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Frozen accidents are according to Murray Gell-Mann events or accidents with widespread consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. They are similar to Holland's lever points: small events that change the world. He defines them like this: "most single accidents make very little difference to the future, but others may have widespread ramifications, many diverse consequences all traceable to one chance event that could have turned out differently. Those we call frozen accidents." ,see . They seem to shape history, but history also makes them visible in the first place. Branching processes and bifurcations, e.g. through positive feedback, can turn small fluctuations and random events into frozen accidents.
All manner of phenomena - epidemics, traffic, even politics - move through tiny choke points, seemingly inconsequential bottlenecks that may shape the very direction of history. They are points in history where small shifts cause huge effects. A single event can cause huge effects for several reasons: it can trigger for example a major conflict or war which was already "in the air", or it can be multiplied by some kind of amplification. Frozen accidents occur if a process is path-dependent and are often the result of positive feedback. Small fluctuations or accidents at the beginning can be reinforced through the positive feedback process to large, unpredictable deviations, until they are finally conserved for a long time in the resulting frozen lock-in state, where one product dominates and allocates the entire system (for example a market).
- "In the world of dynamical systems, from a mathematical standpoint, feedback loops, especially in complex systems, can be really scary. Because of their unintended consequences. They can create all the beauty and richness in the world around us as well as unforeseen horrors."
Frozen Accidents and Complex Systems
The possible and alternative histories of a complex system can be considered as a branching tree with probabilities. As time goes on and a given branching is reached, one of its branches and one of the possible outcomes is selected. This selection is often caused by an accident or is the result of random influence. Before the branching occurs, there are only probabilities for the different alternatives. After the branching, the other alternatives become inaccessible. A frozen accident of history marks and determines one of several specific historical routes.
According to Gell-Mann, frozen accidents are responsible for the increase of complexity during the course of time. The accumulation of more and more frozen accidents are one reason why there is "a tendency for entities of greater and greater complexity to come into being as time goes on." (quoted from ).
Frozen Accidents and Emergence
Frozen accidents in evolutionary systems are related to strong emergence, to the appearance of a new code and a new system in a system. All life-forms use the same genetic code, all western languages use (nearly) the same alphabet, and all computer programs use the same binary code. Genetic sequences can be changed easily, but the genetic code does not change, words can be changed easily, but the alphabet does not change, programs can be changed easily, but the binary code does not change. It is as if the underlying systems "feels unable to move" under the pressure and weight of the system built and running on top it, because if it is changed, all higher embedded systems would immediately crumble down and stop working.
- Main Wikipedia Entry for Lock-In
- Wikipedia Entry for Choke point
- Plectics: The study of simplicity and complexity, Murray Gell-Mann, Europhysics News (2002) Vol. 33 No. 1
- LATimes story about choke points