Everything is deeply intertwingled.
— Ted Nelson

Remember when we discovered systems thinking? All those amazing feedback loops and flows; finally, a way to grok that the system really is more than the sum of its parts. Well, complexity thinking takes the fun a few steps out into the wild blue yonder. It builds on those systems insights. But instead of painting images of thermostats and other mechanical gizmos, it dwells on slime molds, weather patterns, ants, immune systems and whirlpools. The feel of it – oh joy – is organic, organismic. It leads us away from machine-based thought patterns that have dominated civilized intellectual landscape for centuries. No more clockwork universes for you and me, thank you very much!

Complexity thinking emerged from non-linear mathematics. In practice, it means stepping out of the framework of linear continuity and smoothness, and entering the world of discontinuities and sudden transformations. A particularly endearing concept is the phase shift. Picture a brook babbling along while the temperature drops. Nothing to see here, just water, right? Then all of a sudden, what was swirling fluid turns into hard, crunchy ‘glass.’ A phase shift just occurred – an unexpected reconfiguration, sometimes a fundamental leap or an evolutionary breakthrough. Phase shifts are not intuitively apparent. Would a tribesman raised deep in the Amazon ever anticipate ice? And this is one of the reasons doom no longer makes sense to me. The daunting, dreadful, suicidal sameness we see all around us holds the potential for an astonishing transformation, a radical reordering of what was there before.

Often, it is a tiny nudge that leads the system to such a shift. This phenomenon is called the ‘butterfly effect.’ As the saying goes, a butterfly flapping its wings in China may precipitate a windstorm in Kansas. Discovered by a mathematician who was studying weather patterns, butterfly effect simulations were instrumental in convincing the scientific community that accurate long term weather forecasts were not possible. Translation: what each one of us does to coax out a better world can have a huge and surprising impact down the line; moreover, it’s not something opponents of such changes can foresee or prepare for.

Complexity thinking explores new metaphors and intimations that are remarkably friendly to the new political and social consciousness just now being born. Take self-organization, for example. Self-organization — the ability to emerge structures without anyone actually in charge — is the default behavior of complex adaptive systems. In other words, life knows how to organize from within and will do so if left to its own devices. Hey, the anarchists have been right all along! And even better: complex systems show that entirely local behaviors generate global patterns and structures (global in this case meaning systemic, overall). As researchers say about social animals, “they think locally and act locally, but their collective action produces global behavior.” If slime molds can do it, surely humans might?

When individuals in a group are able to respond collectively to changes in circumstances, the group becomes a complex adaptive system. Life, as a complex adaptive system, happens ‘at the edge of chaos.’ This is the fertile space lying between rigid order and randomness. Organisms move back and forth within that space, avoiding the trap of going too far in either direction. There appears to be a force that attracts the living forms to that in-between space where they can flourish. Such a force, such a “lure” – a point or region to which a system is drawn – is appropriately enough called an attractor.

Systems thinking has one major weakness: a fixation on goals. After all, machines are always designed with a definitive purpose in mind. Life, not so much. So complexity thinkers talk of strange attractors instead. These are potential end-states that themselves emerge from the present, and cannot be either predicted or pre-set, much less arrived at by stepwise design. I will return to this welcome insight in a series on unplanning.

There are other intriguing areas to explore that impinge on complexity thinking. Here’s a sampler: fuzzy logic, game theory, self-similarity (fractals), chaos theory, tipping points, coherence, stigmergy, criticality, small worlds, circular causation. In addition, complexity theory has been making inroads into the bleak landscapes of “management” and corporate restructuring, scaring the crap out of ladder-climbing sycophants hungry for their slice of the power pie. The cat is out of the bag: complex systems, sorry, cannot be controlled. Be still, my beating heart — is the myth of heroic managerial prowess nearing the dustbin of history? As the tide of complexity thinking rolls in, the beach is washed clean of the sandcastles of the control freaks. Complexity science is painting the mustache on the boss. Who woulda thunk?

But enough candy for today. Have some broccoli fractals. Tasty!

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