Macro And Micro

This morning as I drove to work, for a fleeting moment on top of some hill along the way I saw the long trail of cars in front of me going the same direction. It struck me that most of the time in life we live in a very micro world, concerned about our own lives and the people that we are close to, while largely ignorant of the wider world in which we operate. I was also struck by the fact that when we take a look at the macro view to try to see larger systems and patterns, we often lose sight of the fact that these conditions are often due to individual choices, sometimes by a few people with a fair amount of power, and sometimes many choices by people who do not realize the power that they have. Last night, for example, I was particularly tired after a long day of work, and while driving home I was irritated that traffic had been slow because cars had been stuck on the side of the road for more than two hours. The problems of traffic on the West side of Portland, on which I live and work, are matters of structural failure. There are few good roads, a lot of people living in the area, and several ranges of hills in the way of both north-south and east-west transportation that lead to several obvious choke points. Yet the specific problem last night was an individual matter involving some kind of stalled car or accident, and a large variety of individual decisions to stare at the action on the side of the road, which in turn made traffic slower than it had to be for everyone.

Given that there is a phase change between looking at matters in the micro and macro view, in order to avoid being led astray by those perspectives, we must simultaneously hold both perspectives in review to combine the insights learned in both places. If we are looking at cycles of economic growth and decline, to give one example, if we look at the micro perspective, we are prone to blame individuals for difficulties when there are larger patterns at work that provide the context for trouble and often serve to limit options, even if they do not remove the scope for personal action. Likewise, if we look at the macro perspective we fail to see that the larger events are the result of individual decisions in making and enforcing and obeying laws (or not) on a variety of levels. People do not always realize that their decisions have effects that can spiral far beyond their wishes. To give an example, I was once a passenger in a car where the driver informed me that he was going to show me an African Bush Taxi maneuver, and on a rainy day in Tampa, Florida made an exceptionally fast turn that ended up leaving the car crashed against the six inch curb at a busy intersection near the Port and the city’s Aquarium, a crash that snarled traffic for some time, involved a citation for reckless driving for the driver, and caused a great deal of damage to the car itself. The decision made was an individual one, but the ramifications of the decision were far wider because it occurred in a busy area where traffic is bad under the best of circumstances than they would have been on an isolated country road where there was no curve to crash into and at worst one would have ended up in a ditch or a cow pasture with no witnesses under heaven.

Often, therefore, there are both micro and macro conditions at play. A larger macro problem can mean that there is little margin of error and that any mistake, no matter how minor, may cause massive and cascading effects throughout an entire overstrained system. On the other hand, a system where there is a lot of leeway means that even large blunders do not cause that many problems for others because of their isolation from the concerns of many. We can never forget that when we look at larger macro effects, what we (and others) care about is the micro perspective of their lives and their circle of concern, which usually does not extend far beyond those they know and interact with and think and feel fondly towards. Likewise, when we are looking at the events of our small world, like the view of the road from our car as we drive through traffic, we need to remember that the other drivers in the road are not necessarily out to get us, and not particularly incompetent drivers (usually), but are responding to larger patterns that create difficulty, such as the often poor design of roadways, whether with regards to curves or forced lane changes or signage or other problems, such as the inexplicable way that people tend to slow down dramatically while entering enclosed spaces like certain types of bridges as well as tunnels, and if they do not respond perfectly to these matters, they are not to blame for the existence of the problems that they fail to deal with optimally.

We are individuals in a world that seems not to care about us, about our hopes and dreams and wishes and plans. Even among that small part of the larger universe that we interact with, many people interact with us focused on their own plans and their own goals and are only concerned with us insofar as we help them in their own agendas. Others may wish well for us, but may simply not understand what we are about. Even we may not know what is really best for us, or how to achieve what we want out of our lives. When we look at the bigger perspective of the universe, we may be concerned about whether we matter at all in the face of the size and complexity of any aspect of our lives that we focus our attention on, and may wonder what we can do to make the world a better place, or even to have a reason to remember that we lived at all. Yet when we look at the aspects of our smaller world, we may feel a crushing burden of responsibility as if everything depended on us and that no one else could be trusted to act in our best interests or to care about us at all. Yet somehow we must bridge this divide, to see that even if we are small and our strength is small, that our decisions impact others through the example that we set and through the measures or countermeasures that others take as a result of our behavior and the behavior of others like us, and that in our smaller world we look entirely responsible because we have turned our attention away from the pressures and conditions of the larger world. Let us never forget in systems that our concern is with individual people, and let us never forget as individual people that we exist in a larger context that shapes us, even if it does not determine us. And so let us live as best as we are able, to wish for and encourage the best for others, and to hope and pray that what we lack in ourselves can be made up for in the larger context in which we are an honorable and valuable part.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Macro And Micro

  1. Pingback: Audiobook Review: The Undercover Economist Strikes Back | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: The Problem Of Simultaneous Fronts | Edge Induced Cohesion

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