Nicolis and Prigogine argue that the nonlinear dynamics of far from equilibrium systems can provide an archetype for understanding complex systems. As they explain, their argument relies on analogies between models of systems and physico-chemical systems. They describe a model (climatic variability, insect systems, human systems) and then use their language of complexity to demonstrate how the model can be understood as a complex system. The result, they hope, are suggestions on how to master complexity a (italics in original).
If analogy is the first step, faulty analogies would suggest faulty arguments. They would suggest, in other words, that the claims for the behavior of physical-chemical systems don't tell us anything about biological and conscious systems.
Definition: complexity is "connected to the ability to switch between different modes of behavior as the environmental conditions are varied. The resulting flexibility and adaptability in turn introduce the notion of choice among the various possibilities offered." The requisite condition for this choice involves the presence of instabilities and bifurcations.
N and P consider self-organization in human systems.
1. Human society is embedded in an environment with which it exchanges matter, energy, information. On the one hand, this seems rather non-controversial. We take from and give back to the earth. On the other, the initial separation of society and environment makes it more difficult to see society as its own environment. And this omission eliminates antagonism--society begins as one rather than as divided and exchanging with itself.
2. The example they give is "of a town in which raw materials and agricultural products arrive continuously, finished good are exported, while mass media and professional communication keep the various local groups aware of the present situation and of the immediate trends." The description of media here is as a conduit of facts. Media's role in producing facts, in obscuring facts, in making subjects. So not only does the example proceed as if there were a neutral set of exchanges, of the movement of products without violence or oppression, but it proceeds as if all reporting could be reporting of neutral facts uninfluenced by observers' own positions.
3. Nicolis and Prigogine know, of course, that humans have "individual projects and desires." They know as well that these desires constitute dynamics of their own, influencing people as much if not more than their predictions about what others might do. For them, desire is ultimately a matter of chance and unpredictability. Desire installs in what could be a deterministic system the element of indeterminacy and unpredictability. Desire makes the system open.
4. N and P then try to specify unpredictability. As they do so, desire because less the unpredictable, unknowable force or thrust, the locus of fantasies, but instead a simple appetite, a rational preference. At this point, the realization of preferences will have effects on preferences--the choices of others impact our choices; feedback is a factor in social systems (if someone I like likes a book, I'm more likely to read it than if they don't like it).
5. N an P consider the "development of an urban center as certain areas specialize in specific economic activities and as residential segregation produces neighborhoods differing in their living conditions and access to jobs and services. Two major components of the population are recognized, corresponding essentially to blue and white collar workers." Specialization and segregation appear as fundamental properties of the system rather than as conscious choices or as two among many organizational alternatives.
6. In fact, as their example continues, it is clear that specialization and segregation are the primary distinguishing characteristics of sub-populations ("it may be reasonably assumed that the subpopulation Ni is essentially determined by the number of jobs of type k situated at point i") .
7. N and P add: "similar equations can be written for the other categories of actors, equations that describe, for example, the need for industrial employment to be located at a point with good access to the outside and, preferably, in a location adjacent to already established industry." The picture we are getting, then, involves a classed society where class involves relations of production. Industrial production is taken as a given (so, one can presume assembly lines and factories; given that blue and white collar workers are separated, one can't presume collective ownership and management of these factories). Access to the outside is intriguing--I presume that the idea is one of export or capacities to ship the goods that made--but it could mean something else, like untapped markets or colonies. Adjacency gives primacy to existing modes and relations of production, and could have the side-effect of creating industrial sectors inhospitable to living. Most bluntly put: there are already tensions and problems creeping into the model.
8. They write: "the model just defined views the evolution as an autonomous process whose course is determined at each moment by the mechanisms of interaction among different actors. The environmental constraints act through the parameters, and the initial condition can be adopted to express the effect of randomness or of a systematic external intervention or "planning." An alternative scenario, closer to what happens in reality, is to let the system evolve for a certain period of time, brutally modify its state by launching a new activity or an "innovation", again let the system follow its autonomous dynamics until a new innovation is launched, and so forth."
I don't quite understand this. Or, I am mystified by the slippages, the same slippages that accompany the problem of the outmoded physicist I discussed in the first post on exploring complexity. The evocation of an autonomous process suggests an invisible hand, market forces. To emphasize an autonomous process would suggest a multiplicity of individual choices mutually impacting one another in multiple ways. An alternative would be "planning," the authors say. But this is a strange way to think of economic planning, particularly insofar as no city planners or state appear in the model. There is a society of industry with no government, in the model of an urban center they provide. So it isn't clear where they think the planning would fit. Their alternative seems like a combination (an oscillating universe?). But who is doing the brutal modification? who is launching a new activity? Are these revolutions? New products? Volcanoes? Who is letting the system evolve? This is a problem because it isn't clear what the difference between letting the system evolve and innovating is. If the system refers to its members interacting in their environment (which itself is indistinguishable from the system such that there are multiple interacting feedback loops), then any changes, even revolutionary ones, even ones that some group plan, are both evolutions and innovations. Differently put, any new motion or movement (throwing the ball back, pulling a weed or not pulling a weed, introducing a new product or continuing to produce an old one) can be described as either evolution or innovation.
9. Nicolis and Prigogine write: "Starting from a space in which variables are initially distributed at random, we observe the gradual emergence of an organized pattern with its own administrative and business centers, its industrial zones, its shopping centers, and its residential neighborhoods of varying qualities." But are the variable distributed at random? Or, does the level of development of the means of production play a role? What about the form of government? The legal regime? Does it make sense to say that shopping centers and industrial zones are products of random developments? or perhaps products of the development of the forces of production, class struggle, and legal attempts to respond to and direct both? Gradual emergence occludes the impact of power on choices and the reciprocal impact of choices on power.
10. Nicolis and Prigogine conclude that there account "illustrates the dangers of short-term, narrow planning based on the direct extrapolation of past experience. Such static methods threaten society with fossilization or, in the long term, with collapse. The principle message of the dynamical modeling advocated in this section is that the adaptive possibility of societies is the main source allowing them to survive in the long term, to innovate of themselves, and to produce originality."
I can't find an illustration of the danger of short-term narrow planning in the chapter. I think what they have in mind is the fact that small changes can have large impacts and that some large impacts may be unexpected (repeated tiny stresses on a bridge can ultimately contribute to its collapse). Their suggestion reminds me of points Nicolas Taleb and other raised against the use of the Gaussian copula in models of mortgage default risk--too much extrapolation based on the short term (last 2 years) rather than long term.
The problem, though, is that fossilization and collapse seem unpredictable and unavoidable on the basis of Nicolis and Prigogine's work. Their basic emphasis is on processes that are stochastic and irreversible. Put another way, originality can't be eliminated; adaptation can't be eliminated. The opposition between planning and innovation is a false one. They proceed as if planning were the same as presuming the existence of fixed laws of nature. But no plan determines in that sense. A plan does not establish a fixed course, for example. It posits a desired outcome and a set or processes to reach that outcome. But it cannot fix and inscribe the processes or guarantee the outcome.