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New order brings old chaos

Shalini Verma
Filed on June 15, 2020

We have always tried to bring order in our world as we learnt farming, drew nations on the map, and programmed computers

A family of mynas was nesting in our window. Soon the chirping started ringing through as life slowly picked up rhythm. From my garden, I would catch a glimpse of the diminutive life unfurl. The family had fallen into a daily pattern of feeding.

On a hot afternoon, the mynas became decidedly raucous. The chick had fallen from her nest into my garden - a metaphor for falling into chaos, with the neighbour's cat prowling and the sun beating down. The parents' subsequent effort to bring back order in their progeny's life was an endearing sight, as they used 'show-and-tell' to teach lessons from their survival playbook. This story has a happy ending as the baby myna became a cheerful fixture in my garden.

Today, humanity is looking for a similar outcome for the Covid-19 chaos. The confusion and the loss of control of the pandemic represents chaos precisely as scientists view it. 

Chaos invariably starts with the proverbial butterfly that flaps its wings in one continent and causes a tornado in another. When 2019-nCoV hopped onto a human, the fabled butterfly moment transpired, triggering sickness, death, and fear on a global scale. We are still uncertain about how things will pan out. Chaos of such orders of magnitude always snowballs in ways we can't predict. The final appeals of a dying George Floyd rang loud and clear because of the already prevailing chaos. 

Unpredictability is an important principle of the chaos theory. We have historically valued clairvoyance as a supernatural power. We then collected enough data to get pretty good at forecasting. Weather, election, and sales forecast are just some predictions we could do with some margin of error.

From the ancient Oracle of Delphi to the modern Oracle of Omaha, we relied on futurists for a peek at tomorrow. Yet this year, Warren Buffet's much-anticipated annual talk was peppered with 'I don't know'. The unknowns forced S&P 500 companies to withdraw their earnings guidance. Covid-19 has fogged up our lens into the future. 

Prediction continuously builds our survival readiness. Psychologists like Jeffrey M. Zacks and Jesse Q. Sargent believe that our brain processes the present in small chunks by predicting the future. It updates these event chunks when our error in prediction increases. Our degree of social distancing from a passerby depends on our risk assessment of getting infected. 

We have always tried to bring order in our world as we learnt farming, drew nations on the map, and programmed computers. Yet our evolution story is chequered. Every now and then nature tells us, who's the boss.

Covid-19 has demonstrated that this order is inexorably fragile. The laws of thermodynamics point to a universe with growing entropy. Quantum physicists' assert that the universe is probabilistic, highlighting the randomness concealed in the seeming order. 

But we constantly seek order through our social and economic constructs, perhaps inspired by the fractal patterns and cycles in nature, like the leaves in my garden, or the sand dunes a few miles away, or day and night. Patterns that replicate in nature give us certainty. So, we have been trying to make our world deterministic with our organisations, regulations, and governance.

Our response to Covid-19 gives us insights into our adaptability. It is fascinating that within weeks we learnt social distancing with some degree of imperfection. Even those at the bottom of the economic pyramid co-operated. In countries where rules are routinely challenged, people went into lockdown with minimal fuss. Fear is a great teacher.

Calamities like war or famine cause displacement, but with Covid-19, we had nowhere to run but our homes. Migrant labourers in India braved heat, hunger, and risk of infection to walk hundreds of miles to their homes in remote villages. They believed that even if they were to die, they'd rather be home when they did. They had an acute sense of loss of control, and yet they tried in their own way to return to order. 

Covid-19 has given us a palpable sense that the universe is chaotic. We think we are in control, but we are not. Yet we will never abandon our endeavours to find order in the melee. Not in the current chaos, not ever.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

 


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