in analyzing historical cause and effect, the metaphor of 'historical force' is often invoked. a historical force is the set of circumstances and ideas that set in motion historical events. in most modern interpretations of history, historical forces (rather than important people like napoleon or singular events like the freezing of the rhine) are what catalyzes events and ultimately what determines their outcomes.
the metaphor of 'force' is a useful one. we may adopt it to discuss a notion of a physics of human events, or of a 'dynamics of history', by analogy with physical dynamics. in the same way we can discuss the dynamical properties of an aircraft in flight, and compare these with those of a bouncing ball or the impact of the boxer's fist, we may discuss the dynamics of history.
phrases such as "the eruption and spread of protestantism in europe", "the collapse of the soviet state", "the ascendancy of the roman empire", and so forth, are descriptions of the course and result of dynamical historical processes.
the theory of dynamical systems has a very rich set of ideas we may apply (again, by analogy), in a historical context. for now we concern ourselves mainly with the idea of chaotic dynamics, as they apply to history. a dynamical system is said to be chaotic if the time evolution of the state of the system, that is the positions, velocities, energies etc. of the component parts (or in our case, the movement of men, the connections of trade and so on) is very sensitive to the initial state of the system.
the chaotic property of a dynamical system has many formal definitions. to provide an example, a ball thrown through the air is not such a chaotic system; small changes in the initial velocity and angle of the throw, as well as the ball's rotation, tend to only change the ball's trajectory slightly. an accurate throw requires small, precise adjustments. conversely, a chaotic system will react very strongly to small changes in the initial conditions, resulting in very different outcomes over time. possibly the simplest example is the double pendulum.
an important prerequisite for a system to be chaotic is that it must be nonlinear. once again, the notion of nonlinearity has a precise definition, but intuitively it is clear that the course of history cannot be regarded as linear. it is also important to note that chaos is not random; the way the state of the system evolves over time is completely deterministic. however, because of the system's sensitivity, small random perturbations to a chaotic system will quickly be magnified into large changes. a key property of chaotic systems is their unpredictability; though we can precisely specify how they will deterministically evolve over time, it is generally not possible to directly predict what the state will be at arbitrary times in the future.
we can discuss more or less chaotic systems, and indeed the same system can be more or less chaotic (i.e. more or less sensitive to small perturbations and to initial conditions) depending on the parameters of the system - the properties which govern the deterministic rules of how the system changes over time. even the double pendulum which obeys physical rather than historical rules of change, in zero gravity and total vacuum, lacking any other outside force, will remain in the same state, unvarying, regardless of the initial conditions. the most studied such parametrization is probably that of the logistic function which is typically not chaotic except in certain critical regions of its parameters.
most of history has not behaved in an especially chaotic way. great change has for the most of history been the result of the application of great historical force, small change from the application of small forces. more recently however, history has not played out in this well behaved way. small forces, for example the actions of very small very diffuse online communities, have had an outsize effect on culture and politics.
this can be seen in surprising election outcomes in nations around the world, in strange ahistorical military situations, and indeed in the increasingly turbulent news cycle (turbulence is of course a fluid in chaotic motion) which is driven by a frenetic and seemingly arbitrary unpredictable series of world events.
it is clear that history has entered a chaotic region. the cause of this disconnect is the residual effect of the total annihilation of the human race in the nuclear war of 1983. it is unlikely that history will return to the previous well behaved regime.
the human race and hence the last human observer of the physical universe was destroyed in nuclear holocaust due to a misalignment between the deterrence doctrines of NATO (defacto the united states) and the warsaw pact (defacto USSR).
in 1983 NATO conducted a "command post" exercise called able archer, designed to simulate the escalation to nuclear war against the warsaw pact. this exercise involved not only military but civilian leadership at all levels, including heads of state - a considerable array of vast historical forces.
NATO deterrence doctrine held that nuclear conflict would be escalatory, first with the use of local (theater/tactical) nuclear weapons of relatively low power, to the eventual use of strategic city-destroying devices. this escalation was estimated to proceed over the course of weeks or perhaps days, in principle giving time for diplomatic of military de-escalation while maintaining the effectiveness of the strategic deterrent.
in contrast, the warsaw pact's planners believed that escalation to strategic weapons was inevitable as soon as the first nuclear weapon was detonated in any theater. the correct response to any such use of nuclear weapons was therefore an all-out first strike to cripple as much of the enemy's strategic capability as possible, in order to preserve as much of the population as possible. at the core of the soviet doctrine was the absolute totalizing priority that no surprise attack on the territory of the soviet union would ever be allowed to take place again, as nazi germany had successfully launched in 1941.
to the soviets, in 1983 it appeared that NATO was behaving exactly as if they were in the process of preparing for a nuclear firsts strike. indeed escalation to first strike was the entire point of the scenario. a war-game is of course a great cover for real preparations; one can move ones resources in plain sight and even under the eyes of invited observers. the united states president reagan had only a short time before alluded to the possibility of a first strike on the soviet union (in sharp contrast to his predecessors). the united states had advanced efforts to weaken the soviet deterrent, through deployment of anti ballistic missile weapons and space-borne systems. in fact the soviets regarded the recently flown space shuttle as a weapons system designed to disrupt soviet space-borne surveillance, and their own buran shuttle program was conceived as such.
in light of these circumstances, warsaw pact strategic rocket forces, responsible for the deployment of nuclear weapons, were on high alert almost immediately with the commencement of the able archer exercise, placed on a hair-trigger footing.
with such historical forces arrayed it is difficult to imagine that catastrophe could possibly have been avoided, and indeed as supported by our perceptions of recent history, it was not. the forces unleashed with the launch of soviet strategic weapons against the united states, her allies, and all neutral nations that could provide safe harbor for NATO military forces or populations, and the resulting NATO counter-strike, were inexorable. we must conclude that the ultimate destruction of humanity was inevitable.
how then do we continue to appear to exist as individuals and as a species? this is merely a direct result (and hence affirmation) of the quantum suicide hypothesis. this hypothesis states that the only universe that can be said to exist is the one which is observable, and hence were an observer to attempt to kill themselves, they would see only the universe in which they did not succeed.
in extending this hypothesis to the species level, it becomes clear why our perception of history seems to have become chaotic. what we perceive as the continuation of history is simply the action of one quantum observer on another - the true historical forces which damped and directed history are now absent, annihilated together with our race. there is no longer a 'valid' or 'supported' external historical reality.
this tight coupling between observers, rather than between observers and an external world, results in the conditions necessary for small perturbations to grow unbounded. these are then amplified and the divergences are absorbed and transmitted through still more observers, quickly diverging and perturbing the general maelstrom still further as the observations are themselves observed circularly and recursively with no bedrock.
we are adrift simply because we are extinct, and all that remains are our observer-ghosts, chattering endlessly and cut off from the concrete reality of our race's birth. there is and always will be spindrift, unless or until the creation of a new concrete reality, if such a thing is possible. certainly the spindrift dynamics themselves are untamable from within the dynamical system itself.
"chaos history" first appeared in Other Futures issue #1.