WayFinding in a world of Evolving Strange Attractors

Intensive Properties and Change

A key to being able to identify the difference between exponential change and situations that could lead to a phase transition is understanding the nature of what is changing.

Most people think of measuring reality in terms of adding or subtracting ‘stuff’. For example, length, width, depth, volume, weight, etc. vary by changing the amount of matter - having more of or less of what is being measured. These types of measures are called extensive properties.The conditions that enable phase transitions depend on what is called intensive properties. These are measurable domains such as temperature, pressure, density, connectivity, conductivity, viscosity and malleability.

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These measurable properties are not primarily dependent on the amount of matter – but on the conditions of populations. For example, one can’t measure the ‘temperature’ of a single molecule because temperature is a measure of the ‘activity’ of a mass of molecules. In this way if you have a liter of water and divide it in half you will have two ½ liters of water. But if the liter of water is 90 degrees Celsius and you divide the liter in two. You will have two ½ liters but each ½ liter will be 90 degrees Celsius not two ½ liters that are each 45 degrees Celsius.

Phenomena measurable by intensive properties, are subject to the particular type of change we have been discussing - Phase Transition. A phase transition is a very dramatic type of change within a very narrow band of measurement. Such as when water turns to ice.For example, a body of water (a large population of water molecules) may be measured to have a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius (a level of activity in the population). We can track the incremental decreases in temperature – from 90 degrees, to 89 degree all the way to 1 degree Celsius. While the water is noticeably colder – the nature of water, its wetness, fluidity, etc. has not changed. One more incremental decrease to just above 0 degrees no fundamental change.

However, once the temperature decreases one more increment to -1 degree – the water changes in a fundamental way. It is now solid – no swimming is possible. Two completely different ‘substances’ or ‘conditions’ are evident on each side of 0.

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In the image above we see the thresholds for phase transitions of water.

Phase transitions are very difficult to anticipate or predict unless we have already experienced it. Trend analysis does not prepare the observer for this type of change.


Why are intensive properties and phase transitions important to understanding social and technological change? Among many properties describing human societies, population density and connectivity represent key intensive properties. As human populations experience increases in density we see critical phase transitions where divisions of labour can proliferate exponentially. What does a phase transition look like in a social context?

For example, when humans were hunter-gatherers local groups generally never exceeded a population of 150-250 – a density that can only sustain very rudimentary divisions of labour (e.g. elder, adult, child, male-female, hunter-gatherer, shaman-healer). As humans became agricultural societies – local groups were able to increase population densities (by exponential amounts in some cases). This enabled a phase transition where many more permanent divisions of labor, and whole new occupations arose, each occupation also becoming a domain of specialized knowledge, as well as new ways for a person to ‘be’ and establish identity in society (e.g. a shoe-maker, tailor, baker, herbalist, etc.).New institutions become necessary as well. The agricultural society was more than a large gathering of hunter gatherers who could farm, it required a new institutional framework with many new institutions, and conventions. Along with increases in population density and new division of specialized labor comes the need to increase the level and types of exchange.

The rise of civilization demonstrated a phase transition enabling and enabled by large city-states. A similar phase transition occurred in the course of the emergence of the industrial society – exponential rise in population density, more levels of specialization, more exchange – whole new institutions (e.g. enablers for the governance of market and democratic political economies, public education, impartial justice, etc.).

Other types of ‘intensity’ can change the conditions of a social context, even those, with a relatively stable population density. For example, the emergence of new communication technologies that enable simulations of increased density (through the sense of collapsing distance) and/or increased connectedness. Understanding the impact of increased population, connectiveness and communication ‘densities’ can help to imagine the potential in the future of the emerging digital environment. Social media has been described as an exponential increase in ‘density’ of communication and connectedness.

The digital environment fundamentally disrupts the industrial economy, its institutions and its organizations. For example, by enabling conditions that inevitably favor hyper-connectivity which inevitably leads to a hyper-division-of-labour (or hyper-specialization). This in turn entails a requisite hyper-exchange. Together hyper specialization & exchange produce a hyper-knowledge-metabolism.

I want to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan to create a McLuhanism relevant to the emerging digital environment:

If Social Media is the Medium,

Then Social Computing is the Message.

This entails that Organizations cannot be Architected as ‘manufacturing machines’.

They must now be Architected to be Programmable, Complex Adaptive Systems. 

​For McLuhan, a Medium was anything that extended the mind, body or senses. By this definition a Medium could be a new technology, a process, an idea or an original creative work.

The message of a Medium was not its contents. ‘The Message’ is found in differences arising as a result of changes of scale, pace, scope or pattern caused by a ‘new medium’. These are difference that we observe in changes of behavior, aspiration, relationships, structures, processes, possibilities of action, etc. in individuals, society or culture. The message only becomes clear in the resulting in changes human interactions and activities. The message may include a social-cultural phase transition.

It is not the information conveyed through the Medium but rather it is the Medium’s ability to effect change that is the key factor that enables us to realize and understand a Medium.

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