Posted by: terrapraeta | June 29, 2009

Elegant Complexity


They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go,
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Til it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

I’ve been thinking a whole lot, recently, about complexity. It is at the heart of the arguments we have about civilization and it’s future (or perhaps, lack thereof). It is also at the heart of rewilding, ecology, systemics, and intuitive thinking. All topics that I spend more than my fair share of time considering.

Jason has written extensively about complexity and diminishing marginal returns on complexity within civilization with his thirty thesis. But I have seen, in those discussions and overflow discussions elsewhere that the one repeating argument against his thesis surrounds the definition of complexity in relation to natural systems. How can we say that complexity is unsupportable when, in fact, natural systems are far more complex than anything civilization has ever designed. This, of course, has led to extended discussions of the disconnect between designed complexity and ‘natural’ complexity.

It’s time to find some new words, I think.

‘Complexity’, from an Anthropological viewpoint, is defined by the number of artifacts a given society creates. Simplified to the most basic level, it is really the amount of energy expended by a society in order to create those artifacts. That means that Anthropological complexity actually describes a one-to-many relationship: ie total energy embedded in artifacts (both physical and mental). Let me suggest that this means that what we are really talking about is ‘merely complicated’ (ala Dave Pollard).

When Dave talks about the difference between merely-complicated problems and complex problems, he is recognizing that we, as civilized humans, have difficulty seeking solutions to complicated problems, but we are able to eventually do so. Complex problems, on the other hand, we seem to be completely unable to deal with.

The VA Tech shooting presents a good example for today. Calls are already going out to find solutions that will prevent such a massacre happening again. Yet what do those calls entail? More of the same. More gun control, more enforcement, more intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens, more data collection (with no thought for how we can possibly process more data when enforcement organizations are already unable to keep up with the current load). The American government, as an example of civilized hierarchy is trying to address a complex problem with a merely-complicated response.

So what might a complex response look like? This would require identifying the fundamental, underlying causes of such behavior: hierarchy, exploitation, dehumanization, marginalization and so forth. And then, an effort to remove those causes from our society. (Note: I would suggest that we, as a civilization, are totally unable to do any of this)

If civilization is merely complicated, based upon linear one-to-many relationships, then where do we find true complexity? Natural systems describe many-to-many relationships. Millions of very simple interactions that effect, and are effected by, tens, hundreds, thousands of other very simple interactions creating a truly complex system. Importantly, many, most, perhaps all of these interactions are based upon non-linear relationships. But there is another word that can be used to describe this: Elegance (ala Jeff Vail).

Jeff writes about elegance specifically in relationship to elegant technologies: technologies that do what they do as a natural consequence of their fundamental nature: passive solar heating and cooling, for example. But isn’t this fundamentally how nature itself works? Or to put it even more bluntly, when we embrace elegant technologies, aren’t we really just accepting nature as it is, rather than trying to create complicated, non resilient tools to replicate what nature already does in simple, dynamic and resilient ways?

Far be it for me to suggest abandoning terminology that is well established(HA!), but perhaps in this case, we can avoid much of the semantic bickering by recognizing that anthropologists adopted the term complexity without understanding that, in fact, what they are describing is exactly not complex at all.

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