Fractal patterns are a particular manifestation of chaos theory, which arose out of a growth in scientific interest in irregular phenomena together with a new style of mathematics. The particular type of 'ordered' chaos referred to in chaos theory is a dynamic phenomenon, occurring when the state of a system, defined by a variable or a set of variables, changes with time.
The track of this change is guided by probability; small changes in the variables determining the state of the system at any temporal point result in large changes occurring in the system as it progresses along the arrow of time. This gives rise to an 'ordered' chaotic pattern of system behaviour, ie. it is different to entropy, which indicates the tendency of a system to disorder.
Chaos theory provides a useful framework within which notions of consciousness as an active agent in determining probable outcomes of events in the real world can be illuminated. If consciousness itself can affect the outcome of physical events, even on the micro scale, such minute changes will ultimately breed substantial mutations on the macro scale.
Human history too can be conceived of as a self-organizing chaotic system, its progression of events unpredictable yet ordered, phenomena at each moment giving the total system fresh feedback from which to take the next leap into the future. To explicate the notion of feedback giving rise to patterns of ordered chaos (i.e. fractal patterns), a principle borrowed from mathematics, that of iteration, can be fitted to conceptions of human activity.
According to the iterating principle, when the values fed into an equation are themselves the results of that equation's previous calculation, an infinitely variegated yet ordered and self-similar pattern emerges. In terms of human endeavour this iterative process becomes one of recursion, the notion of returning to a position to enable a kind of post-modern reflexivity; in theorising human sciences for example, this would mean the ability of a theory, as it were, 'to look at itself, yet again, in a new light, for the first time'.
Using this recursive principle, in returning to an ancient, Aristotelian cosmology we can re-examine it through the mechanism of a remarkable new lens with which contemporary computer technology has provided us. The glowing electronic blooms of fractal sets which bud on today's computer screens provide a metaphorical analog for the interwoven patterns of our post-modern reality.
These intricate, organic patterns unfurl a dimension where the margins between mathematics and nature coalesce in a cognitive space which has the power to transport us beyond the rationalist realm of language. The visual vigour of fractal sets seems to generate many a flow of ideas to irrigate the fields of new thought harvested by today's Digital Renaissance at the frontiers of technological evolution. According to one of the founding fathers of fractal theory, Benoit Mandelbrot,
Being able to play with pictures interactively on computers has provided a deep well for mathematical discoveries. Many fractals have already had an important cultural impact and have already been accepted as works of a new form of art. Some are representations while others are totally unreal and abstract. It has come as a surprise to both mathematicians and artists to see this kind of cultural interaction. (Mandelbrot, 1993).
So as a result of computerised depiction, what chaos theorist Ian Stewart calls 'visual imagination', one of the most commanding attributes of the human mind, is brought to bear. This capacity enhances the creative capacity of mind as a dynamic system, for as Stewart says, 'In the world of chaos, a picture is worth a million numbers'. The element of visual imagination potentised by technology is crucial to the development of our mental functioning; and this maturation in turn is crucial to our abilities to manipulate the information environment into which technological advancement is thrusting our species (as Timothy Leary, postulated in the early 1990s).
The Information Age has brought us to the brink of a new frontier -- that is the mind itself, and what we need now are new tools to further our evolution: new ways of thinking, new ways of using our minds and the imaginative power which animates our ability to mould reality to our collective will.
The significance of such novel mentations lies largely in their creative potential. Gregory Chaitin (1992) in discussing the impact of chaos theory on arithmetic, gives the example of the mathematician David Hilbert as mistakenly assuming that 'mathematical truth was black or white, that something was either true or false'. But Hilbert failed to perceive
something that was so basic to his thinking that he did not even formulate it as a question.... That was the idea that every mathematical problem has a solution. Clear, simple mathematical questions do not always have clear answers (Chaitin, 1992)
Today's technologies and cutting-edge epistemologies provide us with new ways of seeing and knowing, ways potentialised by principles of interactivity, non-linearity and visual symbolism which enhance mental power through uni-cameral perception, intuition and creativity. These new perceptions, potentialised by the combination of technological facilitators, enable us to enter a new age of creative 'magic'. As Mandelbrot says,
To the layman, fractal art seems to be magical. Much of the underlying equations would have been regarded as part of being pure mathematics, without any application to the real world, had its visual nature not been seen. (Mandelbrot, 1992)
The graphical representation of fractals has lent new depth to our insights, or ways of conceiving the world. It has given us a distinct vision of the patterned nature of seemingly random events, the fundamental patterning of dynamic systems. This is of course not a new idea in itself; David Hume noted that mere sequence does not reveal causality, and Marshal McLuhan records that when electricity made things happen instantaneously, it ended the appearance of sequence. In achieving this, the organic and patterned nature of phenomena became apparent, and causality was open to scrutiny.
McCluhan gives the example of movies, where sequence disappears and 'creative configuration and structure' emerges. The visionary nature of this insight lies in its temporal base -- at the time of his writing (1964), the patterned functioning of autopoietic systems, as explicated through computer-generated graphics, was not known; but McLuhan saw the organic, holistic (what he termed 'mythic') nature of human functioning in a time where 'instantaneous' knowledge acquired through pattern perception is more closely aligned with pre-modern intuitive, oral traditions such as occurs in Eastern concepts of rationality. For example, EM Forster's novel A Passage to India presents at one point the experience of 'the total and inclusive field of resonance that is India' (McLuhan, 1964; p16).
There is thus for McLuhan a significance in concentric form, which mimics the form of oral culture in its redundancy, its repetition of the initial statement of problem and resolution; this requires insight in order to perceive it, as it is the 'endless intersection of planes', which in media creates meaning through intertextuality -- no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media'. This is an essentially postmodern view of how meaning is created in modern media; in McLuhan's view, meaning is not reducible to the constituent elements within media, but rather achieves significance through the dynamics of whole systems.
McCluhan quotes Kenneth Boulding as saying 'The meaning of a message is the change which it produces in the image,' taking this to indicate the switch from the study of meaning to the study of effect in the electronic age, the effect being the totality of the situation rather than its specifics. The effects of 'instantaneous' media on social patterning affects the way change takes place in society.
Sandra Braman (1994) differentiates two distinct processes of change, 'genetic' and 'epigenetic'; the former takes place in a linear manner through the passage of time, while the latter is a process of "horizontal evolution" which takes place simultaneously in time, unfolding through concurrent interactions among systems.
Both of these are 'recursive processes' which occur in 'self-amplifying causal loops', so explaining evolution as 'a process of multiplication of possibilities in which humans participate through their representations of evolving systems'. This echoes McLuhan's concept of instantaneous knowledge, which also relates to specific modes of causality which Braman identifies as 'isolationist', ie. 'non-causal and synchronistic' and 'morphogenetic'. Isolationist systems are self-referential and 'open to positive feedback and the creation of new forms as well as negative feedback and closed realities'.
Braman distinguishes morphogenetic systems by their characteristic 'self-conscious process of change', defining them as 'heterogeneous, symbiotic and non-hierarchical'. Because of the essentially interrelated nature of morphogenetic social systems,
decisions made by individuals or by collective entities affect the evolution of the system and everyone in it. Thus all individual actions have a collective aspect that is synergistic in impact, irrespective of individual intention (Braman, 1994).
The morphogenetic system thus provides the kind of cultural matrix within which McLuhan's instantaneous media function, an area where intertextuality and concentric form achieve a field of resonance to affect the evolution of the total system. Such dynamic systems can also achieve what Braman terms 'co-evolution', which takes place through an intertextual swapping of energy and information. Braman notes that these systems are also subject to the influence of self-amplifying causal loops, which can have the effect of inducing significant changes on the large scale resulting from actions on the small scale.
Given the above implications of chaos theory, it may be possible to alter the gestalt of human thought on planet Earth by relatively small interventions, rather than wholesale revolutions on the scale envisaged by the revolutionaries of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. If we are able to create a global environment of tolerance of difference or of Otherness, and put into action positive social strategies which can alter the balance of human activity on the planet to foster emancipation and conviviality rather than destructiveness and greed, then it is not necessary to create homogenous socio-political structures which negate regional, ethnic, cultural and other differences.
In other words, the metanarratives of modernism can be transformed into a multitude of micronarratives, which nevertheless cohere into an harmonious and co-operative whole. These small narratives take place firstly at the level of the individual, then the group, community and upwards to other macro-levels of nations, corporations and their expressions in 'meta-entities' such as the United Nations and international agreements (e.g. GAT -- the Global Tariffs and Trade agreement).
In order to achieve a harmonious co-evolution requires above all an underlying attitude which potentiates the decentralisation of power structures on regional, national and international levels. Such decentralisation of control could allow the kind of ethnic fragmentation which has occurred in Yugoslavia and Rwanda without the violent intolerance and strife which has hitherto accompanied such divisions.
This attitude would be fostered primarily in the cultural sphere, for it is through this sphere that people are able to communicate with one another through liminal mechanisms (such as music, raves, trance parties etc.), beyond the confines of fragmented thought which limits our everyday conceptions.
If one aims at fostering such an attitude, one of the primary interventions which can be made is in the field of cyberspace, ie. through accessible media such as television (or radio) and computer communications, which link individual human consciousness into a global consciousness. If such small-scale interventions can take place in a harmonious fashion with other social, political, economic and ideological strategies, the possibility exists that they can affect the outcome of the global system; because all these areas are based on information, it follows that information is the tool of change.
Moreover, it is through creativity that a multiplicity of successful strategies can be found to address particular problem areas, in order to alter the probable outcome of these dynamic information systems. Despite the problem of mediated information vs. reality, information is a means of communication, and it is through evolving our means of communication -- ie. language -- that we can connect with and come to understand the others (animals and humans) with whom we share this planet.