Where is the Future? A Note on the Idea of “Dynamic Disease”

All too often, institutions work as if the future ‘is there’ and they simply have to ‘go there’. An anticipatory perspective assumes the opposite stance and starts from the idea that futures are generated and consumed. Here I shall exemplify one aspect only of the generation/consumption problem. In the late 1970s, Mackey and Glass introduced the idea of “dynamic disease”. Complex systems contain endless processes unfolding with different rhythms. A dynamic disease occurs when some of the rhythms go out of sync. This lack of synchrony among internal processes may generate new dynamic patterns that may damage the system’s dynamic stability. At the beginning of a dynamic disease, no ‘piece’ is necessarily defective. All the parts of the system are working as usual – their dynamic patterns are only a little faster or slower and their outputs a little higher or lower than usual. If one adopts the standard positivist attitude and attempts to find the ‘broken piece’, one will find nothing. This is why dynamic diseases have escaped attention for so long. On the other hand, if the system’s processes continue to work out of sync, after a while the system’s parts begin to deteriorate. The cause of the illness, however, does not lie within the ‘broken piece’. The source of the problem is the cascade of failed synchronizations of dynamic rhythms, not the breakdown of some piece. It is the system as a whole that is ill, not the parts of the system, even if, after a while – as a consequence and not as a cause of the failed syncs – parts themselves start to disintegrate. Whatever the causes of the failed syncs, any increase in the degree of failed syncs consumes the system’s future, and any decrease of failed syncs generates more future for the system.


Mackey, M. C.  and L. Glass 1977. “Oscillation and Chaos in Physiological Control Systems”, Science 1977, 197(4300), pp. 287–289.



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