Complexity

No one agrees on a definition of complexity, but let’s take a stab: A complex system is a collection of interacting sub-parts all behaving by local rules so that no central control is effective. The behavior of higher-level systems is not predictable from subsystems. New behaviors or properties may emerge unexpectedly.

Natural systems are complex. Human behavior is complex. Stock markets are complex – whipped by human emotion into states of reliable uncertainty – but we keep trying to predict them anyway.

Linear thinking may predict a mechanical system, which is repeatable because chains of cause and effect are nearly static. Take that away, and a system drifts toward complexity. (I once had a 1973 Fiat whose mechanical predictability – and reliability – deteriorated toward complex unpredictability, taking on “a mind of its own” at vexing times, like during thunderstorms, or whenever the temperature exceeded 90°F.)

But because a system is complex does not mean that we know nothing about it. Humans are physically complex systems, but physicians diagnose them all the time. If they prescribe a treatment, physicians intervene in a complex system. You can “fix” a mechanical system by replacing or restoring some element that has malfunctioned, but in a complex system, you intervene and see what happens.

Technology, industry, and developed economies depend on standardization – making chaotic nature uniform and predictable. In a simple case, a big variety of tomatoes from a field are sorted, processed, and blended to make every can of them the same and marketable at a standard price. A more intricate case is integrated circuits, fabricated and sorted so that every chip is identical down to nanometers.

We believe that standardizing phenomena adds to human comfort and happiness, and that doing it on a large scale is even better. Are we reaching the limits of that idea? Complex systems don’t standardize, and at some point nature is apt to bite back on standardization like monocropping. What happens when square miles of the same DNA stock is hit – out of the blue – by a fast spreading fungal attack? Diversity improves resilience to such attack.

Besides all our environmental vulnerabilities, we have to add our own human inclination to engage in useless conflict. To deal with the myriad of complex problems of Compression, we need to adopt systemic thinking: How do we intervene, and as best we can determine, project the consequences, near and far, in both time and space? That is, we need Compression Thinking, and guidelines for bringing it to the action level.

(Click on the links below to read more)

  1. Human Population
  2. Resource Limits
  3. Biodiversity
  4. Information Overload and Limited Human Bandwidth
  5. Psychology
  6. Complexity
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