becoming politically active, and that can never be a bad thing in the long term. People are inspired to become agents of change, and are inspiring others to do the same. While hashtags might seem frivolous at this point, they actually are a novel and effective means of initiating widespread change. Targeted political discussion forums on popular boards like Reddit are more numerous than ever. These times may seem dark, but we are likely on the cusp of a major phase transition that leads to a more robust and functional political, social, and economic system. As complexity science and the phenomenon of emergence have shown us, new and improved forms of order cannot come into existence without some chaos. Take a deep breath and relax, because this windy and tumultuous path we are on ultimately leads to greater enlightenment.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.
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