On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.

Below I will make use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Why am I only writing about this now?

My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!

Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?

In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.

Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …?
The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.

Is this chaos?

When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos?
When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.

Exponential growth

What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease.
Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight
Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128.
After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks.
Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048
Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384.
After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down.
In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million
in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million.
At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.

Nonlinear and not homogeneous

Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.

So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.

So what?

So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?

And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:

Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.

And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities?
A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.