The alignment of patterns in complex systems


Rotating circles around the black axes. Here, the circles are not aligned, indicating low independently

Imagine you have 5 different wheels with different colors turning at their own pace around one axis.  You look at them from on reference point (up front), like in the image on the right. From your position, you see the wheels turn behind each other around their axes. You can clearly see them turning at their own rhythm. There is a blue wheel turning at a speed of 2 seconds a cycle, a green wheel at 4 seconds a cycle, a red one, and a yellow one. The wheels are turning independently while you are staring at them. But suddenly, the wheels start to sync their speed, and start to turn at 2 seconds a cycle. Now, the wheels seem like they are one shape (of 4 wheels) turning around the axis, like a flower (with 4 leaves) turning around. Although the colors are different, the pattern of the wheels is similar. They become less unique. But then suddenly, something even more strange happens, the wheels align exactly in place (thus in speed and place). The wheel in front reduces its speed, while the wheels behind increase their speed towards one place. Now, the wheels exactly align in place and speed. Now, you can only see the first wheel turning around (like seen in the second image). The other wheels are completely hidden behind the first wheel, like a solar eclipse. The pattern becomes really simple from your position, you only need to track the blue wheel. Within this simplicity, there is a lot of complexity. Cause it is quite unlikely that 5 independent wheels align and turn at the same speed. And I call this beauty.

But how unlikely is alignment across multiple independent components? When does it happen that seemingly independent components come together and work together? Well, crazily often. If you look at your body, your body exists of 650 muscles, working together fluently. Imagine you want to start running; all the muscles in your body need to work together and align on its movement, your leg and back muscles tighten, while your heart-muscles rhythm aligns with your breathing muscles effectively as possible. But this is just one example. Alignment of “independent” parts is everywhere. Once you leave the house, you go to supermarket where independent merchants try to align their supplies with your independent needs. Afterwards, you go to friends or colleagues where you, as independent people, try to align with your thoughts and agree on the same things. This stuff seems crazily normal to us. You don’t question how you reach your glass, or the whole supply chain of the package of your cookies. When everything is aligned, everything seems simple, and everything is fine. But once the components lose their alignment, it becomes complex, frustration arises, and things get out of sync. It seems like complexity only arises when we need to understand something, when it doesn’t seem to work and you need to solve it. While I’m sitting her, my body seems to be a simple thing, because my body works. I just sit there and do whatever I feel like doing. My body works because all the independent parts are aligned and work as they should. My digestive system is functioning, while all the independent cells are doing their job. But once something doesn’t work, you can get very sick quite quickly, and then the body seems utterly complex. How does one handle failing colons or cancerous cells?

Rotating circles aligned in space and speed (only blue is visible) the other wheels are directly behind it

How alignment emerges
Before we can answer how we can achieve alignment, we need to know how alignment emerges. We need to know what makes the millions of cells align in our body, why we search alignment in our supply chain, and why we search for alignment with our friends. But we discussed that the chance of alignment between independent parts are quite small. Therefore, I believe that the independent parts are much less independent than we usually think. You are not an independent person when you talk to your friend, you adapt constantly within a conversation to find alignment. Through feedback loops from mutual sides you try to find a common ground where you align with each other. You become interdependent. When the wheels become interdependent on each others rotation, the chances largely increase that they will align over time. But interdependency means that frequent feedback (information exchange) is required to reach alignment across the multiple components. And I believe that we do this every day, we try to get information of our environment to change and adapt our behavior towards our benefit.

The evolution of alignment
But why did the individual components want to become interdependent parts? Well mostly because this increases the chances of survival. Cooperation increases the likelihood of survival. When you can share goods with someone and get something you need in return, you are more likely survive because you become a more complex organism. Together, as independent parts, you become a more complex organism and can defeat individuals. Forming groups is a common strategy of individual to increase the likelihood of survival. Achieving dominance is a part where interdependency is useful but within cooperation interdependency can be useful as well. For example, animals living in symbiosis. symbiosis in nature is one of the nicest forms of interdependency, where animals of different species work together in harmony to increase their well-being/likelihood of survival. But there are several risks to interdependency.

The symbiosis between the Manta ray and the cleaner fishes

The risks of interdependency
When population sizes increase, it becomes more difficult to keep alignment across all components. A more complex system consists of more different levels and thus requires more resources and coordination to sustain balance. All the individual parts need to work hard to sustain the alignment (to keep it together). There need to be enough resources, common goals, and everyone should contribute to the common cause. When this can’t be sustained, interdependency breaks. And when this happens, at least one of the individuals has a huge problem. Secondly, you could have individuals that defect within the cooperation. They might exit the cooperation once they had enough benefits without returning the favor; reciprocity has a risk of trust. Therefore, interdependency makes you vulnerable if you can’t account on your partners. Furthermore, if you want to be interdependent with someone, you have the downside that you often need to adapt. The more individuals join, the more souls need to be happy. AS a result, you lose a part of your identity once you join a cooperation. But it depends of your position in an interdependent relationship. You could be the shark with its cleanerfish, or a CEO with its employees. The dominant ones hardly need to move while the receptive ones need to adapt vividly to sustain the relation. But once the receptive ones initiate a strike, the dominant ones will needy to adapt as well. Because a system is dependent on both sides.


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