Spontaneous order

Last week I was in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival and one of the last shows I saw was by a group of performers (called Showstopper!) who improvise a musical after taking suggestions of themes, musical styles and settings from the audience. I wasn’t expecting it to be very good, to say the least, I suppose because I simply couldn’t imagine how a musical could be improvised very well, or even at all. However, I’m glad I was open minded enough to go along because I was proven wrong. Very wrong.

After consulting with the audience the performers settled on the suggested setting of a motorway service station, along with themes of Bollywood and starlight express, and musical styles of Sondheim, The Sound of Music and Wagner. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? Or at the very least a painful hour’s worth of acting and singing to endure. This is what I was thinking as I sat waiting for the performers to emerge onto the stage, and so, fearing utter boredom without escape, I folded my arms and slumped a little into my plastic chair.

However, what those seven performers (and two musicians at the side) produced over the course of an hour was, to my mind, nothing short of miraculous because I had been unable to imagine how they could possibly produce something worth watching, but that’s exactly what emerged; a musical that was funny and enjoyable, a musical worth watching. And for me to say those words is in itself a small miracle because I do not watch musicals, at all.

All the performers had were literally a few minutes to conjure up the beginnings of a storyline before they had to step up on stage in front of a hundred or so people who had paid money to be entertained. Paid money! Can you imagine the pressure! As an introvert, if I had to describe my worst nightmare this scenario would pretty much be it, the only way it could possibly be worse would be if I was naked too. Thankfully they weren’t naked, and even more thankfully they were clearly very skilled performers, not terrified introverts, who between them produced something remarkable that night.

For an hour I sat in quiet awe of the delightful spontaneous order that emerged from six human brains endowed with very specific expertise in those singular behaviors we call acting, singing and performing. As they spoke or sung or moved about the stage their eyes revealed minds forming ideas about what to say, do or sing next based on what had just been said, done or sung; what was being said, done or sung and what they thought was about to be said, done or sung. Each performer was rapidly producing new ideas like oxygen bubbles in a fish tank as the storyline emerged. Their acute understanding of what sounds ‘right’ to human ears meant they could theorise and then eliminate in real-time all those notes or words that would take the song out of key or disrupt its timing. Their understanding of acting and what makes a good story meant they could skillfully (and subtly) avoid leading the storyline down a cul de sac and keep correcting it towards a direction that would likely lead to conflict or humour – the things that appeal to us all in stories.

The performance ended on a musical number in which one of the performers had skillfully inserted the title of the play (another audience suggestion) as its chorus. This was the final spark of ingenious improvisation, which the other performers instantly organised themselves around, and so emerged a ‘big finish’ to the musical as if it had been planned all along. If you had come in half way through the show you probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the entire performance was improvised, which is testament to the abilities of the performers.

It’s worth noting the story that emerged from this night of musical spontaneity and improvisation. We ended up with a story about two women who work in a Welcome Break motorway service station and who harbour secret passions for two truckers, who are regulars. The two women get fired for health and safety violations and end up eloping with the truckers to start their own snack business. All is well until the husband of one of the women tracks her down which results in a (musical) showdown with her truck-driving lover. The husband loses and goes home with his tail between his legs, but in the end the two women, the two truckers, the husband and the health and safety inspector all end up running a service station in Dover. The perfect happy ending. Throughout the whole story four or five musical numbers emerged, again, as if they had been scripted.

After the show, I realised that I was experiencing a particular feeling; it felt brilliant to be a human being! With no planning, preparation or pre-thought a group of human minds had told a story through acting and singing which had structure, order and was enjoyable. That it wasn’t nonsensical rubbish is what I find truly amazing. It worked. It functioned as a musical. They had produced order, something beautiful, out of the collective chaos of their frantic thought processes. I had witnessed a delightful instance of spontaneous order.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that improvisation can produce something better than dedicating weeks, months or years to writing a musical can, but I am instead making the point that the quality of what improvisation can produce is much higher than you might think, certainly much higher than I thought. I had woefully underestimated the ability of human minds, I won’t again.

The Internet is a wonderful example of what spontaneity can produce. Compare the Internet today to what it was back in, say, 1996, the difference in speed, quality and functionality is so vast it’s barely recognisable as that clunky collection of homogeneous websites it used to be. Back when the concept of the Internet was first being proposed no one had any real idea what use societies could or would make of it and no one could have predicated what it has become. If an alien came and looked at a visualisation of the trillions of connections of the Internet they would surely be convinced that some single intelligence planned every last bit of it, but they would be wrong. I also think you would have a hard time convincing said alien that the Internet has no centralised governance – it’s out of control! And yet, it’s perfectly controlled. This to me is beautiful and so is the thought that it’s the product of human minds.

The Internet is now, essentially, an ordered, largely peaceful and complex society which has emerged out of the ‘chaos’ of a global system of interconnected computer networks. It’s still ‘out of control’, parts of it could perish at any moment, and yet no one seems perturbed by this. As far as I’m aware there isn’t a significant number of people around the world arguing for the Internet to have central governance, why? Well, simply because there’s no need. The Internet, on the whole, works just fine for everyone as it is. The evidence is right there before everyone’s eyes, everyone loves the Internet and for good reason. No one can rationally argue for a reason to change the fundamental nature of the Internet and insert centralised governance. No doubt some people do argue for it – politicians et al – but trying to convince people that the Internet needs to be changed is tough. Real tough. It’s like trying to convince someone that the chair they’re sitting on isn’t a chair but a sponge cake. No matter how gullible or susceptible they are, they’re not going to believe you. The only way you might gain control over them is if you can convince them that sitting on the chair is immoral and I think that’s the only way sociopathic types will have a chance of gaining forceful control over the Internet; if they can convince people that the Internet in its current form is immoral. So far, they haven’t managed it. The vast majority of people still love the Internet, and children can’t get enough of it. This is entirely natural of course because all humans innately desire freedom and the Internet is currently the closest thing we can get to experiencing true freedom, which makes our real world lack of freedom all the more tragic.

Spontaneously ordered societies on any scale are what anarchists and libertarians believe are possible, for there is no rational reason to believe otherwise. Spontaneously is how a society would order itself in the absence of a centralised violent authority. I believe such societies are possible and I accept that they offer the only rational chance of ending war and violence; and of finding potential solutions to poverty.

It may not be a utopia – even the Internet contains its fair share of useless junk – but it’ll free and peaceful, and boy will that be something! It might start off pretty clunky and uninspiring, just like the Internet did, but in no time at all people will be flying around in hover cars and living in bubble domes in the sky – just like the Jetsons! Okay, perhaps I’m getting a little carried away with my predictions here, but then again, who knows, perhaps I’m not thinking imaginatively enough. The future is notoriously hard to predict and no human being has ever really come close to success.

One thing can be predicted with a high degree of confidence; without taxation to fund it, war as we know it would be inconceivable in a spontaneously ordered society. Who would fund such an incredibly expensive, wasteful and (in a free society) fruitless endeavor? No one, or at the very least nowhere near enough investors to even get a large scale act of aggression off the ground. As for poverty, we can be confident that much more wealth would be in the hands of many, many more people. Under a system of government with taxation, law, regulation and legislation enforced upon citizens, the vast majority of the total wealth ends up in the hands of a rich minority (in the UK the richest fifth have nearly two thirds of the wealth and it’s similar in the U.S). When you have a group of people with the power to redistribute and control wealth it’s inevitable that those with the means and the inclination to do so will exploit the powers of that group and circumnavigate its rules for their own gain. I can say this with absolute confidence because the empirical evidence is all around us.

The idea of a spontaneously ordered society may feel strange and uneasy, but spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos is no stranger to you or me. We are the product of spontaneous order, as is all life on earth, as are free markets, as are rain forests and coral reefs, as is the language we communicate with.

Good musicals and peaceful societies can both emerge from the ‘chaos’ of improvisation and no centralised governance respectively, but they differ of course in that the latter involves questions of morality. I only used my experience of the musical to make the point that spontaneous order is a wonderful thing to behold and be capable of; and that as human beings we should have absolute, and universal, confidence in our ability to produce order from ‘chaos’.

Just like those performers did as they took the stage with only a fragment of an idea of where the story was heading, we can do the same. They fully accepted the reality that there was no script and no director, and took on the challenge. We can do the same. We need only to accept the reality that centralised governance is not necessary in order to have a peaceful, free society – just as centralised governance has not been necessary in order for the Internet to flourish as it has – and in fact it achieves the opposite. The performers I saw in Edinburgh believed in the efficacy of spontaneous order, we must too in order to stand any chance of creating a world without war and violence for our children.

Let’s face the music and dance.


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