May 7, 2009

Future Proof: Tornadoes and Turbulence

When I was sixteen, I saw my first tornadoes. My family had decided to visit some friends in Cheyenne, Wyoming, so we loaded up the van and made the trip from Peoria Illinois, encountering unsettled weather conditions all during the two day trek. As we were unloading our bags, I noticed my father periodically staring up at the sky, which had taken on a peculiar green cast to it. A few minutes passed, the sky became darker and more ominous, then out of the maelstrom one, then two, until finally six twisters came snaking down from the clouds. For nearly half an hour we watched as the tornadoes ran along a couple of ridges, occasionally flattening one house then hoping over the next, until finally the storm lost enough strength and the twisters became wispier and more tentative until they finally faded altogether.

By the end, the twisters had collectively destroyed 200 homes, flipped numerous cars, caused significant damage to the governor's mansion, and threw a commuter plane through the door of an aircraft hangar. It was one of the most destructive tornadic storms to ever hit the state, and gave me a healthy appreciation for the power, majesty and mindless destructiveness of nature.

One of the most interesting facts about tornadoes is also one of the least appreciated. Tornadoes come from thunderstorms - as anyone who has seen the ominous green thunderheads can attest to, but they are not, in fact, part of the the powerful circulating cyclonic cell of hot moist air and cold dry air that make up most thunderstorms. Instead, they arise due to turbulence along the edges of this large rotating system. Thunderstorms can move quickly, and can rotate quickly. As they do so, they drag the air around them, but this drag is uneven ... and is influenced by such factors as the topography of the ground, the overall viscosity of the air and the formation of wind sheers and streams ahead of the storm - in other words, the environment external to the storm itself.

Tornadoes are directly related to the vortices you get when you run your hand through water in a trough or other constrained place - they are islands of temporary stability within an otherwise unstable environment. They also act to siphon off a lot of the potential energy within the storm itself, converting that energy into kinetic energy, which eventually dissipates as drag with the rest of the environment. Once the tornadoes release their energy, this also typically pushes the storm down a level of organization and energy to the point where it can no longer hold the water vapor that it is carrying, which then causes the heavy rains that usually follow such storms as the structure dissipates.

Every system, including systems of abstraction, requires energy of some sort to maintain it. Similarly, every system interacting with those things outside of that system create drag on the system, resulting in turbulence. Turbulence should be seen as the transfer of energy out of a system into the environment, and as such is very closely linked with thermodynamics. This holds as true of software and social structures as it does of physical systems, as long as you understand that in both cases what you are dealing with are systems of nested abstractions.

This doesn't mean that outside of every social structure there's a giant whirlpool or tornado waiting to happen. Rather, it's worth understanding that any system is made up of interacting parts that for the most part have achieved a fairly high degree of internal efficiency. One way of thinking about this is that the system has a certain momentum associated with it - energy and information moves through the system in such a way as to keep the system cohesive.

However, especially at the edges, this energy drags against the outside world, and in so doing, it creates pools of resistance, and counterveiling forces. Normally, such forces are comparatively small, and in many ways can actually contribute to the underlying cohesiveness of the primary system because they create a barrier of insulation against external stimulae or impulses - the turbulent counterflows absorb the attack, dissipating or at least blunting the impact upon the system. One way of thinking about this is that people may have a particular ambivalence about leader or political group, but they fear change from outside more than they do the status quo ("better the devil you know than the one you don't").

However, in the presence of other dynamic systems, sometimes the turbulence that emerges becomes large enough and cohesive enough to became stable in its own right, especially as one particularly stable "whirlpool" merges with another.

A good example of this can be seen in the rise of Open Source software. Microsoft in particular had managed to dominate the software sector by the mid-1980s, and with it the proprietary software model become the accepted mode of operation by the mid-1990s. However, Microsoft also ended up stirring both resentment among other development groups and concern among customers that were afraid of vendor lock-in.

This set up turbulence for Microsoft's "system". Any one piece of that turbulence - Linus Torvald's invention of Linux, the rise of Apache as an increasingly popular browser, the GNU GPL, Sun's releasing of the Star Office code as Open Office, and so forth, individually bled small amounts of energy from Microsoft, but nothing that seriously impeded its own growth. However, each piece of turbulence would interact with others, and after a while a new countervailing system emerged out of that turbulence. A tornado or whirlpool is a cohesive system that draws on the energy of the overall hypercell, and the larger or more powerful the tornado becomes, the more it bleeds off energy from the main cell. Open source soon began to bleed away the proprietary model that Microsoft most clearly embodied at the time, pulling in more developers, more investment, more potential users.

Up to a certain point, the energy entering into a system ends up as more turbulence and more quasi-stable neo-systems, as well as providing the necessary glue for smaller systems to merge into larger ones. However, there's a certain balance here - too much energy into an environment can prove disruptive overall as the turbulence makes it too difficult for new systems to maintain cohesiveness - the turbulence spawned subsystems are disrupted by their own turbulence (in essence, the market is boiling at that point). Too little energy, and you get systemic decay, where the least stable systems fall apart. Typically, transitions from one stage to another of abstraction involve energy exceeding or failing to reach a critical threshold for that system.

From the future analyst's standpoint, then one of the lessons to be learned is that when you look at what appears to be a stable system, look at where it is causing the most turbulence. At the moment, for instance, the whole of desktop computing is being challenged by the cloud, a universe of services that individually may not be a match for the corresponding desktop app, but that collectively are reshaping the programming paradigm dramatically. The traditional world of publishing is under assault from a myriad of social media applications that individually are not that threatening, but which together is forming a cohesive interactive system of its own that has traditional publishing on the ropes. In the near future, centralized power distribution is being challenged not by a single new power source but by a whole spectrum of technologies that each emerged in response to the problems that the existing grid failed to answer, and that collectively are creating a new system that is challenging most of the core assumptions about power distribution that have been considered "holy writ" since the 1920s.

In other words, when looking toward investing (whether time, money, career involvement and so often) look toward areas where countervailing technologies are emerging, and pay special attention to those that seem to develop easy synergies with other complementary technologies. In the energy sector, for instance, solar energy (photoVoltaics) including beamed microwave energy, geothermal pumps, intelligent energy routers, hypercapacitors, hybrid automobiles, maglev trains, recycled heat systems and wind farms together make up a cohesive system of technologies that are complementary to one another, and that collectively make up a self-reinforcing system. Individually, they won't replace the existing carbon-driven fuel system, but collectively, they may very well.

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