There has been much discussion over the past few months over whether high levels of debt cause low growth (the “austerian” camp, eg Britain, Canada and Germany within the G7) or whether instead low growth causes high levels of debt to accumulate (the “Keynesian” camp, to which Japan appears to be providing leadership currently). There has been relatively little discussion about the possibility that neither is the case.

We are compulsive pattern spotters. That explains to a large extent our dominance as a species, and completely explains the dominant position that mathematics and its applications holds in our culture.

I was reminded most stirringly of this a few years ago, on a lunch break. The Ikon Gallery in Birmingham was hosting an exhibition by Japanese sound artist Yukio Fujimoto called The Tower of Time. However, instead of siting it at their gallery space in Brindley Place, it had instead been staged at Perrott’s Folly, just around the corner from my office at the time.

Yukio Fujimoto. The Tower of Time
Installation view – Perrott’s Folly, Birmingham, UK 2009  Photo: Stuart Whipps

Perrott’s Folly was built in 1758 by John Perrott. It is a building 94 feet high, with one room on each of its six octagonal floors, and no obvious purpose (hence “folly”). It may have been somewhere to spy on his wife from, while she was alive or dead, or it may have been a gambling den for him and his mates. Or it may have been something else entirely. I think we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

After a brief introduction on the ground floor, I climbed the stairs to the first floor to find one little black square alarm clock with a red second hand ticking in the middle of the wooden floor. The next floor had ten such clocks, in a row. The next 100, in a square, the fifth floor had 1,000.

A curious thing happened to me as I moved up the tower. The clocks’ mechanisms appeared to alter with altitude. I put it that way as an example of an obviously false causality, ie that the height above sea level in some way affected how the clocks worked (and before I get complaints, I mean effects that could be detected within a matter of a few tens of feet and with no measuring equipment other than my eyes and ears). Because what I saw did change. I looked at one clock and I could see that the battery was powering the gear mechanism that kept the second hand, minute hand and hour hand in their required relative motion. I looked at ten clocks in a row and I could see the same, although I also noticed the second hands were not all at the same point along the row and that there was an order in which each piece of red plastic reached the top before beginning the next circuit. I found myself having to watch the clocks for several minutes to see the pattern confirmed. But was this “pattern” anything which had any meaning, or was it just a way for my brain to store the images it was collecting in an easily fileable format?

When I moved to 100 clocks, the relevance of the gear mechanism became secondary. I could “see” lines of second hands moving together in the way that lines of plants in a cornfield move with the breeze. This, combined with the swooshing of 100 clocks (as the ticking of each individual clock combined to make a different noise – this change in sound was I believe the artist’s main reason for constructing the installation in the first place), made me need to check several times that one of the strange pointed windows in the tower had not been opened and let in a stray breeze. At 1,000 clocks it was just pure cornfield, the individual clocks now as hard to imagine as it had been to imagine anything else four floors below.

I can “see” that the “wind” is blowing a pattern through the second hands of the clocks and yet I “know” that this is not happening. Now transfer that wind I can see to a situation where I do not readily have a theory for what is happening to individual elements within a system. Suddenly what anyone with eyes can see becomes so much more powerful than what we might know. Returning to the austerity debate for instance, perhaps the individual growth clocks have no relationship with the patterns of debt I can see being blown through them. Perhaps if I just arranged the clocks differently I would see the wind blowing from a different direction. Perhaps the clocks and the wind have nothing to do with each other outside my head, despite the “evidence” of my eyes.

Why does it matter? Because if we cannot prevent ourselves from seeing patterns and then extending them via models where we have to make some things depend on other things, even in the face of weak and conflicting evidence, then we need to know this about ourselves. Because if giving a person the wrong map is worse than not giving him one at all, our natural instinct to construct these maps is likely to keep getting us into trouble.

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