Thursday, April 19, 2012

Complexity Once More

I recently re-read the book Complexity by Michell Waldrop. Once again I was taken with many of the ideas of these researchers--especially the idea that " systems always seem to emerge from the bottom up, from a population of much simpler systems." They talk about how "...since it's effectively impossible to cover every conceivable situation, top-down systems are forever running into combinations of events they don't know how to handle."

Building things from the bottom up (or as I've been putting it, "Rebuilding the World from the ground up") is what I see us needing to do--it's the only way I can think of to create "a World that Works for Everyone."

But the scientists and theorists in the book go on to talk about focusing on "...ongoing behavior instead of a final result." They point out that " systems never really settle down." And they make the point that social systems, as well as biological systems, need to be on what they call 'the edge of chaos' in order to function well. Systems that are too orderly (Doyne Farmer, one of the scientists being interviewed, cites Stalinist USSR and "the Big Three automakers in Detroit in the 1970s") become "rigidly locked in to certain ways of doing things" and therefore vulnerable. But systems that are too chaotic (Farmer points to the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horrors of the industrial revolution in the UK, and the laissez-faire economics that led to the savings and loan collapse in the US in the 1990s) don't work either. "Common sense, not to mention recent political experience, suggests that healthy economies and healthy societies alike have to keep order and chaos in balance--and not just a wishy-washy, average, middle of the road kind of balance, either. Like a living cell, they have to regulate themselves with a dense web of feedbacks and regulation, at the same time that they leave plenty of room for creativity, change, and response to new conditions."

This reminds me of what sustainability folks call 'resilience'--creativity and adaptibility with built in redundancy so that there is room to deal with problems.

One more thing (among many) that I was taken with was some of the ideas on learning and behavior change. John Holland is a computer scientist that became fascinated with neuroscientist Donald Hebb's ideas on learning and the brain. It's all about synapses and connections but you can take the ideas on wiring as metaphorical as well as literal. What several of the complexity theorists (including Doyne Farmer, referenced above) were coming to believe is that "...the behavior of the network as a whole is determined almost entirely by the connections." In this way learning is about changing the connections, and the idea is that " can change them in two different ways. The first way is to leave the connections in place but modify their 'strength'. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploitation learning: improving what you already have. ... The second, more radical way of adjusting the connections is to change the network's whole wiring diagram. Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones. This corresponds to what Holland calls exploration learning: taking the risk of screwing up big in return for the chance of winning big."

Unfortunately, I know about some of this personally as I've taken several risky chances in my attempts to build community where I've ended up screwing up big--although one time I think I ended up winning big when a bunch of us were able to set up a well functioning community that lasted five years. I also think that if we are going to build a new way of living we are going to have to "Rip out some of the old connections and put in new ones." And, yeah, it's risky. But it may be the only way to really change things. But that's why (when there is as much chance of screwing up as getting what we want) we will need to build small adaptive systems (communities, cooperative businesses, small farms, demonstration models, etc) many of which will fail. It's the way that emergence works--and it's the way natural systems evolve.

Building resilient, adaptive little systems on the edge of chaos as an ongoing process that never settles down. Not easy, but it's the only way that I can see to create change. Observe, take small steps, build simple systems--and who knows what will emerge from there.

Quote of the Day: " means that you observe, and observe, and observe, and occasionally stick your oar in and improve something for the better. It means you try to see reality for what it is, and realize that the game you are in keeps changing, so that it's up to you to figure out the current rules of the game as it's being played. stop being naive, stop adhering to standard theories that are built on outmoded assumptions about the rules of play... You just observe. And where you can make an effective move, you make a move." - Brian Arthur (from the book Complexity)


Austan said...

All true. And it's natural that things change and present as you go thru a process; what doesn't grow is likely to die. Stagnancy, even in thought, is not natural and births nothing.
You rock, Moony!

MoonRaven said...

Thank you!

And, that's a great reminder:
What doesn't grow is likely to die.
Stagnancy...births nothing.
I'll try to keep remembering that.