The Beauty of Chaos

The end of a year and the beginning of another brings out a predictable string of events: recaps of what happened in the previous year and predictions for what might happen in the next. Many recaps consist of “top 10” lists of the supposed best or worst of a particular subject. For all their popularity, most top 10 lists don’t last beyond the day of their publication. The thinking behind top 10 lists intrigues me though.

Butterfly EffectI propose that we’re drawn to top 10 lists because we want to create order out of chaos, particularly in our current world of information overload. However, there’s something to be said for chaos. From my perspective, chaos’ attractiveness lies in its unpredictability, the sense that anything, both good and bad, is possible. With that in mind, consider the butterfly effect, often mentioned in connection with chaos theory:

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly’s wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that ultimately cause a tornado to appear (or prevent a tornado from appearing). The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different.

I think that our current hunger for order in all the chaos for information cheats us out of what’s possible. A top 10 list and other filters that we pay attention to skip over the uncertainty of a butterfly flapping its wings and goes straight to someone else’s interpretation of the chaos. Why waste time wading through all the different thoughts if someone has been kind enough to provide you with the answers?

I’m not anti-organization. Rather, I’m anti-pigeon-holing. In our rush to create order from chaos, we sometimes take the easy path, relying on the tried and true (e.g. top 10 lists) because again, we’re drawn to known quantities. For this new year, I challenge you to challenge your filters. Why do you get your information from your chosen sources? Why do you trust who you trust? Maybe 2008 becomes the year that you wait to see whether the butterfly flaps its wings.


(Image courtesy of Gonçalo Pereira.)


5 Responses to “The Beauty of Chaos”

  1. January 2, 2008 at 9:46 am

    I’m definitely a sailor on the sea of chaos. I appreciate that a great deal. (Um, sidenote, the snow on your website is distracting and yet interesting).

    To me, having a sense of what I’ll do is more powerful than having a map. I like having a map, but I NEED to know how I intend to operate in given environments. That way, I feel I can adapt faster.

    I think this is a great thing to consider while everyone’s busy making plans.

  2. January 2, 2008 at 10:26 am

    I have to fight my AR (Anal Retentive) instincts in order to stop planning and making to do lists to actually get anything done! I like the butterfly effect analogy. It’s like the power of a ripple in the ocean of life. Skipping a stone generates a ripple that becomes a tidal wave elsewhere.

    As for our filters, I think the wider variety of your sources the better and more accurate the information will be. Everyone has an agenda and views things with a bias (however unintentional), thus the importance of not relying on one resource for anything. Less is not more in this case! Subscribe and follow more if you want to broaden your intellectual horizon in the information age.


  3. January 2, 2008 at 10:36 am

    I’ve always felt that, as a designer, making order from chaos is my primary job. In the process, a crazy hairpin turn always factors in and I like it that way. Some might call that the result of unpreparedness; I like to think of it as serendipity. It’s scary but it keeps things lively. Some of my best work happens this way.

    I’m going to bend your point now and ask why can’t we wish to be the butterfly in the construct?

    Thanks for this moment of reflection.

  4. 4 Britt
    January 2, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    @Chris: The snow’s only for today. You picked up on something, too, that I didn’t address directly and that’s the question of adaptation. I’m worried we’re losing our ability to adapt to change without freaking out. In spite of how much change surround us, it almost feels like people are battening down and avoiding change if at all possible, regardless of the potential value change offers.

    I’m like you, too, in that I appreciate a map, but how I’ll operate is much more valuable.

    @Paisano: What a great comparison with throwing the stone and the ripple effect. I think we underestimate our ability to absorb significant amounts of information from multiple sources and make connections between them to add to our understanding of the bigger picture.

    @MsInformation: Scary but lively is exciting to me, giving you a taste of what’s possible. Isn’t it amazing how a day can start out a certain way and end up completely different. I think there’s a lot of power in your suggestion to be the butterfly. I believe we underestimate our power as individuals to effect change.

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January 2008
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