"Christ's Entry into Brussels." James Ensor. Oil. 1888

One of the central points of contention during the framing and ratification of the US Constitution involved the question of federalism, or the division of power between the state and central governments. The question was novel in the history of nation-building, in part because of the size and diversity of the American geographical and social landscape. In many ways, the richness of the debate demonstrated a prescient grasp of our germinal nation as a complex system, with questions of agency, robustness, decentralization versus centralization, economy and trade, public safety, and national versus subnational networks at its heart. This conflict can be understood as one between the urge for national power and the counter-urge for local control.

The Federalists advocated a strong national government, the primary role of which would entail overseeing the state and local governments across our large domain. This can be likened to a top-down approach to robustness. The Anti-Federalists advocated against consolidated central power and for greater local and state sovereignty: the bottom-up approach. The debate took for granted that any central authority was potentially both beneficial and detrimental. The primary benefit is the ability to safeguard liberty and protect the populace, whereas the primary detriment is the ability to threaten liberty in times when it would otherwise be unthreatened by external or internal dangers.

Fearing that ratification was in jeopardy, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote a series of 85 letters under the title of The Federalist, in which they attempted to explain how the Constitution amounted to, among other things, a compromise between local and centralized needs. In the 39th letter, Madison wrote the following: 

“But if the government be national with regard to the operation of its powers, it changes its aspect again in relation to the extent of its powers. The idea of a national government involves in it not only an authority over the individual citizens, but an indefinite supremacy over all persons and things, so far as they are the objects of a lawful government. . . . In this relation, then, the proposed government cannot be deemed a national one; since its jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several states a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other subjects.”

National action has the obvious advantage of a quicker and more unified and consistent response; local action has the advantage of specialized adaptation to the needs of the community as well as the flexibility of innovative thinking appropriate for the milieu in question. We are seeing today how important these questions and tensions remain, as the American people have sought more rapid, more consolidated, and more direct responses from the federal government, particularly the executive branch. Yet simultaneously the same population has shown fear that unprecedented measures enacted in catastrophic times will inevitably amount to greater authoritarian power in Washington, not only in the near future, but also down the road.

We are currently trying to juggle different considerations: the health of our populace, the needs of our economy, and our political and social future. The obvious fear is that prioritization of one may cause incalculable and unforeseeable damage to the others. We worry that, for instance, a centralized and authoritative response may sacrifice the future for the present, leading to an economically desperate population which is hungry, out of work, resentful, radicalized, and ready to cede power to increasingly authoritarian political figures. Simultaneously, we know we cannot sacrifice the present for the future, since the death toll is rising, hospitals are overwhelmed, the virus is spreading, and our medical-care professionals and other essential workers are risking their lives on a daily basis. 

As we wait and observe the ongoing governmental responses at the municipal, state, and national levels, it is important to keep in mind that as agents we maintain bottom-up control, even if we lack decisive power. Whether one is a Federalist or an Anti-Federalist, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it remains the case that the most local response possible falls upon the individual agents constituting the population. The more uniformly and selflessly we act, the more control we have. In this way, the robustness of our nation may prove to be bottom-up. Health experts tell us to wash our hands and stay at home. We should do these things literally, but not figuratively. It is the best way to maintain control.

Anthony Eagan
Santa Fe Institute

T-015 (Eagan) PDF

Read more posts in the Transmission series, dedicated to sharing SFI insights on the coronavirus pandemic.

Listen to SFI President David Krakauer discuss this Transmission in episode 30 of our Complexity Podcast.



August 20, 2021

The COVID-19-Induced Explosion of Boutique Narratives

Writing to his fellow novelist Paul Auster in 2011, J.M. Coetzee bemoaned the threat posed to narrative fiction by the proliferation of new information-exchange technologies. “So much of the mechanics of novel writing, past and present, is taken up with making information available to characters or keeping it from them, with getting people together in the same room or holding them apart. If, all of a sudden, everyone has access to more or less everyone else—electronic access, that is—what becomes of all that plotting?” A moment later, he adds: “The default situation has become that, save in extraordinary circumstances, [character] B is always contactable by [character] A.”1 Coetzee feared that the once-dependable conflict of information differential was rapidly disappearing.

In many respects, Coetzee was correct. Yet it is worth imagining what his letter to Auster would look like had he written it in 2021, when communication technologies had grown so extreme and our dependence on them so high that, though isolated from one another by quarantines, lockdowns, and travel restrictions, B and A were holding audiovisual meetings together with D and C, all the while separated by arbitrary physical distances. On the one hand, the basis of Coetzee’s concerns has intensified. On the other hand, what Coetzee may not have foreseen was a different sort of proliferation, namely that of what I will call boutique narratives. In this scenario, B and A (along with D and C) hold divergent accounts of the state of the world despite having access to the same wealth of information.

Whereas an author, Coetzee continued, “used to get pages and pages out of the nonexistence of the telegraph and telephone (yet to be invented) and the consequent need for messages to be borne by hand or even memorized at one end and recited at another (example: the man who had to race from Marathon to Athens),” now an author might get pages and pages out of the conflict that arises in the narrative differential between B and A, who receive their information from different media platforms and publishers and from differently biased interlocutors. What in former times would have amounted to a shared narrative has become a conflict of narratives. In other words, literature might nowadays replace the conflict of information differential with the conflict of narrative differential (arising from divergent boutique narratives).

If, for example, Romeo and Juliet had had access to present-day technologies, their ironic double suicide would have been avoided. Instead, they might have discovered, not long after their successful elopement and erotic consummation, but just after the arrival of a pandemic, that, given their opposing boutique narratives, one believed the lab-leak hypothesis while the other maintained that a pangolin was the source of the outbreak. While one politicized mask-wearing, the other blamed every acronymic institution for prolonging the pandemic through the systematic suppression of ivermectin. Perhaps, in a sort of historical vertigo, they even disagreed on when and by whom their home country was founded. One saw the killing of a black individual by a white policeman as an isolated incident (or at least a statistically rare phenomenon) while the other saw it as indicative of the complete corruption of all police officers.

At a deeper level, the two failed to recognize the disparity in their grasp of the concepts under discussion, given their differing perspectives on the historical trajectory. Each had a different sense of concepts such as identity, discrimination, gender, offense, diversity, justice, protest, and so on. Given their lack of categorial accuracy, they failed to understand one another despite the illusion that they communicated in a common language. In this case, Romeo and Juliet’s peril would escalate not because they could not see eye-to-eye on certain well-grounded and debatable issues, but because they could not even agree on the facts of the issue under discussion, lacking as they did any shared narrative context.

In the developing cultural anxiety arising from mortal fear, economic alarm, transparently spectacle-laden and even childish governance from both political parties, and the dissipation of world comprehension, the need for a salient account of things only intensifies, and thus one more urgently clings to the convictions arising from his or her extant boutique narrative. Instead of an unintended double suicide, the young lovers might have committed an intentional mutual homicide, with Juliet poisoning her newly antagonistic Romeo, and with Romeo stabbing the loathsome Juliet before he fully asphyxiated. We can classify this entire process as a metaphorical autoimmunity, where agents within an ostensibly cooperative system misfire because of insufficient or incorrect information and begin attacking one another rather than addressing the actual pathogen.

Clearly, boutique narratives can be generated by the selective bias of an individual, such as when a person deliberately reads the opinions of only one or two columnists, distrusting all the others because of minor or major differences of opinion, or when a person watches only CNN or only Fox News, failing to triangulate between multiple journalistic outlets to find a more objective thread running through the tendentious lines most sources implicitly or explicitly follow. But equally likely is that an algorithm, designed to generate clicks and to feed on our pre-existing tendency for selective bias and our attraction to narrative simplicity, has grown ever more personalized to the individual user’s browsing data, so that in addition to bespoke advertisements, the user receives bespoke headlines and bespoke accounts about all local, national, and global circumstances beyond his or her empirical purview. The foreseeable result is a feedback loop of confirmation bias and informational feeds—an echo chamber between a self-conscious human and unselfconscious encroachment of code.

Why mention this in reference to my Transmission on Federalism in the time of pandemic? In that piece, while highlighting the difference between bottom-up control and top-down power, I emphasized that the more we assumed personal accountability in the attempt to slow transmission of the disease, the less concerned we would need to be with respect to the anticipated problem of centralized power grabs in our time of crisis. Like Coetzee, however, but in a different manner, I failed to appreciate the ways in which a global crisis and the consequent panic would coincide with recent advances in communication technologies to make us more dependent on applications that appear to bring us together but actually fragment us further.

Proper accountability requires proper understanding as grounds for action. The implied point of my Transmission was that quarantines and lockdowns only work if a certain high percentage of individuals follow the guidelines. Failing such voluntary cooperation, the quarantine is prolonged, hospitalizations and deaths continue unabated, and all the attendant economic, social, physical, and mental consequences are extended and amplified.

But if one group promotes herd immunity while another believes that claims about the dangers of COVID-19 are exaggerated, while still another politicizes the crisis by enumerating the errors the authorities have made and suggesting they and their constituents can never be trusted, while still another remains ignorant either willfully or through unfortunate circumstances, while still another is told that infection occurs through fomite transmission when in fact it is spread by respiratory droplets and aerosols, while still another is convinced it is all a hoax, etc., then the possibility of well-meaning accountability is severely diminished. As agents, in other words, we can only maintain local control with a view to the prevention of both transmission and tyrannical rule if we have a shared understanding of what is going on and how we might act in a selfless and yet responsible manner. We cannot align our behavior without aligning our sense-making apparatuses.

Among the innumerable branching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its radical exposure of the boutique narrative complex. We have learned with greater clarity that, contrary to Coetzee’s suggestion, global, remote “contactability” does not resolve the conflicts arising from information exchange.

If the pandemic revealed the dangers of global physical contact, so too has it more slowly revealed the dangers of technologies that appear to reduce the need for such contact.

Read more thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic from complex-systems researchers in The Complex Alternative, published by SFI Press.

Reflection Footnotes

1 P. Auster and J.M. Coetzee, 2013, Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011, Letter dated August 29, 2011, 224–225.