In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king
It may not seem as if this real life experience has much to do with theoretical considerations that can be described by mathematical equations. Yet, this CD-ROM emergence is a very typical example of the kind of unpredictable outcomes Chaos Theory would predict. This short lived rush into CD-ROMs is typical of a chaotic disturbance: a technology induced, chaotic movement in commerce: driven by the spread of information. There are many parallels to this situation on the World Wide Web today, so, let us examine it more closely.
In 1989, a new technology had emerged. A small disk could now hold books to the equivalent of 42 feet of shelf space. Some of the world's largest encyclopaedias could easily be contained on a revolutionary new communication medium that costs less than a dollar to produce.
To creative minds, the potential for such a product was beyond the imagination. Not only could vast quantities of data be stored on these disks, it could be directly coupled with the processing power of the computer. This would allow dynamic indexing, animated displays, user interaction and many other kinds of information manipulation and sorting.
As the word spread about this new and revolutionary product, people all over the world, from a variety of different backgrounds, started to think about how they might be able to use and apply this new medium in their own particular areas of interest. Corporations, entrepreneurs, marketing people, educationalists - all in their different ways saw potential uses and opportunities.
As interest grew, newspapers, magazines and other mass communication media started to take up the cause. From the research laboratories of Philips in Holland and Sony in Japan, knowledge and speculation about this new medium spread out in an ever growing wave of optimism. It soon reached practically everybody involved in technology and communication. This was an exponential expansion of knowledge. It started slowly, emanating from just a few sources. These sources of information grew and the number of people who became aware grew even faster. At one moment in time practically nobody had heard of CD-ROMs; within the space of a year or two, everyone knew about them. A phase transition had occurred.
Phase transitions are a name given to the process of a system changing from one state to another. In dynamic complex systems the change is seldom linear: it doesn't happen by means of smooth and regular incremental changes. The changes start locally, begin building slowly and then gathers pace, building up to a crescendo of change which completes the process. In the CD-ROM example, at one moment in time there were no CD-ROMs; a short time later there were - with all the spectacular potential for their use and application. This is the phenomenon known as a phase transition, a typical manifestation of a system exhibiting Chaos.
The gradual build up and ever increasing rate of change of the information spread as it goes from mouth to mouth has all the typical characteristics of an exponential function, a function that increases a value at an ever increasing rate. Mathematicians would describe this process with the aid of formulae and graphs, but it can be explained just as well by a visit to an old fashioned music hall.
In the days before television and political correctness, a popular form of entertainment was the Music Hall: a live variety show held in a theater. At one such show, an attractive young lady appeared on stage wearing a fur coat. In a reedy voice she rendered a few choruses of some of the popular songs of the time.
Having delivered a mediocre performance, she quickly curtsied and rapidly disappeared off stage. There was very little applause except for one single man at the back of the hall who started clapping maniacally and calling out repeated in a loud voice, "Encore!" "Encore!"
The lady duly obliged the single enthusiastic admirer and, after taking off her fur coat, returned to give an off key rendition of another chorus. Again a quick curtsy and she retired from the stage.
The enthusiastic admirer started up his clapping and shouts for another encore. This time he was joined by a couple of others. At this, the lady returned to the stage once more but had shed the shawl which had been covering up her dress. Another mediocre performance, a quick curtsy and an exit from the stage were soon followed by a dozen men wildly clapping and calling for yet another encore.
Returning again, this time without her dress she sang another chorus in her petticoat. When she did her little curtsy and left the stage after this chorus, she had half the men in the audience wildly clapping and calling out for her to return. After singing once more in some very skimpy underwear, her exit caused the whole audience to go into uproar: clapping and shouting for yet another chorus.
The point of this story is that it illustrates a phase transition - a transformation of the expectations of the audience as, one by one, they click on to the real meaning behind the performance. Unfortunately for the Music Hall audience there was another kind of transition, when the lady reappeared to sing her final chorus fully clothed and wearing her fur coat.
This illustrates what happened when everyone began to learn about CD-ROMs. The potential was initially realised by just a few; gradually more and more began to cotton on; it reached a peak when everybody was aware and were rushing into products and services. This has all the hall marks of chaotic activity. The sudden introduction of a new and potent new medium disturbing the steady state. The system was disturbed into chaos.
If the data retrieval rate from the CD-ROMs had been greater and if the computers of the time had been faster and more powerful, the rush towards the utilisation of CD-ROMs might have resulted in many successful applications. The system might have flipped over to a new state where CD-ROMs were a massive success. This could have seen the CD-ROM becoming a ubiquitous product and providing many of the functions now being fulfilled by the Internet and the World Wide Web today.
It didn't work out that way. After a brief chaotic surge, the system quickly reverted back to its initial steady state where the CD-ROM was no longer a disrupting influence. This is the typical activity of a dynamic complex system as a rapidly expanding movement threatens the stability of the current order. If you watch what is happening on the Internet and the Web today you will see countless examples of this chaotic activity as the exponential forces triggered by new advances and new initiatives take effect. How many of them will end up wearing a fur coat?
Phase transitions are common phenomena in all branches of social and physical sciences. They can be seen in catalytic chemical reactions; the spread of fear; water changing into ice; rumour spreading through a community; the condensation of intergalactic gas clouds into stars. The phenomenon can be seen to occur in a multitude of situations and environments and it is a phenomenon which we can expect to play a major role in the evolution and development of the Internet and the World Wide Web.
In the CD-ROM example, just as important to understand as the reasons for the rush towards getting in on the next big thing, is the reasons for the sudden extinguishing of the enthusiasm. Seers and pundits of the type so respected in the Industrial Age had got everything totally wrong. In the Industrial Age a hierarchy of peer groups form to provide reliable opinions. Specialist and expert views are generally right. In the Information Age there are no reliable opinions, even the most authoritative views are just as likely to be wrong as those of a novice. This is what catches so many Industrial Age business people out when they enter the world of e-commerce and e-business: they beive in the experts.
It is this scepticism of widely held or authoritative views that is the hall mark of the successful Information Age businessman or businesswoman. Not a cynical scepticism but a strategic scepticism that is not only distrustful of the predictions of others but also distrustful of their own opinions and intuitions. In an environment prone to Chaotic disturbances, a strategy must assume that things will not go as either expected or planned.