The ripple effect is an abstract metaphor to describe how our actions (or non-actions) reverberate throughout the physical and social world, and it is the subtitle of the proposed feature film project “Lake Cop 2: Ripple Effect”. Ultimately the ripple effect is immeasurable, which makes contemplating our own actions all the more fascinating. The basic idea is that “everything you do in life ripples throughout time and space,” as Roderick Fischer says. According to Newton’s third law of motion, if a force acts upon a body, then an equal and opposite force must act upon another body. This is as true in sociology (originally called ‘Social Physics’ by Auguste Comte) as it is in physics. However, it is an underdeveloped concept in the social sciences, as we are confronted by the problem of free will, the sociology of knowledge, and various obstacles to data collection.
Sometimes there are direct observable consequences to our actions, but for the most part the effects of our daily routines are unseen in any intelligible way. We see global environmental devastation and social strife on the news but we remain completely dumbfounded as to our contribution to these effects, and we’re at just as much of a loss to know how make a difference for the better. While the risks we face are systemic and seemingly beyond our control, on some level one must reduce society to its individual unit: You. Risk theorist Ulrich Beck writes, “Whatever propels risk and makes it incalculable, whatever provokes the institutional crisis at the level of the governing regime and the markets, shifts the ultimate decision-making responsibility onto the individuals, who are ultimately left to their own devices with their partial and biased knowledge, with undecidability and multiple layers of uncertainty.” (1) If this intimidating statement makes you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, that’s because it is. As Ben Parker (Spiderman’s uncle) once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
The purpose of understanding the ripple effect is to recognize the hidden, invisible relationships and connections we have with entire world. From an initial state, a singular action is absorbed throughout the system. Like a drop of water on calm lake, that energy, ever so subtle, is transferred outwards in concentric circles. The metaphor of water is particularly compelling. Water is such a dynamic force, like our potential for social action. Water can be refreshing and revitalizing, it can be thirst quenching; cut steel at high pressures; it can sculpt mountains in geologic time; it can drown you; it is essential for life; (I will write a separate article on water later, so as not to go into too much detail here). What is important is that we our conscious and self-aware of our actions.
In the script of “Lake Cop 2″, Roderick Fischer lives by the principle that he is one with the universe and that is actions invariably have effects that ripple throughout time and space. Therefore, he meditates on big questions about life, society, justice, and action, so that his will may be concordant with nature’s. The script also provides insight into the effects of our past on our present and future. Sigmund Freud pioneered this approach to psychology, arguing that unknowable or suppressed events from our infancy and childhood played a large role in determining our personality and lives. In the script, Roderick is confronted by an event in his past, buried deep under water in the ocean that is his subconscious.
Awareness of our interconnectedness has been restated by heroes throughout history. Similar to what the Lake Cop has declared, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Gladiator), commander of the armies of the North, once said “What we do in life, echoes in eternity.” Films like “Babel”, “Crash”, and “The Butterfly Effect” beautifully yet tragically remind us how interconnected and yet out of control we are; how hopelessly futile our efforts can be to change our destiny, or to deny our impact on each other. Likewise, the philosophy promoted in the Kevin Spacey film “Pay it Forward” perfectly illustrates the ripple effect in benevolent action. Our tiny altruistic actions can have a large aggregate effect. Bound by the normative social contract of paying forward that favor on to strangers, a positive feedback mechanism is created, that will eventually effect you as well. However, the ripple effect is not like karma in Buddhism because it does not dictate that one’s actions will come full circle and affect them (this is also often a misinterpretation of Newton’s third law); the ripple effect merely illustrates that all of our actions have far reaching effects.
In a social setting, Newton’s third law is insufficient to explain human action, as his physics is purely deterministic. If you happen to partake in the illusion of free will then humans are uniquely situated to transcend determinism and act in accordance with a universal will, as opposed to petty reactionary self-interest. The famed sociologist Max Weber wrote, “In the great majority of cases actual action goes on in a state of inarticulate half-consciousness or actual unconsciousness of its subjective meaning. The actor is more likely to “be aware” of it in a vague sense than he is to “know” what he is doing or be explicitly self-conscious about it. In most cases his action is governed by impulse or habit.” (2) Thus, the maxim knowledge is power is largely incomplete. First of all, it is more accurate to say that knowledge is power when applied, but second it is most appropriate to say true knowledge applied correctly is conducive to power that is constructive, and thus, more good. Finally, it is not complete unless we reflexively understand the positive or negative effects of our individual power and reform our action accordingly.
In the global village in which we now live, we must appreciate the effects of our actions on both the micro and macro scales. Sociologist Norman Long writes, “particular social interactions and decisions have a ripple effect on more distant social arenas, or over time create emergent sets of relations that form larger-scale systems or fields of action.” (3) An emerging body of literature based on systems theory and self-organization theory is beginning to treaty humanity as an integrated superorganism which transcends constructed boundaries, making individuals akin to cells in the human body. For the healthy functioning of a global society (and planet), we must appreciate our purpose within the grand scheme of things, and take action that is that causes healthy ripples throughout time and space. Ulrich Beck writes, “who in a legally relevant sense ’causes’ pollution, or a financial crises, is difficult to determine, since these events are the result of interactions among many individuals.” (4)
In closing, it is useful to consider that the size of the initial impact can determine the size of the ripples. Thus, earthquakes and meteorite impacts cause tsunamis which create massive devastation. Likewise, social mega-events like the Martin Luther King’s March on Washington create massive waves of awareness and compassion that raise consciousness. Or conversely, the mega-event of 9/11 sent shockwaves throughout the world which prompted Islamophobia, the securitization of politics, and an illegal war in the Middle East. However, it is important to note that all these cases, the culminating even is the result of the accretion of particles due to the forces of attraction. Social mega-events are always contingent on the prior formation of political and social actors (people) whether they have intent or not. Thus, as Beck and Weber warned, we are largely ignorant of our own ripple effect, but we can learn.
So what should we do about it? Make a splash.
Signed, the Lake Cop.
(1) Beck, Ulrich. “Critical Theory of World Risk Society: A Cosmopolitan Vision.” Wiley Online Library. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2010., p. 9 <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-8675.2009.00534.x/pdf>.
(2) Weber, Max. Economy and Society . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978. Print., p. 21
(3) Long, Norman. Development Sociology: Actor Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print., p. 65
(4) Beck, Ulrich. Cosmopolitan Vision. University Park, PA: Polity, 2006. Print., p. 22