"Criticality"--the state of being organized to work at maximum capacity, right on the edge of collapse--is a concept that may
help us to avoid the collapse of countries into the chaos of war.
The conventional perspective focuses on addressing the symptom – the avalanche. Popular Soviet Bloc frustrations were unheard in the West until quiet East German self-organization in churches reached criticality, and people spilled out onto the streets in defiance of authority. Islamic frustrations were unheard in the West until decades of self-organization by fundamentalists brought them to the stage of attacking the U.S. mainland.
The complexity perspective reveals the build-up of pressures to the point where a slight push can cause an avalanche. Intuitively, the explosion of East Germans onto the streets and of fundamentalists into global terrorism seem to be examples of movements reaching criticality: somehow the East Germans and Islamic fundamentalists reached the point where they would put up with no more pressure, and a minor push caused a major avalanche. The trick is to avoid the push by dealing with the pressures.
Complexity theory typically speaks of the unified concept of "self-organized criticality:" self-organization that proceeds to the point of criticality at which point "the interactions tie far-away parts of the system together [so that] only a holistic description…will do." (Per Bak, "Self-Organized Criticality: A Holistic View of Nature," in Cowan, Complexity, 480) One aims to balance organization at the maximum sustainable point, but there is of course no requirement that the process of self-organization cease when reaching the state of criticality (i.e., the edge of the cliff). What happens when a society miscalculates is the subject of Tainter’s and Diamond’s books on the collapse of civilizations (Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Jared Diamond, Collapse).
The closer a system gets to criticality, the more "avalanches"—in social terms, protests—will occur. In physical systems, we find numerous examples of a "scale-free" distribution of events. Were this pattern found to occur in social systems, then we might view a lot of mild social protest (demonstrations, strikes) and a smaller number of violent protests and predict from that the eventual occurrence of one extraordinary terrorist attack. Research is called for.
Has the Islamic world now approached criticality as numerous variables (frustration with economic deprivation and lack of status in the world and loss of oil and corruption and mistreatment; rising awareness and ability to organize) interact and intensify? Does that explain widespread violence by small groups from London to Bali? If so, that hints at why we see few 9/11-scale events; in an arena characterized by a scale-free distribution, there will always be far more small ones. It also, however, in no way implies that another large-scale event might not occur soon – there is no implication that high magnitude events need be evenly distributed over time. If so, it also suggests that the protests neither begin nor end with al Qua’ida.
Israeli-Iranian relations are currently dangerously close to criticality: a slight mistake or provocation could produce calamity, after which the reverberations might echo through the system for decades. But this is not the only road to disaster. "Nuclear Standoff" could also evolve into a "hair-trigger" confrontation. The classic historical example of criticality was Europe on the eve of WWI. Since criticality tends to be invisible (earthquakes and avalanches are only visible after they happen) and disastrous, alerting decision makers to the possibility and, if possible, to evidence that one is approaching such a state constitutes one of the most important potential contributions scenarios that integrate the complexity perspective.
Chaos in the enemy camp may sound momentarily like victory, but that is a dangerous game in today’s interconnected world. If the trillion-odd dollar cost of the US invasion of Iraq were added to the price of whatever Iraqi oil the U.S. ends up getting, one would quickly see the price was rather high…and that’s without adding in the cost of the terrorism provoked by the invasion that is highly likely one day soon to explode outside Iraq’s borders. An Israeli attack on Iran would be likely either to cement the control of hardliners in both countries (a calculation they are no doubt counting on) or lead to chaos – hence the scenario title "Victory for al Qua’ida."
Criticality as it may apply to social systems is very poorly researched. These comments are intended as a argument that a sufficient intuitive match exists to justify serious study of the degree to which this concept may help us prepare for the social avalanches that today constitute such costly surprises.