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Philosophy

The Return of the Wicked Problem: Antibiotic Resistance

The return of the Wicked Problem. The problem of antibiotic resistance characterises a key symmetry of “wickedness” in any problem-space. That is, the activities, responses, interdictions and behaviours that might solve the problem are also those inadvertently exacerbate it.

It is an endemic property of complex systems to seek optimal patterns of self-propagation. What at any particular point appears to be a binary relationship between competing interests generally forms a larger, unified meta-system in which a stable continuity-as-competitive-game becomes the primary purpose of the sub-systems. Medical intervention and bacteriological adaptation exist in a kind of inward-spiralling parasitic symbiosis.

The application of antibiotics to treat infection has the inadvertent effect of refining and strengthening the strains of bacteria which do actually survive the chemical bombardment. This mandates the R&D of stronger antibiotics which then proceed to refine the next generation of superbugs. Occasionally, unexpected organic compounds are discovered which slightly alter the battle in our favour but over the longer-run, the race accelerates and the competition gets more complex and much nastier.

Bacteriological metamorphosis thrives on reductive interdiction.


As an afterthought: it is interesting to consider how this principle of overarching, discontinuous meta-system applies in other competitive domains: cybersecurity, politics, economics, even science (to name just a few). When viewed as a single and autonomously self-propagating algorithmic entity, it becomes apparent that the production of leverage through dissonant difference and a persistent guided or unguided seeking of competitive advantage – even while we are (or might be) self-consciously aware of it – is an entirely autonomous function of information and energy-processing systems that seek their own approximations to optimal, low-energy solutions to the problem of maintaining sustainable continuity and self-propagation.

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