Chaos is the dream of order.
‘Chaos’ is the term physicists use to describe a complex system whose non-linear dynamics elude the large-number approach that is integral to conventional statistical measures of probability. The ‘law of large numbers’—the bounded sets of huge data that guarantee stable, long-term results through an averaging of the frequency of events or instances—cannot yield what, in logic, would be described as first order statements. It can only assume them as a self-evident point of departure. Another way of putting this is that the ‘law of large numbers’ is not operational at the level of one. Each one of a class can be assigned a chance as a member of a class after the class has been determined. Moreover, that will not tell you what will happen to each one, only what may happen by dint of classifications assumed to continue into the future, and according to an extrapolation derived from the past frequencies of occurrences. In contrast to the future projection of past frequencies in classes, chaos theory operates on the assumption that systems are, in Prigogine’s terms, far from or close to equilibrium and that this means that the sequence of linear, causal chains is instead mapped as a complex, shifting field of connections and discontinuities.
Most famously, in computing this gives rise to fractal simulations of the spread of effects from single fluctuations as a means for the predictive modelling of contagions both biological and bio-figurative. It also informs some of the techniques used in real-time, selective social media tracking or political fundraising, as with Jared Kushner’s use of rudimentary machine learning systems during Trump’s presidential campaign, which launched multiple fundraising tools and responsively switched them off or scaled them up, or micro-targeted advertising which ran on ‘deep root’ correlations between watching a given tv show and susceptibility to specific political imaginaries and messaging (reportedly, furnishing a strong correlation between watching The Walking Dead and anti-immigrant sentiment). The algorithmic customisation of political advertising—made possible among other things by the collection of vast amounts of data through, especially, Facebook and its geolocatable linkage to electoral roll data—is merely the ground level of the kind of adaptive, non-linear political techniques that continue to be tested out across digital platforms.
Despite its use as a synonym for disorder, in science and related fields, chaos does not mean an unbounded, indeterminate disorder. On the contrary, its methods are both bounded and highly deterministic, mechanistic even. Though orders might be characterised as biochemically generative and metastable or analogised as the flapping of butterfly wings which gives rise to a novel, emergent orders, chaos theory assumes the existence of a highly ordered system from a mathematical and, for the most part, mechanistic point of view. The ‘chaos’ to which it refers is a description of the sensitivity of initial, observed conditions to minor fluctuations and/or an operational engagement with shifting parameters. It has its own lexicon, borrowed from a range of sources both philosophical and scientific, explaining condensed or uneven turbulence according to the properties of strange or normal attractors, or the smooth space of low- and striated space of high-resistance regions, or as noise. It describes, in other words, a system that is ordered and deterministic but which, at the proverbial ‘first glance,’ may appear as random or stochastic. In other words, chaos theory is a technical or mathematical response to the limits of the techniques of statistical probability and, at the same time, it reposes an older scientific problems (as in Poincaré’s ‘three body problem’) about going beyond those limits in contemporary circumstances where questions posed about frequencies in large-numbers bounded in prior, stable categories no longer yields usable or relevant information. Notwithstanding its name, then, chaos theory wields a mathematical theory of the order that, from disorder, emerges into view.
Because of this, chaos is also, often and not unrelated to its wider technical application, increasingly the imaginary precipitant of those who desperately yearn for order. Ascribing a meaningfulness to the mathematical sequences that are generated or ‘discovered’ within computational noise is the kind of mystical delirium that animates Pepe boards. Theories of ‘intelligent design’ which purport to detect God’s Plan in Nature, and ‘fractal finance’ which naturalize the fluctuations of financial markets through the use of biological models in computer simulations, are other versions of imposing non-linear, but nevertheless highly deterministic and patterned orders while representing the use of a technique as the revelatory output of a deeper evidence of determinism. Friedrich Hayek’s version of spontaneous orders is, ultimately, an argument for Natural Law, and for the limitation of temporal power in deference to that higher law—an argument that is one part derived from sources such as the Medieval Catholic theologians, as in Thomas Aquinas and Spanish Scholastics. That it harks back to these sources is itself instructive, in that the importance of their theories during such a tumultuous period in history was their responsiveness to enormous technological changes and uprisings against Ecclesiastical authority. They sensed the existence of changes whose course they failed to understand or predict and, at the same time, they invoked a theory of chaos which restated an attachment to divine order and power that lay underneath or above the flux. The secular version of this is the impulse toward conspiracy theories and accompanying claims of false flags, fakeouts and claims of distraction. This is not to say that there are no conspiracies or fakes or efforts to distract. Private or secret agreements between groups of people to accomplish some goal, including to lie or distract, occur all of the time, to more or less effect. However the impulse to pivot all explanations and analysis around the twinned epistemic settings of phenomenal chaos and deep order are not explanations of any given event or process so much as a dispositional tripping on revelation.
The point of this very brief note is not that chaos theory has nothing interesting to tell us. It is that claims of chaos are also the search for order and control.