Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Complexity Theory

One theory that I find useful in thinking about how we can create a better world comes out of the science that's being called 'complexity' or the theory of complex adaptive systems. I've put stuff related to complexity in my 'Word (or phrase) of the day' but I haven't been happy with the links that I could find. I've had to resort to Wikipedia and even those articles were filled with technical jargon. Basically, 'Complex Adaptive Systems' (in my last post) are what they sound like: systems that are complex but are able to be flexible and adapt to changing circumstances. 'Emergence' (in a future post) means things can spontaneously arise from the reorganization of systems. More on all this below.

There are a lot of books out on complexity, including Complexity by M Mitchell Waldrop, At Home in the Universe by Stuart Kauffman, Complexity, Life at the Edge of Chaos by Roger Lewin, and Emergence: From Chaos to Order by John Holland. I've read the Waldrop book and it seems useful and readable. Unfortunately, I can't vouch for the other books. Fritjof Capra has also written several books influenced by complexity theory (plus systems theory and ecology) which I will review in the future. Also note that chaos theory (which has gotten lots of popular press) is related to complexity, but where chaos stuff concentrates on how things work (like weather and turbulence and coastlines and the formation of snowflakes), complexity is more concerned with life and living systems.

Complexity theorists talk about how complex systems emerge from simple systems, often spontaneously. They believe that there are self-organizing tendencies in life and the universe at large that counter the better known tendency toward disorder (often called entropy).

Researchers found that as complex living systems emerge, things grow from the bottom up. When these scientists did computer simulations, they found that top-down systems didn't work. The top-down systems tried to manage everything but couldn't cope with lots of new, unexpected situations. Bottom up systems, on the other hand, evolve and learn so that they are better able to handle the unexpected. Some of the complexity scientists think this may be part of the explanation for the failure of the top-down 'Communist' revolutions of the twentieth-century. They suggest we're better off using local control and letting systems of behavior emerge from the bottom up than using global, top down control. (Global, top down control is, of course, what transnational capitalism does. The need for building from the bottom up is something that most grassroots organizers know anyway, but it's nice to have it scientifically validated.)

Complexity scientists compare healthy societies and economies to cellular organisms which use feedback to regulate themselves. They talk about life developing on 'the edge of chaos' and point out that both chaos and order are needed for cells, economies, and societies. They also note that creativity is needed to change and adapt in response to new conditions.

In what I thought was a very interesting experiment, some computer scientists held a competition between computer simulation programs. They found that a simple, cooperative program (that was described as "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear") outperformed the seventy-five other programs it was matched against, many of which were very complex and aggressive. This got several of the scientists to rethink their ideas about the value of competition and survival of the fittest. They began talking about the coevolution of cooperation, and how it seems to work better than any cutthroat strategy.

Being "nice, forgiving, tough, and clear" seems like a pretty good strategy, perhaps even an extension of loving-kindness. This, along with flexibility, creativity, and building small systems and then networking them (yes, the complexity scientists talk about that as well), is a good place to start the work of social change. From there we can go to creating larger, more complex systems built and developed from the ground up. It's the grassroots organizing model and it seems to be the only model that will really work for changing things.

Quote of the day: "I think the next century will be the century of complexity." — Stephen Hawking (January, 2000)
Word (or phrase) of the day: Permaculture
Hero(es) of the day: Thich Nhat Hanh

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