Keywords: Systems theory, complexity theory, globalisation, capitalism

Title: Hidden Connections

Author: Fritjof Capra

Publisher: HarperCollins

Media: Book

Reviewer: Pan

The analysis of complex adaptive systems, often known as complexity theory, has been an emerging trend within science for more than a decade now. The subject of numerous popular books and articles, the insights that it provides are useful tools for the analysis of all kinds of phenomena, from eco-systems to the populations dynamics of bacteria to the wild and chaotic fluctuations of stock markets and economies. In Hidden Connections, Fritjof Capra applies aspects of complexity theory, particularly the analysis of networks, to global capitalism and the state of the world.

Assuming no knowledge of the subject, Capra opens the book with an all too brief introduction to complex adaptive systems, contrasting it favourably with the reductionist trend which remains dominant within the scientific community. The first part of the book looks at the origins of life, mind and consciousness and the nature of social reality, showing both that the network (and hence connectedness) are the central structure of life. He also shows that life, consciousness and society are emergent properties, in other words they are, in some senses, by-products of simpler processes embedded in the chemical and biological networks that are the building blocks of life.

In many respects this introductory part of the book feels very rushed. In attempting to summarise and synthesise the works of many others, (whom he credits without hesitation), Capra seems to flit from one thing to the next without going in to sufficient depth to fully explain. It may be a quibble, but a suggested further reading list might have been useful for the reader who is unfamiliar with, or wants to know more, about the thinking and theories that he describes.

Having introduced us to the main philosophical and scientific ideas which underpin his thinking, Capra then examines a number of topics in more detail, starting with leadership and organisation. While it is interesting to see complexity theory applied to organisations, this section of the book read more like a trendy management manual than anything else. Given the fact that Capra spends a fair chunk of his time giving seminars and talks to senior managers and executives at major corporations, this should be no surprise. The message that he delivers may be uncomfortable to them, but it's not one that they don't want to hear. When he talks to them of employee empowerment he's certainly not talking about employee appropriation.

His analysis of the networks of global capitalism is a little more certain. He describes the rise of the networked economy, the automated trading of currency and stocks, the distributed nature of the economic grid. Quite rightly he describes a system that isn't controlled by any individual person, company, government or organisation. But while it's out of control - an automaton as he puts it - it is also owned and serviced by a corporations and governments. To say that it's a monster that is out of control doesn't mean very much if you don't ask who profits from it's existence.

Finally, in the last section of analysis he looks at bio-technology. For me this was by far the strongest section of the whole book. Capra tackles what he terms the 'central dogma' of which genetic engineering is based, that is the idea that individual genes directly determine biological traits and behaviours. In a sense genetic engineering is applied biological determinism. Capra tackles the issue head on, detailing the complex inter-relationships between genes, organism and the environment at large. Quoting extensively from those molecular biologists who are questioning this dogma, he shows not only that biological determinism, is simplistic and not supported by the scientific evidence, he also shows that bio-engineering and genetic modification are deeply suspect and dangerous technologies.

In looking at globalisation the book returns once more to what he considers a key question, and that is the question of values. He views globalisation, and the ills it produces, as being a primary consequence of a 'money is the measure of all things' mentality. Changing this value system becomes, therefore, the focus of attention. The examples he gives of communities that are engaging in ecologically conscious production are technologically inspiring, but they do not change the fundamental facts of class, economics and power.

This is an extremely interesting book, and the tools that Capra applies to analysing problems are powerful in exposing the structures and activities of global capitalism, but at the end of the day there is a reluctance to address the nature of capitalism itself. Capra wants to reform capitalism not destroy it - with that proviso in mind this is still a book worth reading and thinking about.


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