December 12, 2007

Cities and Regions as Self-Organizing Systems: Models of Complexity by Paul M. Allen

(Sorry this is late, but I’ve came down with a case of Bell’s Palsy last week, which is a non-contagious, temporary viral infection that affects the facial nerve on one side of the face, paralyzing it. So basically, I can’t really blink my left eye, nor can I more than half-smile, and I’m talking so increasingly out of the side of my mouth I could almost stand in for Vice-President Cheney. Anyway… see you in class!)

For my second chaos and complexity book, I looked at a book called "Cities and Regions as Self-Organizing Systems: Models of Complexity", by Peter M. Allen, a British ex-physicist who was strongly influenced by Ilya Prigogine before taking up spatial economic modeling. The book was published in 1997, about 10 years ago, but is still one of the main works that explicitly develops urban complexity models and theory available to most academics. (In some ways, the work is similar to, and contemporaneous, with now-NYT op-ed columnist Paul Krugman’s short 1996 lecture, "The Self-Organizing Economy", which takes a simpler look at how feedback models create spatial patterns across inter-urban, regional and national scales.)

As a general goal, Allen is interested in creating dialogue with urban planning community, particularly trying to reframe how planners approach their jobs. At one point he venting some slight frustration current planning practices, based in “make the assumption of spatial equilibrium in modeling the 'changing' spatial pattern" (43). Unfortunately, knowing as little as I do about economic modeling, much of the mathematical content of the book took place over my head. There’s a way in which applying complexity theory to the social sciences can only be ‘performed,’ rather than explained, and the best approach to understanding the kinds of process-based approaches Allen utilizes would be to recreate the models myself, tinkering and re-creating the variability. It made me think that the clearest jumping off point for Allen’s work for our class might be the excellent network illustrations that Jeremy talked demonstrated a few weeks backed during his presentation on Linked In. In particular, both modelers are attempting to graphs how network theory can apply to everyday life, creating patterns out of a blank slate, particularly focusing on how feedback loops persist over time.

(cont. below)

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December 11, 2007

Ishmael: The Ideas of Daniel Quinn

For my final text, I decided to explore the ideas of Daniel Quinn, whose work I had read previously, but found myself thinking about in new ways and with newfound urgency following our readings on chaos & complexity this semester. Quinn's most famous work is Ishmael, but he has authored a set of books -- Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization -- which all attempt to clarify the same core ideas. I found Quinn's ideas became most clear after reading all four books and exploring the plentiful additional material on the Ishmael Community website, which includes essays, presentations, and direct answers to questions and challenges.

Ishmael (as well as The Story of B and My Ishmael) is written in the format of a novel. In the beginning, a first-person narrator meets a telepathic gorilla (I know), and most of the book consists of the gorilla leading the narrator (and thus, the reader) through a series of discussions about how humankind got to where it is today. The narrator takes the position of the naive reader, asking multiple questions (sometimes ad nausea) and in the process making visible our cultural myths, unveiling how and why humanity is no longer living in accord with the rest of the world, uncovering the origins of society's problems, and showing how we are headed toward cultural collapse if we don't change.

Core Ideas
I believe the core of Daniel Quinn's many ideas can be synthesized as:
1) Population growth is directly related to food production. All living populations -- including humans -- will grow to match their food supply.
2) As long as we produce a surplus of food (on a global scale; not regionally), the human population will continue to swell -- regardless of birth rates, death rates, standard of living, education, etc. (Click here for more detail.)
3) We perpetually produce a surplus of food because we practice Totalitarian Agriculture, which eliminates competing species, destroys biodiversity (some estimates say over 200 species a day are becoming extinct), creates massive waste and pollution, and spreads to disrupt entire ecosystems in order to produce as much food as possible. Ultimately, the increased food fuels rapid population growth, which demands yet more farming -- a feedback loop.
4) The creation of an agricultural system that produces vast surpluses is what has fueled the massive rise and spread of our culture (dubbed the "Takers"), and the cultural myths or stories that accompany it: humans are the ultimate pinnacle of the evolution of life on earth, humans exist differently and separately from the rest of nature, humans should exploit the web of life however necessary to further this "natural" dominance, etc.
5) The creation of this agricultural system and the production of surpluses is what first created systems of class -- there was now something to lock away, to horde and own, and social strata (of this type) emerged. From there, Quinn lays out how all of our civilization's problems evolved from class, overpopulation and imperial cultural myths -- poverty, sexism, racism, crime, depression, etc. He also makes a clear case for this method of agriculture and all the systems it has spawned being the cause of Global Warming.

The Great Forgetting and Cultural Collapse
Quinn claims (in a variety of ways over all four books) that for 3 million years, humans lived a very different sort of lifestyle, a tribal lifestyle governed by an unwritten "Law of Limited Competition" whereby humans hunted and farmed (in other ways) and competed to the fullest of their capabilities, but didn't obliterate other competitors, species, ecosystems or food supplies to do so. Quinn claims that every member of tribe had a specialized function and was valuable, and for the most part people gathered and worked for what they needed from day to day (rather than collecting surpluses or additional wealth) -- a process that took a few hours and left the rest of the day open to other pursuits, as opposed to the 40 hours a week for 40 years lifestyle that we burn ourselves into the ground with today. Quinn said this lifestyle worked just fine for humans, was naturally selected over millenia, and doesn't find these basic tenets to be "primitive" in the sense of cultural evolution the way, say, Robert Wright does in Nonzero.

Quinn says that about 10,000 years ago, that all changed with the emergence of Totalitarian Agriculture, which produced surpluses and exploded the population and fueled the spread of this practice and the classist cultural ideologies that emerged with it. He says we can trace the exponential human population surge back to this point, and backs this up with a variety of data from different disciplines, gathered by the United Nations and the United States, etc -- all of which point to a major change occurring around 10,000 years ago (most charts actually begin measurement at that time, because there begins to be a large enough change to measure), but without most analysts questioning what occurred then. Quinn calls this The Great Forgetting -- human history omitting the lifestyle that worked well for 3 million years because only the last 10,000 years have been well-documented, and already immersed in Taker culture.

Quinn says that the quagmire of increasingly complex global problems we are facing today are the signs and symbols of a failed cultural experiment -- humans tried this Taker lifestyle of living out of accord with the rest of the living community, and it took about 10,000 years for this experiment to collapse. As an analogy, Quinn presents the idea of someone trying to build an airplane, but whose craft is not in accord with the laws of aerodynamics. The person drives the craft off the edge of a cliff, and for some time is in free-fall. During this time the person yells "Look, I am flying! Gravity does not apply to me!" -- but soon will discover that gravity does apply to them, and in a most drastic manner. We are headed for a crash.

The Food Race and Overpopulation
Quinn states that if there is still time to avoid a crash, it will necessitate ending our current agriculture system, and the race to produce more food globally. He attempts to show in a variety of ways how the world is currently producing far more than enough food for all humans, but because our population continues to skyrocket and there are local famines and food shortages, we operate under a cultural myth that says that we need to push and push to create more food -- which he aggressively states time and time again will only fuel overpopulation in a never-ending cycle.

This line of thinking uncovers one of Quinn's most controversial claims, which is that we should not send food to starving populations in "Third World" countries; they have already outpaced the resources in their environment, and sending them food will only increase their population, causing more suffering. He says this is like pouring gasoline on a fire just because it is a liquid and we feel we must do something in the face of tragedy.

Click here for a fairly accessible (if plodding) slideshow presentation with data about some of these ideas, titled World Food & Human Population Growth. The slideshow includes quotes and findings from Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel.

New Tribalism
Ultimately, Quinn advocates for abandoning our current system of agriculture, "walking away" from our owner/conqueror cultural myths, and finding our way back to a manner of living with the rest of the world that biological and cultural evolution selected for 3 million years -- a tribal lifestyle. He stresses that this doesn't mean giving up all technology, picking up clubs or living in caves. If we are to pull away from Taker culture, our new tribal lifestyles will be something completely original, a brand new idea that hasn't existed before. Quinn rallies against civilizations and for smaller, self-sustained tribes -- classless and cooperative communities -- that create their own order based on what works best for them within the context of their environment, saying there is no one right way to live, which I see as a nod to the flexibility called for by complexity theory. Far from being primitive, Quinn says new tribalism is about living in accord with the rest of the living community, "an escape route for the billions... who slog stones up the pyramids not because they love stones or pyramids but because they have no other way to put food on the table."

One part of Quinn's argument that I wholeheartedly agree with is that all our tinkering with current systems will mean nothing if we don't find a way to address overpopulation. The Earth's population doubled from 1900-1960, and again from 1960-2000 -- even though the "population growth rate" is currently declining. (Click here for more detail.) Within the span of most of our lives, the number of humans on this planet has doubled. And doubling means billions of people. What will emerge and what will collapse within this infinitely complex adapative system?


Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

I’m one of those inept bloggers, unable to properly post for this class. I’m including an early comment I had to the presentation that Jerome gave. To me, posting it now helps bring all my readings and the class presentations on CC Theory into a clean perspective.

This comment is about Jerome’s very good explanation of his extremely complex book. During class I asked a question about how the author handles people using their common sense or intuition in regards to the author’s theories, which completely discount the value of common sense and intuition. This struck me as an example of Dr. Shupe’s statement that some ideas come out of the mouth and circle around to hit you in the back of the head. To rephrase my original question, Casti uses his theory to discuss social systems like economies (with the beer distribution) and collapsing governments. As social systems, they must include people who act, often using their common sense and intuition. Yet the over all theory discounts this activity. Does Casti’s theory take these types of actors into account? Or does he completely ignore them? Either way, I think the concept comes back and hits him in the back of the head.

The second book I read for class is Duncan J. Watts’ Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age. The title comes from the iconic idea of everyone on earth being connected by 6 people. Indeed, Watts thinks it is possible that today humans are connected by much fewer than 6 connections. Watts is a sociology professor. Six Degrees examines the study of networks found in the real world of people; friendships, rumors, fads, diseases, firms and finances. In the book Watts uses terms like percolation theory instead of tipping point, and flexible specialization to describe interdisciplinary work. He effectively applies Barabarsi’s power laws to social networks. To Watts, understanding networks is vital in understanding this current generation of connectedness. The main theme of the book is that some problems can only be solved collectively, that one individual or even a single study discipline are not enough to resolve some issues. This book is a strong proponent of multi-discipline works, and fits in well with the MLS program. Watts’ goal is to change the way people look at the world. This is what CC Theory has done for my perspective on the world.

Watts asks a great question in the book that sticks with me. Instead of asking, “How small is the world?? he asks, “What does it take to make the world small??. He uses some great analogies like the fact that the chirping of crickets becomes synchronized without there being a conductor present to guide them. This particular example harkens back to the earlier book I read about how guppies can also make synchronized motions, learn and react to each other. Again, complex organization is found in surprising places. Watts believes that network connections work due to the clustering (overlapping) of connections as well as the average path length of the link. Hubs are not needed for small world networks to succeed; overlapping is enough. This clustering and deep connection makes the network a “small world?.

Watts believes that functioning as a small world is the best way to operate in the current world. This period of growing complexity and ambiguity calls for the use of collaboration strategies across traditional boundaries. Individuals and teams that used to work in isolation need to be connected, sharing information, crossing skills and knowledge. He also believes that to be successful a network has to be both robust and contain some weaknesses. Otherwise the network is too vulnerable to catastrophe. I think this statement rings true with the lattice graphing we’ve seen in class as being particularly strong.

Another thing Watts says also struck me about the whole idea of CC Theory. He states there is no generic “small world? model that will work everywhere in every situation. The way to solve problems, he posits, must be modified and tailored to each organization, each system, each person. Just like CC Theory is not THE answer to the workings of the world (or is it?), his “small world? theory is not a solid fit either.

Watts believes that everyone in the world is part of the same family involved in one enormous and complex network system. His “small world? notion really resonated with me and I could apply it to current topics in the news. For example: Science News magazine recently reported that geneticists have determined that North, Central and South America were all populated by people who crossed over the Bering Strait from Russia. They traveled down the coast all the way from Alaska to Chile and then spread in-land from there. These are the Native Americans, Bolivians, Ticos of the New World. Then the Europeans came across the Atlantic Ocean and the populations re-connected. We are all from the same family.

Another item I applied the “small world? theory to is the new report on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The previous report was drafted using traditional investigation from limited intelligence community sources. The new report was produced with a new lead investigator applying many of the inter-disciplinary techniques that Watts advocates. Small groups were used, dissent was encouraged and those questions were then also studied, information was gathered from traditional and non-traditional sources, across governmental agencies. The final report was more factual than the first, with less supposition. The group looked at old information in a brand new way. To me this represents everything that CC Theory hopes to explain.


December 10, 2007

The Fifth Discipline

The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization by Peter M. Senge. Doubleday. New York. 1994.

The author: Senge was the director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management and is a senior lecturer for MIT. See for more, including other publications.

First lesson: Do your research before you go to the bookstore, buy the book, spend weeks reading it, only to discover that there is a newer “completely revised? edition.

Lessons from the book (the older edition):

What are the Five Disciplines?

Systems Thinking: a way of thinking that sees beyond individual patterns to the whole pattern of patterns, the whole of wholes.

Personal Mastery: “continually clarifying ..our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing our patience, and of seeing reality objectively.?

Mental Models: we all have them, the assumptions that are beneath our awareness, that drive our worldview and thus, our decisions.

Building Shared Vision: bringing people together toward a common future (rather than simply a goal).
Team Learning: the whole is smarter than the sum of the parts. Learning as a team becomes synergistic. The example here of a sports team that seems to play better than the sum of the individual talent on the team was illuminating.

Senge’s position is that being great (as an individual, an organization, a company) in any one or two of these disciplines will not mean success. Even “mastering? team learning, mental models, personal mastery, and shared vision will not mean success, at least not in the long term, because the problems we face today are those of complexity. He says there are two types of complexity: detail complexity which means many variables, and dynamic complexity which means that cause and effect are not close in time and space. He asserts that most of our organizations only know how to respond to effect that is closely linked to cause. If effect is too far down the time/space line we no longer see what caused it. Also, that many things are not linear at all (of course) but cause-effect-cause relationships.

The Fifth Discipline of Systems Thinking is offered as a language that organizations can use to (start to) talk about/expose what is really going on (“current reality?). This allows for models (paper or computer) to be developed that shed light on where the leverage point/s really exist. Then, using the “creative tension? between the “current reality? and the “shared vision? we can find creative solutions.
A Learning Organization is one that fosters personal mastery so that individuals continue to grow their own vision and can contribute that to a shared vision (which is not a majority rules, but an outgrowth of truly sharing the various visions which then build on one another). In order to grow that shared vision, the organization must examine its corporate culture mental models as well as individual’s mental models, holding them up to scrutiny in an environment that supports that risk, and discard those that no longer apply. This process can be part of the team learning process, because as the mental models are exposed and dealt with, the team can discover the underlying systems at work. With individuals committed to their own and each other’s growth, a common vision for the future (which continually examines itself), a team is born that can learn together using their common language of systems thinking to understand the current reality, the gap between that reality and the shared vision, and how to leverage their systems to create a new reality ever closer to their vision. (hopefully you see the disciplines in loops interacting with each other)

"Practicing" the disciplines is the emphasis. This may be frustrating to people who want/need a problem fixed right now. What is helpful is that at least they'll be working on the right problem. (For those who have familiarity with other "practices" like meditation, this emphasis will be familiar.)

If you haven’t read it, I recommend it, if just for Appendix 2: System Archetypes. That Chapter contains the systems pictures of every problem I’ve encountered be it in a corporate, governmental, non-profit, or personal setting. It gives the structure, the early warning signs, the business principle and some examples. This is a handy reference guide.

Having your colleagues read it will mean they won’t look at you so funny when you are talking about feedback loops.

PS. Happy I can post!

Chaos, Complexity, Curriculum, and Culture: A Conversation

A summary of: Chaos, Complexity, Curriculum, and Culture: A Conversation (various authors-citation below)

The book is set out as a series of four iterations intended to first provide some basic information and then spin that information through a richer set of lenses moving toward applications of chaos and complexity within learning environments.

The portions of the book that lay a foundation in complexity and chaos tread ground that we have covered well. The sense of movement toward a new science and away from Decartes is clear and names like Robert May (who is interviewed), Prigogine and the many others we have seen in the books are here as well.

However, the new material in this book is an attempt to blend chaos and complexity with existing theories of learning and cognition. As an example, the construct of a dissipative structure that reflects the emergence of order at points of instability has parallels to the work of Piaget. Jean Piaget is often maligned and misrepresented as just another stage theorist psychologist. In fact, most of his work examined “how children come to know? science. His observations on a process he called “equilibration? reflect the characteristics of dissipative structures. Piaget felt that “learning perturbations? lead to changes in cognitive structure,s leading to the accommodation of new knowledge. These structures resemble the dissipative structures of Prigogine. Piaget’s student Seymour Papert continued this work in his design of the “Microworlds? learning environment of the computer language LOGO.

While much of the book relates complexity and chaos to learning very nicely, sometimes chapters become too pragmatic. A promising chapter on emergence and classroom dynamics merely provides anecdotes about a specific classroom, using it to make statements of a more global nature. There is little research in this area but there certainly are authors writing in this domain that could have been brought to the discussion.

A restatement of a common definition of teaching from the book is- support of the student’s handling of increasing levels of complexity through communication and environmental design. There is considerable argument over what is more likely to increase learning, complexification of the material or chunking of the complex material in an effort to lower the cognitive load. The former is proposed as further distancing learning from reductionism and allowing for emergent and recursive structures to form. The latter is the domain of the cognitive scientist evaluating brain function. The cognitive scientists are well ahead in the research battle at this point.

A theme across many chapters is that of the classroom as an interactive (complex adaptive) system. In a traditional classroom the roles and avenues of communication are fixed and the possible structures formed by the system are limited and controlled. It is argued that a complexity/ systems aware classroom allows for increasing levels of complexity and encourages the emergence of new structures by reducing the hierarchy created when most or all of the learning is focused through the teacher. The suggested ways to accomplish this vary even within this book. Writers suggestions range from those supporting a completely holistic and autopoetic approach to those suggesting a more intentional design that holds the teacher still accountable for the design and dynamic modification of the learning setting over time. As an aside, we once had a visitied fellow from Apple computer (Alan Kay) stop by one of the alternative schools I taught at. He suggested we walk through the building and see how many of the rooms were set up with the teacher standing firmly between the students and the main technology in the room (the whiteboard) thus establishing a fixed and disabling node through which all accredited knowledge passed.

Finally, the book spends some time examining possible directions for education research within the paradigm of complexity. It is suggested that many of the current research programs continue to be positivistic and reductionist in nature and that we now know that this mostly serves to either oversimplify the analysis of the situation or to oversimplify the experimental condition. Either approach produces results that are of little use in the real (read complex) classroom. One of the authors suggests that this is the reason that so much educational research produces results that are obvious to teachers.

In all, the book was uneven but stayed true to its subtitle, reading like a series of conversations. A recommended read for those in education settings wanting to hear about cantor sets and autopoeisis applied to cognition and learning.

Doll, William E., M. Jayne Fleener, Donna Trueit, and John St. Julien (Eds.). (2005).
Chaos, complexity, curriculum and culture: A conversation. New York: Lang.

December 9, 2007

The Edge of Organization - Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems

My summary is from a book called The Edge of Organization; Chaos and Complexity Theories of Formal Social Systems by Russ Marion.

The book begins by debating the technical meaning of the terms Chaos and Complexity – and their fields of influence. Many argue that chaos theory is a general theory of nonlinear dynamics and complexity theory is a subset of chaos. Another school of thought is that the two are two sides of the same issue.

The author maintains that the two share a general nonlinear premise, yet they represent different phenomena. Chaos theory tends to focus on systems in which nonlineararity is intense and mechanical – weather systems, or fluid turbulence or soil percolation. Such systems respond sensitively to, and magnify minute differences in initial conditions, thus they are unpredictable. Chaotic systems are mathematically deterministic but their descriptive equations cannot be solved. Complexity theory layers chaos theory on top of more traditional theories of stability, but the result is a unique theory in its own right. A complex system is more stable and predictable than are chaotic systems – it borders on the state of chaos; it possesses sufficient stability to carry memories and sufficient dynamism to process that information. This balance between order and chaos enables the ability to reproduce, to change in an orderly fashion, and to self-organize, or emerge without outside intervention. Complexity theory is useful for describing biological phenomena such as evolution, ecological niches and social processes.

Marion supports the notion that complexity theory comes down on the side of increasing returns. As we have discussed in class, Brian Arthur argues that economic systems are self-reinforcing systems and can be better modeled by increasing returns than diminishing returns. Resources are not randomly distributed in a population, as traditional economics theory would have us believe; rather they condense about systems that already have a resource base. Factories are more likely to move to areas that already have resources from which they can draw; Japanese success with electronics begets more Japanese success with electronics.

Marion goes on to review the four reasons provided by Arthur for such behavior:
1. The cost of setting up an operation commits an organization to continue performing in its current mode.
2. Proficiency with new technology typically comes at the expense of a long learning curve; one that can be avoided by sticking with the current technology.
3. Related industries stand to lose if a focal industry changes its technology, and will consequently resist such change.
4. There is often an expectation or belief that the prevailing output will dominate the future, thus a reluctance to try something different.

The author spends some time on structural contingency theory – which argues that an efficient organization is one that has been properly tuned to environmental contingencies. He goes on to say that if an organizational environment is unstable, organizational structure must be flexible – leaders and workers must be able to adapt on the fly and to make ad hoc decision. Another way to reduce the impact of an unstable environment involves what is referred to as organizational slack – any reserve that is maintained to deal with contingency. It is a stockpile of physical, human, structural, organizational, and managerial resources.

The book also reinforces the notion that change is a power law distribution. It is the product of outside force and simple causes. While the occurrence of change is a random, often unpredictable event, its intensity distribution isn’t random – rather there is a power law order to the process. Change is controlled by complex interactive forces. Marion status that power law distribution is a footprint, a clue, left behind by the edge of chaos. It indicates the presence of a system that is fit but active, one that resists change but that daily subjects itself to the possibility of major change.

Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe is summarized in Marion’s book. He reiterates that flatter social organizations are better; that decentralized decision-making increases organizational fitness, and that hierarchical authority is unable to maximize organizational effectiveness.

Kauffman approaches the social structure as patchwork quilts. Some quilts are simply one large patch, some have many small patches and others have a moderate number of patches. Each patch acts to achieve its own self-interest, even at the expense of other patches. The quilt as a whole is seeking a compromised state of fitness among its patches that maximizes the fitness of all patches. Quilts that are composed of many small patches attempt to coordinate too many conflicting constraints. There are too many possible combinations of wants and needs to find effective compromise, and fitness is trapped by too many small peaks. Kauffman calls this the “Leftist Italian? phenomenon, after the many competing political parties in Italy.

Marion concludes in the same way he opens the book – with questions:

Why did the USSR collapse so suddenly in 1989?
How did the stock market manage to nose-dive in 1987?
Why is it so difficult to implement our 5-year strategic plans as they were designed to be implemented?
Why do organizations sometimes make bad decisions when issues are far from ambiguous?

The answers can be found in phase transitions, Arthur’s increasing returns, Kauffman’s co-evolutionary simulations and fitness landscapes, and in Lorenz’s butterfly effect. Social life is stable but dynamic, and balances itself on the brink of chaos.

I found not much remarkable about this book - rather just support for most of the theories and thoughts discussed and reviewed in class. I did find the patchwork quilt analogy of Kauffman useful - and would not have been exposed to the theory without reading this book, or Kauffman's book for that matter.

November 17, 2007

Presentation on "Critical Mass" by Philip Ball

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