Disorders of Magnitude – The Five Maxims of Catataxis
Catataxis is another way of saying “disorders of magnitude” and they can be summed up in these five maxims:
1. VIRTUE REVERSES AT A CATATAXIC BOUNDARY
The first of the disorders of magnitude is that when things get bigger they suffer a reversal in virtue. Another way of saying this is that what is good for the individual may be bad for the collective (and vice versa). So, for example, individual thrift is a virtue but ( according to Keynes, anyway) government thrift is a vice. Governments need to spend money to stimulate the economy. Another example would be a democracy – individuals need to sacrifice their rights to the wishes of the majority. The government can legitmately act against the interest of some people when they are in the minority. In biology, predators kill weak members of the herd, thereby strengthening the overall group both cumulatively and genetically. In economics, this phenomenon is known as the tragedy of the commons
2. CONFLICT BELOW CREATES STABILITY ABOVE
The second of the disorders of magnitude is a reversal in randomness. This is sometimes called the law of large numbers. Random events at the micro level create predictable patterns at the macro level. Most of statistical theory is based on this principle. The bell curve arises from seeming chaos.
The more disagreement there is on one level, the more likely there is to be calm and stability on the level above. This is best summed up in the saying “still waters run deep“. A calm surface often masks a roiling torrent underneath. A stock market is a good example of this. Large trading volumes indicate that there is plenty of disagreement between buyers and sellers – that’s why so many transactions are taking place. But the net result is that all the buying and selling cancels itself out and the overall market only moves a little. Conversely, when everyone is of the same opinion (no disagreement on level one) you tend to get big lurches and market crashes. Politically speaking, this maxim is summed up in the motto “divide and rule“.
3. IN THE END, QUANTITATIVE CHANGE BECOMES QUALITATIVE CHANGE
This is a more sophisticated way of saying more of the same is different, or “two’s company, three’s a crowd“. Think of how hopelessly inefficient government IT initiatives can be, or the ridiculous outcomes of defence procurement processes. When things get bigger, it’s not just the scale that changes. Many other characteristics change dramatically too. If you have ever worked in both a small company and a big company, you will know what this means.
4. TODAY’S GROUPS ARE TOMORROW’S INDIVIDUALS
Over time, things tend to get bigger and clump together. The river of history is a grouping vector. Multicellular creatures arise from single cell organisms. City states band together to become countries, tribes become nations. Individuals with grievances band together to form lobby groups. Flocking and clumping arise over time as a natural phenomenon. A loose grouping today often moves up a level to form a single, focussed unit tomorrow.
5. CATEGORISATION DESTROYS INFORMATION
Once the scale increases, the only way a human brain can function is by categorising things. The documents in your computer (or office) are organised into files. Individuals get ethnically stereotyped. Living things are classified into species. Junk Bonds and CDOs are certified as investment grade by ratings agencies. When you file something, it ceases to be anything other than the name you filed it under. All other distinguishing information is lost. This can be the source of a lot of errors, especially if you put it in the wrong file…