Chaos Theory and the Postmodern Internet1
© Fred Abraham2 , Olga Mitina3, & David Houston4
Supreme Court Hears FBI Conference-Screening Case: Hearings continued today on the landmark civil rights case now before the U. S. Supreme Court. The FBI argued that in order to prevent computer conferencing networks from becoming sources of organized dissidence and possible revolution, they must have the power to routinely impound tapes for any computer communications system and screen them for the presence of suspect words, such a ”assassination.”

Postal Service Abolishment Proposal: Senator Marilyn Wu of Hawaii urged that the Postal Service be abolished. “All really important mail now gets delivered electronically by computer systems,” she stated. “There is no need why U.S. taxpayers should continue to subsidize an outmoded communication system, merely for the benefit of those few fanatics who refuse to have a terminal in their home.”

Advertisement: Before you decide on a new terminal, you owe it to yourself and your family to come to Basic Furnishings, home of distinctive items for the electronic age.”

From, The Boswash Times, July 7, 1994, Imaginary newspaper used to introduce ideas in The Network Nation (Hiltz & Turoff, 1978).
We want to examine a simple question for which there is no answer. Or maybe the answer is too obvious. We view almost every psychological or social system as “chaotic”, in the sense that forces of convergence toward central ideologies and forces of divergence away from central tendencies resolve themselves in patterns of activity of varying complexity that contain elements of both order and disorder. So the question we pose is, to what extent does electronic communication tend to favor one or the other of these tendencies?

Hiltz & Turoff’s book recognized that communicating via computer networks could be used for good or evil, for expression or repression of human potential and opinion. They hoped that it would represent a forum for free expression and interchange of ideas, and for social progress. Their book was remarkably prescient considering that in the late 70s very few people were using the computer for global communication. The Internet and the World Wide Web had their explosion in the mid 90s. Very recent.

Mark Poster (1989) observed that many social analysts saw electronic communications as creating “enormous social transformations. . . A right-wing contingent envisions a benign automated world of material plenty (Naisbitt, 1982), . . . A left-wing contingent, equally sanguine, foresees radical democracy as the outcome of the new technologies (Masuda, 1981).” Also, according to Poster, many people see daily lives as improved, but many others dispute that claim and point out that there is increasing isolation with the increasing dependency on global communications.

McLuhan captured this latter viewpoint with some of his famous aphorisms: “Every media extension of man is an amputation.” “The medium is the message.” “Electronically imploded, the globe is no more than a village.  . . [which extends] our central nervous system in a global embrace.” (McLuhan, 1967, 1973.) Nevertheless, McLuhan envisions the bright side, and the potential to avoid these hazards. His vision is that we are in a major historical transformation that needs guidance and nurturing. Smart (1992) states that, “McLuhan sets out to reveal the ways in which prominent technological innovations have been associated with significant forms of social and personal transformation. . . . Indeed the stated aim of the work is to contribute to an understanding of the effects of media technologies on human sensibilities and social life, and thereby to help bring about a ‘genuine increase of human autonomy’. As McLuhan (1967) comments, ‘the influence of unexamined assumptions derived from technology leads quite unnecessarily to maximal determinism in human life. Emancipation from that trap is the goal of all education.’” Smart further comments that, unfortunately, we seem to be headed more in the direction of vocational training than toward the liberal education McLuhan was advocating.

Poster (1989) holds that many social theorists (Marx, Weber, Durkheim) make action primary over language as a mode of social change. Poster considers language more primary, but he maintains that:

“language and action are interrelated aspects of experience. In fact, language may be considered a form of action and action is accompanied by linguistic expressions. By employing the term mode of information I do not want to suggest that in the social field language is separate from action or that it can be reified and considered as a self-subsisting totality. Quite the contrary: on this issue I follow Foucaults’s formulation of the term discourse/practice, by which he endeavors to bypass the traditional distinction between language and action, ideas and material things.” (Poster, 1989)
The development of these ideas on the relationship between a word and action can be easily traced in Russian philosophy and psychology. According to L.S.Vygotsky (1934), meaning is a molar unit linking communication and generalization processes, enabling transfer and acquisition of social experience. Continuing the tradition laid by Vygotsky to consider the meaning as a formative unit of consciousness, A.N.Leontiev (1975) defined meaning as a converted form of activity and he postulated one of the main principles of the activity approach—the principle of unity of consciousness and activity.

From the standpoint of chaos theory, language and activity are major factors regulating social interaction. Control parameters, order parameters, and particular parts of the system are linked by interactive causal connection principle (Haken, 2000). Variation of these parameters can cause qualitative transformations (also called bifurcations) of the pattern of spatio-temporal pattern of the behavior of the whole system. On the other hand, the behavior of particular parts determines the values of control parameters. It is in this sense that the non-linear dynamics of the system of the system is self-organizational. However, the specificity of self-organization in individual or public consciousness lies in the fact that the subject permanently realizes the evolution of its own consciousness and reflects over it. Of course, the essence of the postmodern view is that unconscious and emotional features of self-organization are also involved (Irigaray, 1985; Kristeva, 1981; Lacan, 1977; Surap, 1993). Self-organizational reflection is an important attribute of every form of consciousness, not only within the framework of scientific and conceptual thinking, but in everyday life also (Kristeva, 1981; Lacan, 1977; Petrenko, 1997).

Poster's emphasis on interaction was also proposed by Bakhtin (1973) as an interaction between language and context (culture) brings us to two principal theses presented here. One is that these various interactive facets of society have all the characteristics of nonlinear dynamical systems (chaos theory5). All the insights and passion of chaos theory could be employed metaphorically to add to the discourse on social theory. The other thesis is our contention that nonlinear dynamics—more than electronic communications—is the most powerful influence on this cultural transformation. The current explosion/implosion of electronic communication has greatly accelerated this process beyond the dreams of Baudrillard, Benjamin, and McLuhan. But dynamics is self-organizational in a special way, in bringing itself into the consciousness of the process of the evolution of consciousness itself (see F. D. Abraham, 1994, 1996; R. H. Abraham, 1994; Hardy, 1998; Kurdyumov, 1990; Schwalbe, 1991).

We should point out that the most powerful and compelling features of nonlinear dynamics is the ability to explain how systems change suddenly and dramatically (bifurcations), and how intentional systems (humans and societies) can control their own bifurcations, their own evolution and growth. This is called self-organization. Here we consider for example, that many control parameters can cause these sudden dramatic changes. For example, the internet and its future incarnations are part of the complex system we call society, culture, or global village, and some of those control parameters that could be responsible for major transformations such as described by McLuhan, Buadriallard, Benjamin, Poster and other postmodern commentators, include the speed and capacity of the internet. Consider the following:

“When the WDM (Wavelength Division Multiplexed) network was first commercially introduced in 1996, the feat of sending several wavelengths down a single fiber strand was welcome as a proof that optical bandwidth would be as bountiful as its enthusiasts claimed. But as the number of wavelengths on a fiber soared past 8, 16, 32 to 800 already in labs tests of the Avanex (AVNX) PowerMux—with 3300 or more feasible in Lucent’s new AllWave fiber—WDM no longer merely enhances the network. It consumes it. One of Lucent’s 864-strand cables could hold 2.86 lambdas, separately addressable in space and frequency. At 10 gigabits per second per lambda, that Lucent cable could hold 28.6 petabits—or more than 3 petabytes—per second, which is near the total Internet traffic per month just a couple of years ago.” (Gilder & Vigilante, 2000, p. 2.)
Gilder and Vigilante were discussing the new bubble (Champagne) technology for all-optical network switching (rather than the current slow opto-electronic technology) which, with Raman amplification and soliton transmission, creates long-distance low-noise transmission enabling those high transmission rates of fiber optic cables.

Three years ago, one of us, in preparation for teaching at Silliman University in the Philippines, placed some correspondence on his website, without any giving any links to those files, thinking that they would only be accessed by those given the file names. To his surprise, these documents were accessed by others, and were available to anyone who cared to browse for the appropriate words. Think also of how fast today’s search engines work, with metasearchers (like metacrawler) running several engines simultaneously. Those of us who thought that the sheer bulk of internet traffic would preclude government surveillance and enhance privacy and thus democracy and diversity of culture, may not have been aware about the degree to which bandwidth is increasing.

Gilder and Vigilante continue:

“Rendering the bandwidth-conserving economies of packet switching unnecessary, the thousands and ultimately millions of lambdas could each serve as a potential end-to-end circuit at the sole disposal of its current users.”
                                                                                                         (Gilder & Vigilante, 2000, p. 2.)
The recent announcement by British Intelligence proposing surveillance of the Internet becomes especially insidious considering not only that increase in bandwidth, but also the impossibility of detecting surveillance (they don't leave cookies). Will right-to-know laws permit access to agency records? Considering the number of crimes involving the Internet, from the Oklahoma bombing to pedophilic seduction, the motivation for governmental intrusion into private lives may be too tempting for goverments to resist. Do laws preventing criminals from making profits from post-crime (you can buy fingernail clippings of serial killers from major web sites) need special laws concerning the Internet? Cannot evidence of such a public nature be obtained without establishing special surveillance privileges? Recent FBI surveillence in the USA suggests that special laws may be needed to protect citizens from the government!

On the other hand, this bandwidth may enhance social and cultural development and diversity by giving more groups instant communications. These may enable more diverse artistic efforts—family photo albums, personal artistic and photographic work including the animated, museum displays, movies, and interactive drama. The homogenizing replication of art, music, and literature may, instead of prostituting art in the service of commerce the way Baudrillard (simulacra) and Benjamin feared, could be replaced by new creative forms of artistic endeavor. Fractint shares software and art. Collectives of artists share web sites for the display and sale of their art.

However, the major question remains concerning the extent to which power in society becomes distributed rather than centralized. While global capitalism may concentrate the flow of many aspects of commercial decision-making, it also makes the consumer more powerful. There is more instantaneous information at the fingertips than ever before. Foucault (1980) considered power not to be the result of centralized institutions or modes of production (e.g., Marx), but rather there are networks of interaction of knowledge and power (pouvoir-savoir)—localized struggles of micro-politics.

“In his view complex differential power relationships extend to every aspect of our social, cultural, and political lives, involving all manner of (often contradictory) ‘subject positions’, and securing our assent not so much by threat of punitive sanctions as by persuading us to internalize the norms and values that prevail within the social order."    (Surap, 1993, p. 74)
This means that the Internet is becoming a major locus of these interactions of knowledge and power. We anticipate that the self-organizational dynamics of society and the Internet will bifurcate to proper, mid-dimensional balances of convergent and divergent social tendencies. We expect that chaos theory will help to increase consciousness of these postmodern processes.


Abraham, F. D. (1994). Chaos, bifurcations, & self-organization: Extensions of  neurological positivism and ecological psychology. Psychoscience, 1, 85-118. Also in B. Goertzel, A. Combs, & M. Germine (Eds.), Mind in time: The dynamics of thought, reality and consciousness and at

Abraham, F. D. (1996). The dynamics of creativity & the courage to be. In W. Sulis & A.
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Abraham, F. D., & Gilgen, A. R.  (Eds.). (1995). Chaos theory in psychology. Westport: Greenwood/Praeger.

Abraham, R. H. (1994). Chaos, Gaia, Eros. San Francisco: Harper.

Bakhtin, M. (1973). Marxism and the philosophy of language. (published originally under the name of a friend, V. N. Volshinov, for political reasons6). return to Bakhtin, the Abrahams, and others

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other wtitings 1972-1977. Edited by C. Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.

Gilder, G., & Vigilante, R. (2000). Light links and champagne bubbles. Gilder Technology Report, 5 #5, May 2000, 1-7.

Hardy, C. (1998). Networks of meaning. Westport: Greenwood/Praeger.

Hiltz, S. R., & Turoff, M. (1978). The network nation: Human communication via computer. Reading: Addison-Wesley. return to begining

Irigaray, L. (1985). Speculum of the other woman. Ithica: Cornell.

Kristeva, J. (1980). Desire in language. L. S. Roudiez, (Ed.); T. Gora, Alice Jardine, & L. S. Roudiez (trans.). New York: Columbia.

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Lyotard, J.-F. (9184). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Manchester: Manchester.

Masuda, Y. (1981). The information society as post-industrial society. Washington D.C.: World Future Society.

McLuhan, M. (1967). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McLuhan, M. (1973). Understanding media: The extensions of man. London: Abacus.

Mitina O. V., & Petrenko V. F. (1999). Dynamic model of changing political mentality of Russians. Mathematical and computer modeling in the humanitarian and social sciences. Moscow: State University of Management Press.

Naisbitt, J. (1982f). Megatrends: Ten new directions transforming our lives. New York: Warner.

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Sulis, W. & Combs, A. (1996). Nonlinear dynamics in human behavior. Singapore: World Scientific.


1    This article evolved from a presentation at the Nato Advanced Study Institute "Nonlinear Dynamics in Life and Social Sciences", Moscow State University, Moscow, April 26-May 6, 2000 and a subsequent invited article in Computerra No. 28, 2000 and an unfinished article, "Tribes of the Internet" and other articles at this website ( On the eve of the NATO Institute, many foreign professors, leaders of this approach, still faced serious difficulties in obtaining Russian visas. Apparently embassy bureaucrats could not fathom the juxataposition of the terms “NATO…Chaos…in Russia”. The persistence and tenacity of seminar organizers, unanimous support of all participants, among which were well-known Russian academicians and professors S. P. Kurdyumov, V. A. Sadovnichy, S. P. Kapitsa, and Yu. L. Klimontovich were necessary to give authorized officials lucid explanation that chaos theory has no relation to daily muddle and is a science that emerged at the junction of mathematics and physics and uses well-developed techniques of differential equations, non-linear dynamics, functional analysis, fractals, and complexity theory as its basic language. During the last five decades scientists working within its framework have studied self-organizational processes in complex dynamical systems comprised of a large number of simultaneously developing local sub-systems, obtaining astounding results and building well-known explanatory and predicting models.
2    Blueberry Brain Institute, Waterbury Center, VT, USA & Silliman University, Dumguete City, Philippines
3    Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia
4    University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA
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5    Methods of chaos theory (dynamical systems theory, synergetics, neural nets, fractals, complexity) that at first proved to be very effective in physics, chemistry, meteorology, and population and molecular biology where researchers have to analyze the “behavior” of millions of objects: atoms, elementary particles, molecules, cells, and organisms, each acting in chaotic way, but together forming a unified and interactive ensemble, later were applied to traditional social and life sciences: psychology, sociology, economics, population biology, molecular biology,  where arises the task to analyze the behavior of a large number of objects (people, products, etc.) involved in the processes under study that also act chaotically but comprise a unified community (Abraham & Gilgen, 1995; Kurdyumov, 1990; Mitina & Petrenko, 1999; Sulis & Combs, 1996).
6    Bakhatin was exiled to Kazakhstan in 1930 for six years for corrupting the youth (like Socrates) under the repressive Stalin regime. He was restored in the 60s.
return to chaos theory