Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Chaos Theory, Self Organization and the Role of Government



Painting by Rudi Nadler of Tucson, Arizona

A series of random links and clicking spasms lead me to Dave Pollard's site... one of the more thought provoking blogs out there. I was inspired to find out that there are people who believe we can model social/ political activity after things we find in nature. In one of his latest posts, he uses the cell as an example of a good organizational unit. Taking things past the metaphor, he began showing how we can start taking the steps to bring this emergent (anti-hierarchical) style of action into reality.

I have yet to post something I've been thinking about on this very topic...that large institutions, which are slow to react, may be hindering creativity and progress. But, that's something I'll get to later. For now, I thought I would add to the discussion by going back to something I wrote before the 2004 election. This excerpt gets into the idea of using chaos and complexity theories to help solve the problems of government. If you like where this is going, send me your thoughts. I'll gladly post more information to keep the discussion going.

Excerpted from A Complex Adaptive Solution to the Polarization of America

Understanding the nature of complexity

Using a more open, complex, and yes "nuanced" way of approaching government, one can look to other areas for answers to the problems vexing government. We should turn our attention to what we know about chaos and complexity theories.

In a boxed-in linear world, no one thinks to look beyond theories of government to answer questions about government. It is convenient to look to philosophy, history and essays on democracy and capitalism to find answers to current social problems. Yet, there are answers to organizational and systemic problems that exist all around us – if we would only take a closer look.

One example of how to take advantage of complexity lies in the very structure of an organization. A study by Basadur and Head and published in The Journal of Creative Behavior in 2001, revealed that heterogeneous groups (or different types of thinkers in the same group) produce the most creative results. Specifically, the experiment examined different configurations of groups, dividing MBA students into 49 teams of four members each. In the study, four types of thinking were represented. Some teams had all of one type of thinker. Other teams had four of each, etc. After assessing the groups' behavior, the study concluded that the group of mixed thinkers may not have enjoyed working together as much, but they did perform better. Maybe friction does make the pearl.

Taking this a step further, imaginary lines have existed over the centuries, making sure to keep scientists, artists, writers, mathematicians, physicists, educators, etc. in separate departments. Like spokes emanating from a hub, they go in their separate directions. As they go down the spoke, their ideas, rather than coming together, spread further apart. So, what if we were to bring people back to the "hub"” at least momentarily in order to solve some serious problems. To do this, we ought to at least have a better understanding of chaos and complexity theories.

In a nutshell, chaos theory tells us that everything in the universe has an emerging nature, from the evolution of organisms, to volcanic eruptions, to weather patterns, to the growth of civilizations. Secondly, the greatest creativity, evolvability and progress appear to take place at the “edge of chaos.” In chaos theory, random forces can converge to form a higher order. Research in the field has gone from the study of planets to the study of the weather to micro-organisms, to the growth of companies to organizational and group behavior. What one learns from a study of complexity is that random forces converge to form a higher order behavior. Keep your eye on the larger picture as we delve into the details.

Steven Johnson, in a book called Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software (2001) wrote about studies of slime mold in the 1960’s by Mitch Resnick. The studies revealed that micro-organisms displayed collective intelligence. Instead of one large organism moving across a floor in search of food, it was revealed that the "slime" was actually hundreds of single celled organisms coming together for a larger purpose.

In fact, evidence of self-organization is everywhere. Prigogine and Stengers in their much-cited compendium Order out of Chaos (1984) said that the biosphere as a whole and all its components existed in a state far from equilibrium. Based on this, they said life, as part of the natural order, was the "supreme expression" of a self-organizing process. Simplified, this means that the air, land and sea are all part of a complex system that tends towards equilibrium. It does so because it is adaptive. If it doesn’t, – if it were rigid – it would cease to exist, and we would cease to exist.

According to Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, the mathematician John Nash proved on page six of his thesis that every non-cooperative game with any number of players had at least one equilibrium point. The trouble is that if you narrow the spectrum to the middle of one political party, you lose hundreds if not thousands of options (This idea comes from James Fallows, writing for Atlantic Monthly). Collective action and intelligence only exist so far as there's a collective (Read more about the "radical middle").

With the earth’s population at over six billion and communication existing at all levels unlike any time before, the possibility for thoughtful, productive interaction could inspire great, imaginative progress. One does not need to live in a coastal city to experience contact with other peoples and ideas any longer. The Internet, e-mail, text messaging and other wireless communications have made possible a world of interaction from any place at any time of the day or night.

Perhaps, without any direct awareness of these principals, the previous administration may have known about this. Richard Florida wrote that "Clinton, especially in the early years of his administration, had the loose, unstructured management style of an academic department or a dot-com, manic work hours, meetings that went on forever, lots of diffuse power centers, young people running around in casual clothing, and a constant re-appraising of plans and strategies." Leaving out the part about the casual clothing, (though it may have contributed to the tone) it is arguable that this type of interaction and activity led to much of the progress in the 1990's.

The idea is not to necessarily seek out chaos and hope for the best. Rather, organizations ought to look for what Stuart Kauffman described as the "edge of chaos.”

Kauffman, a researcher at the Santa Fe Institute has done extensive research on complexity and self-organization. One of the many experiments he conducted consisted of a Boolean network of light bulbs on a lattice like grid. The bulbs were connected and tested using various mathematically driven combinations. Many of the results have a significant relationship to life in organizations: (a) sparsely connected networks showed internal order; (b) densely connected networks go into chaos; (c) networks with a single connection tend towards a frozen, dull kind of behavior, and finally; (d) a chaotic system is very sensitive to small changes.

Going back to what was said during the 9/11 Commission Hearings regarding the need for systemic changes, is it possible that we experienced the kind of “frozen" and “dull" behavior that Kauffman discovered in his experiments? Kauffmann, himself, said that the “edge of chaos" may even provide a deep new understanding of the logic of democracy. This area, he discovered, was best able to coordinate complex activities, best able to evolve. The best compromises appeared at the phase transition between order and chaos.


Prigogine and Stengers, in 1984, concluded that living systems were open systems in constant interaction with their environment. In other words, nothing operated in isolation or without interaction. They discovered that these systems were self-organizing, operating according to their own principles, patterns and structures. According to Irene E. Karpiak, writing in 2000 in the Journal Studies in Continuing Education, the behavior of living systems is determined by responsiveness, creativity and dialogue with its environment. To grow and change, therefore, a living system has to communicate and respond in a continuous feedback loop. "A" gives information to "B." "B" performs a certain way and "A" takes note of this. After "A" sees the behavior, he gives more acutely tuned information to “B" and so forth. The organism progresses forward, always learning and evolving as it goes.

Stephen Johnson wrote about ideas dying in "rural isolation" with no activity, and Karpiak wrote that open systems dialogue with the environment, and therefore, grow and change. From micro-organisms, to cities, to the Internet to video games, emergence and complexity lead to higher order thinking, growth and productivity. Conversely, in a rigid hierarchy, one voice or idea, or a memo on someone's desk alerting them to potential terrorist attacks, can easily go unnoticed.

The universe is governed by certain rules. Violate these, and one might end up dead. Ask the pilot about the Bernoulli Principle, the engineer about stress, and the NASA astronaut about gravitational pull or centrifugal force. Scientists, teachers, astronauts, chemists, physicists, engineers have all made great effort over the thousands of years that we've been on the planet to learn and understand how nature behaves. This information can be helpful in places where it was not intended to be used... if we care enough and we are willing to be more creative in our thinking.
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