Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Statified, Nesting, and Hierarchy

Oops. I thought I’d done that review of Donella Meadow’s book Thinking in Systems that I promised long, long ago but I can’t find it looking through this blog.  Unfortunately, this won’t be that review.

Thinking in Systems is a pretty good book.  I reread it regularly and I still hope to review it, but one thing that bothered me about the book was Donella Meadow’s use of the word ‘hierarchy’ to describe what I think of as nested systems.  Here’s an example:

“The world, or at least the parts of it humans think they understand, is organized in subsystems aggregated into larger subsystems, aggregated into still larger subsystems.  … This arrangement of systems and subsystems is called a hierarchy.”

She goes on to say: “Corporate systems, military systems, ecological systems, economic systems, living organisms, are arranged in hierarchies.”

I have just been rereading parts of Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point (which I reviewed almost seven years ago in a post called Capra 1:The Turning Point, 8/23/08).  I wasn’t that impressed with much of it (I think it was more of a turning point for Capra’s thinking and work than anything out in the world) but I really liked his take on the use of the word hierarchy to describe what happens in systems.  I’m going to quote liberally from his book:

“The multileveled structure of living organisms, like any other biological structure, is a visible manifestation of the underlying processes of self-organization.  At each level there is a dynamic balance ... between systems levels.  Systems theorists sometimes call this pattern of organization hierarchical, but that word may be rather misleading for the stratified order observed in nature.  The word ‘hierarchy’* referred originally to the government of the Church.  Like all human hierarchies, this ruling body was organized into a number of ranks according to levels of power, each rank being subordinate to the one at the level above it.  In the past the stratified order of nature has often been misinterpreted to justify authoritarian social and political structures.
“To avoid confusion we may reserve the term ‘hierarchy’ for those fairly rigid systems of domination and control which orders are transmitted from the top down.  The traditional system for these structures has been the pyramid.  By contrast, most living systems exhibit multileveled patterns of organization characterized by many intricate and nonlinear pathways along which signals of information and transaction propagate between all levels, ascending as well as descending.  That is why I have turned the pyramid around and transformed it into a tree, a more appropriate symbol for the ecological nature of stratification in living systems.  As a real tree takes its nourishment through both its roots and its leaves, so the power in a systems tree flows in both directions, with neither end dominating the other and all levels interacting in interdependent harmony to support the functioning of the whole.
“The most important aspect of the stratified order in nature is not the transfer of control but rather the organization of complexity.”

(The asterisk (*) in the fifth line of this quote refers to the following note: “From the Greek hieros (‘sacred’) and arkhia (‘rule’).”)

I totally agree with Capra’s take on systems and hierarchy except I would use the term nesting (like Russian dolls) rather than stratified to describe systems within systems within systems.  The hierarchies of corporations and the military are completely different from the way that living organisms and ecological systems are organized.  There is no one at the top of a living system that gives commands.  Rather you have decentralized systems enfolded within decentralized systems and things are worked out by emergence.  (See my last post.)

I understand what Donella Meadows is saying about the need for system to work within systems, but I agree with Fritjof Capra that we need a different word rather than ‘ hierarchy’ to name this process.

Quote of the Day:  “Hierarchies evolve from the lowest level up--from the pieces to the whole, from cell to organ to organism, from individual to team… Life started with single cell bacteria,  not with elephants. The original purpose of a hierarchy is always to help its originating subsystems do their jobs better.  This is something, unfortunately, that both the higher and lower levels of a greatly articulated hierarchy easily can forget.  Therefore, many systems are not meeting our goals because of malfunctioning hierarchies.”  - Donella Meadows

(Add:  I would say the beginning of this as ‘Nested systems emerge from the lowest level up….’)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


Emergence by Steven Johnson is a wonderful, frustrating book.  

It starts off talking about slime molds, which are sort of the mascot of the self-organizing systems world.  These are tiny single celled creatures that, when threatened, coalesce into a multicellular organism.  For years scientists searched for the ‘pacemaker’ cells that started the process.  It turns out there are no pacemakers.  Slime molds have a completely decentralized method of coalescing.  

I’ve referenced Steven Johnson before--way back in a post on Clustering and Coping (8/13/08).  Even then I mentioned he had a book called Emergence.  I just hadn’t read it until recently.  I picked it up in the bookstore that I’m now working in when I visited it in November.  I’ve now read it twice.

One of the things it reminds me of is Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and the Spider, which I’ve talked about in two early posts: Catalysts and Network Weavers (8/31/08) and Decentralization (12/9/08).  The big difference is that Brafman and Beckstrom’s book focuses on the phenomenon of decentralization, where Johnson focuses on emergence which is a decentralized process.  In some ways this is the most important process in self-organization.  And, in many ways, it’s unpredictable.

What’s wonderful about Emergence is how clearly Johnson spells out what’s involved in the process.  What’s frustrating is that he seems seduced by its uses in corporate culture, cybernetics and the internet, and particularly entertainment systems.  However he does cover (briefly) cell systems and immune systems, and spends more time with cities as organisms (which I find very interesting) before he gets caught in the morass of the world wide web and online games.

However, just when I was about to give up on the book, he steers into emergence and decentralization in politics and gives the WTO Seattle protests of 1999 as an example.  (Of course, this type of organizing was going on long before this--I see it dating back to feminist and anarchist organizing in the 1970s.  For more about what was happening back then, see my post Social Movements in the Seventies, 3/30/09.)  I wish he spent more time on this.

This is a good book to read in conjunction with other systems books and books on decentralization.  By itself, it’s only a small (but significant piece) but it’s incredibly useful in understanding the whole.  I’ll end with the warning at the end of the book: “...it is both the promise and the peril of swarm logic that the higher level behavior is almost impossible to predict in advance.  You never really know what lies at the other end of a phase transition until you press play and find out.  That is the lesson of Gerald Edelman’s recipe for simulating a flesh-and-blood organism: you set up a system of various pattern-recognition devices and feedback loops, connecting the virtual organism to a simulated environment.  And then you see what happens.”

That’s emergence.

Quote of the Day:  “This emphasis on rules might seem like the antithesis of the open-ended, organic systems… but nothing could be further from the truth.  Emergent systems... are rule governed systems: their capacity for learning and growth and experimentation derives from their adherence to low-level rules…  If any of these systems… suddenly started following their own rules, or doing away with rules altogether, the system would stop working: there’d be no global intelligence, just a teeming anarchy of isolated agents, a swarm of without logic.  Emergent behaviors… are all about living within the boundaries defined by rules, but also using that space to create something greater than the sum of its parts.” - Steven Johnson