Center for Systemic Peace Presents ... the New Democratic Order: Complex Societal-Systems and the "Invisible Hand"

By Marshall, Monty G. | Harvard International Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Center for Systemic Peace Presents ... the New Democratic Order: Complex Societal-Systems and the "Invisible Hand"


Marshall, Monty G., Harvard International Review


The history of humankind can be viewed as a narrative flow with myriad tributaries and estuaries that meander and converge into rivers and streams, and whose courses are punctuated periodically by monumental events. Monumental events occur as the result of the interplay between the dynamic stream and its structured landscape, and are driven by a "gravitational force." They are perceived as monumental because they unexpectedly alter the coarse of the narrative flow in ways that appear disruptive and seem disturbing at the moment of realization. Monumental events have an overwhelming, sensory impact that can only be understood when placed in the proper perspective. They challenge our thinking in fundamental ways by presenting us with a new piece to a complex puzzle. When faced with monumental events, the impulse to panic can be difficult to restrain; our lives are too vulnerable and our worlds too fragile. The key to progress in the face of such foundational challenges was succinctly stated by Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan as an epiphany. "It's an intelligence test!"

With the advent of the industrial revolution, human history entered a period of acceleration characterized by our rapidly expanding ability to "do" tending to outpace our ability to understand, and hence to effectively manage our efforts and our effects. What we generally refer to as globalization is a complex, dynamic process by which the new technologies of doing, understanding, and managing converge and cover the structured landscape of our planet Earth. In other words, globalization involves changes in the qualities of development, conflict, and governance in a global societal-system. The 20th century brought with it a number of monumental changes of which the full effects can only be understood from a global, systemic perspective. Systems are more than simply the sum of their parts and, I contend, it is the systemic effects that both create and define monumental events. On the other hand, it is the innovative potential of humankind triggered by monumental events that decides and, ultimately, designs the future course of history. Innovation is the collective result of an active and informed public. It is with this understanding that the Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) was created in 1997--to monitor key global systemic trends in conflict, governance, and development, and report these trends publicly through the Internet to provide a global perspective for public policy. The Center's work is informed through its association with the US government's Political Instability Task Force (PITF).

Monitoring Trends in the Information Age

The end of the Cold War is generally considered a monumental event, although the nature of the process leading to this event may not be fully understood. One of its most important outcomes of this event has been the lifting of the veil of state secrecy and the dawning of the information age. When Ted Gurr and I were collecting information to compile the original Minorities at Risk (MAR) database covering all countries of the world in the late 1980s, we had to contend with severe, state-imposed limits on public information regarding their internal dynamics in general, and the real and imagined security risks posed by non-state actors more specifically. This relative dearth of information gave way to a veritable flood of information with the ending of the Cold War. Data collection tactics regarding both the internal and external attributes of states in the world system suddenly shifted from a forensic science of divining from carefully gathered clues to an organic science of filtering and distilling from a plethora of confounding evidence. Working with too much detail is as daunting a task as working with too little. In addition, the sudden expanse of the immediate global information base largely lacks historical referents and has, at least temporarily, outpaced our ability to understand the embedded "kernels of truth. …

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