Shel22’s Weblog

Week 6, Complexity, Chaos & Randomness
October 20, 2008, 10:16 pm
Filed under: CCK08


Revolutionary technologies like the computer and ultimately the web and its vast stable of innovative applications seems to be a manifestation of complexity theory whereby as Heylighen notes, non-linear side effects can result, witness the recession that followed the dotcom boom.  He describes productivity paradox whereby technologies that increase productivity can also have paradoxal effects like complexity and information overload.


It brings to mind other everyday paradoxes.  At my local gym, I noted how people going into the gym would struggle to park their cars in the nearest car space to the gym entrance, the gym about physical exercise, yet the unwillingness to walk the few extra feet. I don’t where I’m going with this but I suppose it’s to question how one technology or idea can embrace us and at the same time let us lose sight of the other issues or value systems we might subscribe to. It’s about fitness, but I’ll drive up to the door of my gym or health club.  It’s about productivity, but I’m paralyzed through information overload. Of course as Francis Heylighen suggests it’s about problem solving, discovering productive ways to use a technology.  He integrates 3 resources, human intelligence, computer intelligence and coordination mechanisms into a potential solution, a master information system omnipresent and omniscient that could support individuals and society at all levels of information need, information management , decision support while dealing with the negative side-effects he cites.  But this is problem solving at a very complex level.  Dr. Joseph A. Tainter in a lecture on the Archaeology Channel talks about problem solving techniques that have occurred within history. He comments that history doesn’t repeat itself but problems often do.  We respond to problems today much as people did before. He goes onto chronicle how the Western Roman Empire in fifth century AD had huge responsibilities to administer and defend its empire, and this was largely paid for from agricultural production. By the middle of third century AD the government was bankrupt.  In the early fourth century AD, the empire created a larger and more complex and more highly organised government, doubled the size of the army but to no avail.  Peasants abandoned lands, and fast forward to when the  Barbarians overthrew the empire in 476AD.


He then discusses how the Byzantine Empire under attack from Arab armies saved itself and made a remarkable recovery.  It rejuvenated its society and business by simplification, by contracting cities to fortified hill tops, by settling the army on farm land so that they could feed themselves. Businesses and society simplified.  The economy was organised around self-sufficient manors.  Literacy declined. But the size of the empire doubled.   Unlike the Romans, the Byzantine model shows us a large complex society systematically simplifying. 


Finally, he talks about the European problem solving model which from colonial times onwards,  produces ever increasing complexity and consumption regardless of costs, forcing us to continuously innovate and find more and more resources, whether in the Americas as colonies initially or through our natural resources colonisation of fossil and nuclear fuels.   I attach the link below as I don’t wish to do this piece a disservice. 


This is not a critique of the global brain concept of Heylighen which when run through the transport example proposed is impressive and convincing.  But should we be wondering about problem solving and innovation that is predicated on increasing complexity?  Complex systems and complexity effects are irrefutable but is it naïve to look for more simplified and sustainable problem solving methodologies?


 Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia on Dr. Tainter.

 His best-known work is The Collapse of Complex Societies. This 1988 book examines the collapse of Maya and Chacoan civilizations, and the Roman Empire, in terms of network theory, energy economics and complexity theory. Tainter argues that societies collapse when their investments in social complexity reach a point of diminishing marginal returns. According to Tainter, societies become more complex as they try to solve problems. Social complexity can include differentiated social and economic roles, reliance on symbolic and abstract communication, and the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production. Such complexity requires a substantial “energy” subsidy (meaning resources, or other forms of wealth). When a society confronts a “problem,” such as a shortage of or difficulty in gaining access to energy, it tends to create new layers of bureaucracy, infrastructure, or social class to address the challenge.’  [Joseph Tainter, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]



So, is sustainability and simplification an issue for connectivism and connective knowledge?







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