The Butterfly Effect

In Global Politics and Commerce


In chaos theory, "The Butterfly Effect" refers to the discovery that in a chaotic system such as the global weather, tiny perturbations in the system may sometimes lead to major changes in the overall system. It is theoretically possible that a butterfly flapping its wings in Mexico could create tiny changes in the air flow that would eventually lead to different weather in Europe. In most cases the flapping wings would make no difference whatsoever, but just occasionally, very very occasionally, when the system is at a cusp where it could go either way (like a ball ballanced on top of a cone), the flapping may be just the difference that causes the future to unfold differently.

The same principle applies to human society. Tiny changes in one person's state of mind can, on occasions, lead to major changes in society as a whole.


The Butterfly Effect in Global Commerce

Back in the early eighties, IBM decided that there might after all be a market for personal computers. Previously they had decided the market would be too small to be worth the effort, but the rapid growth of Apple, Atari, Commodore, and other manufacturers changed their mind. But before they could produce their own PC, they needed a new disk operating system - their existing system was for large mainframe computers. They decided to hire a small company with some experience in this area to write the software for them.

An owner of the company, a Mr Bill Gates, met with the IBM executive in charge of the software to make a deal. He wanted a royalty on every disk operating system (DOS) sold. IBM still took the line that PCs would never be a really big market, and calculated that this was a fair deal. For reasons we may never know, perhaps he had not had a good night's sleep, or had had one too many cups of coffee that morning, the executive failed to think "just supposing, against all odds, the PC takes off and sells millions upon millions. Will this still be a good deal?"

It did take off. Bill Gates became the richest man on the planet, and Microsoft came to dominate the software industry worldwide.

The world might be a very different place if the mental butterfly that flitted through that executive's mind had not caused him to miss the weakness in the deal.


The Butterfly Effect in Global Politics

Sometime back in 2000, Theresa LePore, had the idea to enlarge the typeface on the ballot paper she was designing for Palm Beach voters in the US Presidential election, thinking it would make it easier to read. Whether she had not had a good night's sleep, or had had one too many cups of coffee that morning, we may never know, but for one reason or another she did not notice that the new design, which now became two pages instead of one (and as a result was most aptly named "the butterfly ballot") could confuse voters about which button to press to register their vote.

As a result 19,120 voters punched holes for both Pat Buchanan and Al Gore, and their ballots had to be thrown out. Another 3,407 people appeared to vote for Pat Buchanan, which he himself found most surprising , expecting only a couple of hundred votes. The net result of Ms LePore's oversight was that approximately 22,000 votes destined for Al Gore did not get counted. Had they been counted, Florida would have fallen to Gore, and he would have become the next US President.

Instead, the election for the whole US was now undecidable, and eventually the Supreme Court settled the matter by selecting George W Bush to be President. If Gore had been elected, would he have refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming? Would he have tacitly endorsed Israeli policies towards Palestine? Would he have declared Iraq part of an "axis of evil" and carried out a pre-emptive strike on the country, with unknown long-term consequences?

The world might be a very different place if the mental butterfly that flitted through Ms Lepore's consciousness had not caused her to miss the problem with her new design.

Date created: 12-Dec-05