The Culpability of the Individual

As a preface to the first chapter of her book 'Complexity: A guided tour', which was set at tutorial reading for the maths tutorial, Melanie Mitchell has offered this quote
"Half a million army ants are on the march. No one is in charge of this army; it has no commander. Each individual and it blind and minimally intelligent, but the marching ants together create a fan-shaped mass of movement that swarms over, kills and efficiently devours all prey in its path"

Ants are certainly remarkable in their ability to create a communicative, cohesive whole. However, I think there is too much of a tendency in our society to reduce complex systems to this sort of model. One of too-large-to-manage collectivity with no power to the individual.

This thought really struck me while going to see the Vanity Fair exhibition at the Portrait Gallery. Although the portraits were all taken of great and varied people who had achieved a range of remarkable things the view of them all side by side revealed something stunningly obvious. They are all just human. They each took a small part of something much greater and changed it. This was especially illustrated by Annie Leibovitz's photo 'George W. Bush and his inner circle'. It is just a photo of seven people in a room who look slightly bemused as if they've just shared a joke. Many of the problems that we have, and will discuss can in some way be traced to or at least related to the seven people in this photo.

It is true that they are the public figureheads at the end of a great web of administrations and bureaucracies. However, I think that as we move through this course one of the things that is necessary in unravelling complexity is to recognise the power and the culpability of individuals within complex systems. This addressing of the individual within the system can be useful in a number of ways. For example, blame, as in the case study in which we looked at the collapse of Enron. Retroactively unravelling the complexity of this systems collapse revealed that some, though not all, of the problem was at the hands of maliciously intentioned individuals. On the other hand the culpability of the individual can be empowering, as in the case of climate change where small changes by individuals (and individual corporations) can (hopefully) result in some net change.

George W. Bush and his inner circle, photographed in the Cabinet Room of the White House in December 2001. From left: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney, the president, National-Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, White House chief of staff Andrew Card, C.I.A. director George Tenet (seated), and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.