complexity


You are lost in a the middle of a dark primeval forest. A moonless night breathes all around you; soft rain is falling. You long to be somewhere safe, warm, and dry. A tiny keychain flashlight illuminates the immediate space — the rest is near-impenetrable blackness. Bogs, logs and wild hogs wait to trip you up. How do you find your way?

Your senses on edge, you look, listen, sniff the breezes. A faint gurgling of a nearby brook gives you initial direction. You take a step, then examine what’s around and ahead. You take another step. It occurs to you to follow the creek downstream. The next few steps reveal an impassable steep bank. A detour leads into a huge rocky scree. “How do I get back to the water?” You peer into the darkness for the flicker of a fire or a lit window…

We too are lost in the universe. And more ominously, we are lost in a human world collectively bent on omnicide. Apart from death, we have no sure destinations. Some of us cling to the illusion of control — they think they know where we must go, and how to get there. But more and more of us have taken a good look at the disastrous centuries of ending up in the wrong places, and we finally call the quest for control a big fat lie. We gather ourselves up and resolve to abandon the control-freak led stampede to the edge of the cliff. Now we need a way to move ahead that is anchored both in the honest admission that we are not in control, and in the pattern all other creatures use as they walk the paths of their lives.

Control insists on linearity, but life is complex. Do we dare to surrender to a visionary co-adaptive journey where each step is an evolutionary state that takes its shape from steps taken before? The process I see in my mind’s eye is a dynamic dance continually responding to itself. Each step illuminates the next step. At each moment in time, new circumstances emerge. Every step brings new insights, surprises, and unforeseen consequences. Each step is part of the ongoing cycles of mutual responsiveness; it accepts feedback from the current whole and passes on feedback in its turn. One state flows into another.

Unplanning is a spiral, dynamic, unpredictable process that begins with a hunch, and evolves from there. Dreaming, doing and becoming form one seamless flow. The initial inkling of a vision does not remain static, but glows a bit stronger with each step taken. The tentative first steps merely begin the process; they do not determine it. Modifications and adjustments are made at any point, as the need becomes apparent. And each new experience undergone changes us as we come to embody the life of the path.

The unplanning process requires of us that we gradually become the kind of people who know how to inhabit this unfolding future, who are able to reach a desired place, where-ever it turns out to be. Visioning, walking, and self-changing go hand in hand; behold, a pilgrimage. Wisdom is in flux, mutually situated and actively embodied. We come to be more and more the people whose path harmonizes with that which we hope for, and that which we hope for evolves right along with our continuous becoming.

The process itself changes people — as all experiential, experimental journeys do — and people come to gradually embody that which draws them on. We don’t know where we’ll end up, trusting the process to emerge each particular end-state as a surprise.

No imaginary picture of the future controls our conception of what must be done. What must be done arises from the needs, problems and possibilities of the living present. The direction emerges gradually from the felt vision, the doing, the becoming, step by step by step.

In our profession of architecture there is no conception, yet, of process itself as a budding, as a flowering, as an unpredictable, unquenchable unfolding through which the future grows from the present in a way that is dominated by the goodness of the moment.
— C. Alexander, The Nature of Order: the process of creating life

evolve1

Governance activities are organized in multiple layers of nested enterprises.
— Elinor Ostrom

It was Elinor Ostrom who began to speak of nestedness as one of the key components of a successful co-governance of the commons. But tribal societies had long been organized along these lines. A regional tribal alliance nested within it several tribes, which each nested several bands, and those nested several affinity clusters, composed of individual human beings. This way of organizing has an organic feel to it; our own bodies are “nested enterprises.”

holarchy2

 

It’s a curious thing. Human (tribal) organization units — affinity clusters, bands, tribes, tribal confederacies — don’t scale up. They don’t grow by proportional increase. What happens if an affinity group is pushed to grow past its natural limit? Ill will rises amongst the members. The strengths of the group — intimacy, trust, spontaneous conversations, easy problem solving — begin to fade. The group turns dysfunctional. People leave. When it reaches some 20-25 members, the size of a small band, it begins to function again, as facilitation, talking sticks, councils, committees and other formal devices are implemented to manage group process. It looks like a band, but is it? The previous formation out of which it has grown has been destroyed. The resulting “band” is just a growing collection of individuals, no longer anchored in smaller units, and vulnerable to the misuse of power. This is the violence of “biggering” that this civilization brings into everything it touches. As hamlets grow into small towns, and towns into cities, the person’s political clout vanishes, and anonymity and deracination take their toll.

holarchyinfinite

Why don’t we learn from the growth of entities that are not known for ravaging the inheritance they have been given? A healthy cell does not grow unchecked. It divides. The divided cells form clusters, which form tissues, which form organs, and eventually, an organism arises, all without anyone dictating the development. That is how nestedness works. Some call it holarchy. They say it’s a type of hierarchy, but it seems to me the inverse of a hierarchy: there is no top or bottom, and there are no bosses. As this diagram shows, there are always more potential levels each way, as atoms give way to subatomic particles, and organisms rise together to form societies, ecosystems, and beyond.

Holarchy: a meta-system of irreducible wholes that are themselves part of larger wholes, ultimately comprising all life on earth from a single cell to the entire planetary ecosphere.

holdom

What if we were to grow communities via natural self-organization? Individuals spontaneously form affinity groups. Some flourish more than others, and divide. Out of several, a band emerges. Out of a few bands, a tribe emerges. (It would take only 7 layers starting with groups of a dozen to include every human on the face of the earth!) Note that this sort of growth does not do violence to the prior, more local, smaller groupings. They keep on flourishing, part and parcel of the logic of that particular social organism.

Holarchy

holarchic schema of a tribe

What is the advantage of this way of growth and organization, besides imitating the success of Mother Nature? Governance can take place appropriately; the smaller, earlier units largely retain their autonomy; the broader, more encompassing later units like bands and tribes deal with broader matters that pertain to bands and tribes. Easy conversations, intimacy and trust are undiminished. At the same time, the larger, later units bring with their emergence novel advantages: coordination, attention to larger parts of the commons, diversified talent pools, and clout. And the organization that remains anchored in small groups of trusted associates has a leg up on the problem of free riding. It is easy to see what other people are doing within your group; easy to apply peer pressure if needed. The genius of successful commons management summarized in Ostrom’s eight principles rests on trust which is impossible without people knowing one another well over time.

Nested systems are self-organizing, emergent, bottom-up systems. They preserve direct involvement of each member. They are polycentric, having many semi-autonomous decision nodes rather than one. This makes them robust, adaptable, and resilient. Rules too are crafted from the bottom up, and are adjustable by the members with a focus on creating a structure of incentives favorable to both trust-building and maintaining a diverse environment favorable to discovering better solutions to problems. To paraphrase Ostrom, “when large systems fail, there are smaller systems to call upon — and vice versa.” Each smaller, earlier level is influenced by, and itself influences, the broader, later levels. Each cluster, each band, each tribe is an entity unto itself, and a part of an entity larger than itself. Allowing decisions to be made as close to the scene of events and the actors involved as possible, each affinity cluster, each band is a self-regulating, open system that displays both the autonomous properties of wholes and the dependent properties of parts.

So. What’s stopping us?

When we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.
— John Gray

Since my next post on unplanning is ripening but slowly, I thought I’d post slightly edited excerpts from a paper I found enlightening in my quest to understand unplanning’s underpinnings. Vladimir Dimitrov is an Australian mathematician with keen interest in complexity, chaos theory and fuzzy logic. In Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: Journey beyond Systems Thinking he explores how complexity improves upon systems thinking, and in the process illuminates some of the ways that planning undercuts us.

Wholes inside wholes

System thinkers see the world made up of parts (systems, subsystems, components, elements, particles) that can be separated and analyzed independently from one another. The underlying assumption is that the whole is more than the parts, where ‘more’ usually relates to ‘more complicated’ or ‘more difficult to study and understand’; consequently, the parts are simpler and therefore easier to study and understand. For artificial (human-made) systems, such an assumption can be accepted. In nature and society, this assumption fails.

The microcosm is not simpler than the macrocosm; the same inseparably connected dynamics, energies and forces that make the spiral of our galaxy fold and stretch pulsate in a similar way through any living cell. The life of a single individual is not simpler than the life of society considered as a whole. In the fractal structure of nature the whole consists of wholes, only the scale changes.

To be fair, I think that system thinkers made a real effort to stress the emergent quality of the whole when all those components came together, which made it ‘more than the sum of its parts.’ That was an important insight of systems thinking. This insight was then built upon by complexity researchers.

It occurs to me that when we attempt to come up with patterns that help us walk in the “right” direction (as planning attempts to do), we are stymied by the effort to set clear goals and then break them down to parts, into steps that we can take. The alternative that I am trying to articulate does not start with a linear process (over there a goal, over here we taking the steps and the jumps arrived at by deduction). It starts with an awareness of wholeness that shifts into another wholeness, and another, as we walk. Tomorrow’s wholeness, emergent as it is, is not altogether predictable from today’s wholeness, and we have to give it a chance to evolve according to its own logic, not ours. The movement of wholeness to wholeness is like the slight turn of a kaleidoscope: a new whole, just as lovely and coherent, emerges from the previous pattern. Each new turn takes us further from the original whole but the final pattern still carries within it an echo of the first configuration.

Be here now

Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impacts on further development. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow a goal-oriented strategy or target-setting anchored in the future.

While centered in the present, complexity thinking has the capacity not only to see the emergent phenomena at the moment they happen, but also to capture the signals related to their potential occurrence before they happen. This is of crucial importance, particularly if the emerging phenomena could affect negatively the unfolding of life. In contrast, being constantly centered on the various goals and targets attached to the future, systems thinking can see that emergence only after it has occurred, that is, when it is too late to undertake any action to prevent its occurrence. This explains today’s impotence of of systems thinking to cope with ecological complexity. Being mostly preoccupied with all kinds of ‘ecologically sustainable’ goals and dreams for ‘clean technologies’, with many local projects for ‘tomorrow’s environmentally friendly developments’ and noisy preparations of world-wide forums about how to make the planet a ‘better place to live for future generations,’ ecological systems thinking is unable to stop the ever accelerating tempo of environmental destruction that happens today.

Life happens in the now. Letting planning processes take that now away from us seems, in retrospect, just another deceptive trick of a way of life gone awry.

Don’t plan; plant!

Another important advantage of complexity thinking is its awareness of the self-organizing capacity of the present. This awareness helps complexity thinkers see new emergent phenomena and to facilitate initiation of new processes that are coherent with self-organization and therefore realizable.

Complexity thinking does not try to fight chaotic attractors that emerge out of the turbulent flow of human life and does not aim to ‘reform’ or ‘improve’ them. Attempts to improve chaotic attractors are similar to attempts to ‘improve’ the whirlpools of a mountain river — an entirely senseless task! Chaotic attractors reveal the self-organizing nature of complex dynamics, and to fight self-organization means to lose: nature is always stronger than the individuals who fight it. But what complexity thinking is able to do (and successfully does!) is to seed the emergence of new attractors.

As all the attractors pulsating in the ‘phase space’ of life have a common supply of energy, when the energy flow directed to nourishing newly planted attractors grows in volume and intensity, the energy supply to the other attractors automatically decreases and, if not supported any further, those attractors simply ‘shrink’ and dissolve.

This takes me back to my post on the counterproductive nature of political resistance. I am convinced that our strategy needs to be based on recognition of the energies that flow through “all that is” and on the use of those energies (as aikido teaches) in seeding new possibilities. Fighting the old gives new energy to it. Planting the new now — in the present — that’s where our attention is sorely needed.

Orwell redux

Prediction, target setting and goal achievements are essential attributes of systems thinking; they work effectively in a linearly ordered environment where the changes in system’s inputs are proportional to the changes in system’s outputs and the cause-effect relationships are transparent enough to be discerned. Because of this, whenever systems thinkers (systems analysts, designers, developers) explore real-life situations, they automatically turn to models that allow prediction, target setting and goal achievement. And since any non-trivial life situations represent a realization of some chaotic processes, difficult to predict or orient toward pre-defined goals and targets, systems thinkers focus intensely on trying to ‘improve’ chaos, to substitute for it some form of order, or more precisely, to impose a pre-designed model of order.

In society, such ‘improvements’ on chaotic behavior gravitate to the establishment of hierarchical models of order. When put into operation, such models serve to assert power and control. Thus, in an almost invisible way, the application of systems thinking to social reality contributes to strengthening the power-oriented aspirations and ambitions in society. The sphere of economics and politics is saturated with such kind of aspirations and ambitions, leading to what some have described as the “global free-market capitalist religion.”

The phenomenal brainwash in society serves to suppress any spontaneous and therefore difficult to control expression of self-organizing ability of complex social dynamics. If released, this ability could be a threat to the functioning of the System. Marionette-like governments, corrupted police, various military, technocratic and educational institutions, bureaucrats and commissioners with controlling, legal and financial functions, a great number of experts, consultants, preachers, and entertainers all help the System to function properly. If they do this, the System grants them Its support.

That is the essence of utopian thinking, it seems to me, this idea that you can fix (or govern) the world by imposing a human design onto it. No wonder utopian visions mostly turn out to be dreary reruns of Plato’s Republic spiked though and through with pie-in-the-sky fallacies!

And a parting thought from Christopher Alexander:

Thus the world has entered a new phase. What is made, what is built now, what develops in the world, is governed by images and rules. It is no longer automatically governed by the existing wholeness. It is now governed by what we decide.

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!

Next year, much of the writing hereabouts will dally under the astrological sign of Complexity. And since complexity is inextricably linked to evolution (or is it the other way around?), poking Darwinism with a stick will be at times regretfully 😉 necessitated. So… why not start now?

This raspberry-flavored whimsy comes adapted from The Sex Life of Flowers (ch. 5, The ‘unacceptable’ face of evolution) by way of Charles Bowden’s novel Blood Orchid.

They will do anything to reproduce. And they will use the needs of others, the deep appetites they see in all our faces, they will exploit these things to further their own ends. They will take over our ways of loving, they will seize upon our sense of property. They will ruthlessly read our diaries, our secret thoughts, and then make us slaves to our own obsessions.

Perhaps no clearer example exists than the tactics of the hammer orchid (Drakaea fitzgeraldii) and its scheme to seduce one particular type of wasp (of the family Thynnidae). Thynnids fall into the trap once they gaze upon the labellum of a hammer orchid.

Female Thynnids prosper by parasitizing the larvae of Scarabacid beetles, and the particular beetles favored as prey live by being root parasites. To find them, the females have to dig and since they spent their time digging, they lost the ability to fly. Indeed, they have lost their wings, a sacrifice which makes it easier for the females to tunnel under the earth. The hammer orchid lives high above them in the trees but somehow has become conscious of their strange ways.

Since the female Thynnids cannot fly, they cannot search the forest above them for food. This problem they solve by sucking fluids from the beetles that are their victims. That leaves the great subject of mating. Most wasps of this type have a culture in which the males are the active parties in mating. Usually, a female just plants herself in an easily reached location, releases a pheromone, and lets time solve her problem. Possibly, it is an intoxicating situation.

Usually, the mating process proceeds rather simply. The female sits, releases the pheromone into the air, and business proceeds. For copulation to occur the male wasp must be triggered by scent, by sight, and by touch. So the pretty and winged male flies a patrol, he stumbles upon the inviting scent drifting through the air and follows it. The female, to make it all so easy, has climbed up a ways off the ground on, say, a grass stem. Now the male approaches, the female begins to move her jaws in expectation. The male descends, grabs her with his legs. And off they go, like a military aircraft with a deadly missile slung underneath.

She does not fear that she will fall. She fastens her jaws on the male’s neck, and there she rides secure. They mate while in flight, a seemingly needless risk that long puzzled scientists. Why is this ride necessary? True, there are a lot of bees and butterflies and whatnot that fornicate in the air. But this species of wasp could have accomplished the venture without leaving the good and solid earth. So why are they behaving this way? And what – the impossible question we are trained never to ask – do the hammer orchids make of it all? For we know, and we insist, the orchids cannot think. Or see. Or in any way we will ever admit, know. And they are up there in the trees, clinging while the male flies and fucks with the female down below.

The male and female wasp do not hurry, no, not at all. They remain locked together in fornication for hours. And they do other things. The female for the first time in her life is off the ground, in flight. The tunnel-digging predator now kisses the sky. She does not waste this rare opportunity. The male hauls her from flower to flower and here they both feed, continuing to fuck all the while. For the first and last time during her time on this earth, the female tastes nectar.

While the male and female wasp are slurping up nectar and fornicating, the male, we think, is also scoping out the forest floor. Sex, we believe, does not distract him from this great task. He is looking for a good place to drop the female later, after the bash, a piece of ground rich in beetles where his kind can thrive, where his descendants will prosper. Just how he does this we do not understand. But we feel confident that however strange it may seem, he is actually the explorer of his world, the Columbus finding the new country and the new future. And the hammer orchid that cannot watch, watches; that cannot see, sees; that cannot know, …

We are in Australia, the wasps are mating just below and orchids, particularly hammer orchids (Drakaea) and elbow orchids (Spiculaea), seem to notice. The hammer orchids, for example, have a strange labellum – that tonguelike projection in the middle of the flower. It looks… just like a small, fat, wingless female version of the Thynnid wasp. The imitation is damn near perfect – shiny head, round, faintly hairy body, ass tilted up a bit into the air. The scent also – that delicious pheromone the female releases – is copied and wafts off into the air from the hammer orchid. It is floating across the forest, it is sexually inviting, perhaps maddening, and the orchid, which cannot possibly know, now it hears the rush of wings approaching it, though of course it cannot possibly hear either.

The fake female wasp rides on the end of a little hinged arm that sticks up from the flower of the hammer orchid. She bobs up and down in the wind, she looks so alive and of course, there is that scent. The male descends — ah, the moment is at hand that evolution has been waiting for, the moment that so stimulated that crabby old churchman Charlie Darwin as he battled his illnesses and fears in his dark English study — grabs the female impersonator, wrenches to take off into his mating flight. And then the hammer comes down, a thing delicately called the column, and on its end are stigma and polinia. The male wasp is already trying to probe that uplifted ass with his genitals when — wham! the hammer hits, and suddenly the male senses this is not a real female and he departs. It has taken less than a second. And glued to his back are the reproductive cells of the orchid. There are four species of hammer orchids. Each attracts a specific species of Thynnid wasp. And they do this by mimicking a female that spends all of her life tunneling in the forest floor far below. Except, of course, for her few hours of flying, fucking, nectar slurping, and fun.

The system of the hammer orchid usually fails. How could it be otherwise? If perfect, all the wasps would mate with fake females and soon there might be no real wasps to attract. The fake females, well, they are just not the real thing. No orchid can compete with a real lusty Thynnid female, not at all. Males will hardly visit the flowers when living females are out and about. The scent is just not like a whiff of the real thing. But there is a saving fact, a tiny detail that makes the sex life of the hammer orchid possible. Each spring, the males show up a couple of weeks before the females. And the hammer orchid knows this — no! no! that can’t be right, these damn things can’t really know. During this interlude, the hammer orchid seduces male Thynnids, and they land, and they fuck the false female, and the hammer falls. It has been going on for…