What to make of the complexity paradigm?

by Ben King

I would like to thank Greg Fisher for inviting me to write this blog, and also thanks to Rhett Gayle and Torben Kaas for commenting on earlier drafts. My primary interest is identity and cultural evolution as a complex adaptive system, a focus that has led me through multiple disciplines both objective and subjective. These all seemed to point in the same direction, to the conclusion that the emerging complexity paradigm holds revolutionary potential of unprecedented breadth. I wanted to use this opportunity to share some thoughts on the nature of the complexity paradigm, as well as its potential impact on cultural evolution. With so much at stake – global warming, resource depletion, growing complexity etc – it is vitally important that we understand the dynamics of paradigm shifts, so that we may both effectively communicate this new paradigm and have realistic expectations of the challenges ahead.

Hard and soft paradigm shifts

Since the beginning of the modernist era, specialisation in the sciences has been hugely beneficial to humanity through the concentration of skills and knowledge into distinct communities and cultural systems. Some turned out to be highly amenable to empirical study – the ‘hard sciences’ – revealing a convergent objectivity which accelerated the synthesis of knowledge. That’s not to say that all scientific paradigms transitioned smoothly; psychological, generational and institutional factors ensure that orthodoxy will always, and beneficially, fight-back before finally dying out. Other disciplines did not fare so well however, and it soon became clear that objectivity in the ‘soft sciences’ was altogether more elusive. Modernism’s continued effort in this regard was successfully interrupted in the mid-20th Century by the wave of postmodernism, a paradigm encompassing the arts, history, literature, anthropology, sociology and far beyond. Advances in communication technology inspired and facilitated the emergence of social histories, minority voices, a rejection of reductionist objectivity and an acknowledgement of the validity, or even inherent “truth”, of all subjectivities. At their extremes, modernism and postmodernisms’ exclusive emphasis on objectivity and subjectivity respectively were equally flawed and misguided.  Yet in expanding the boundaries and diversity of discourse, postmodernism at least re-established the necessity for including the subjective within concepts such as identity, the self, and power. In doing so, it both reflected and contributed to a period of great social upheaval and civic emancipation within the cultural system in which it spread.

The legacy of the complexity paradigm

That both the hard and soft sciences may be best described by network and complex adaptive system theory is an idea that is beginning to gain traction. This idea suggests that the lasting legacy of the complexity paradigm will be most powerfully conceived as a synthesis of the Modernist/Post-modernist paradigms; a social paradigm shift, rather than simply a scientific one. For while advances thus far have given us comfort, modern medicine and the power to mitigate the cruel whims of nature, they have had little qualitative effect on the basic model of top-down self-organisation of society. From religion and theology, to the nation state and political philosophy, to corporate institutions and macroeconomics, history is the story of institutionalised, ideological self-organisation whose authority is founded on the perceived control over all manner of complex systems: the cosmos, weather, society, markets, etc. Until recently, these ruling ideologies have monopolised our cultural environment, defining our shared identity and shaping our cultural normatives. Complexity could change all of that, its conclusions objectively undermining this authority in all such models of self-organisation. Complexity can be to politics and economics as the early sciences were to religion: an inclusive framework capable of creating a bottom-up shared identity bound by humility and shared methodology, rather than arrogance and fear of a manufactured ‘other’.

The challenge ahead

That the complexity paradigm will play out in an increasingly global cultural system is exhilarating – it’s universality hinting at the possible elimination of the ‘other’. Yet it’s also terrifying, since the scale of global inequities thus revealed suggest that those in power do not have much time left to pro-actively adapt. The convergence of global political and economic cultural systems is removing crucial checks and balances, raising the prospects of global cascades (such as the recent financial crisis) to dangerous levels. We risk insurmountable moral and conceptual divergences which, in a globalising yet politically centralising world, pose significant systemic threats for the environment, the global poor, and the disenfranchised.

Our best hope for a peaceful transition is for complexity to inspire the mobilisation of the multitude to counteract en-masse, a la Postmodernism, the cultural saturation of outdated ideological influence. No silver bullets, no vanguard taking powers’ place. Instead, the complexity paradigm will bridge humanity’s historical and arbitrary divides and allow everyone to finally relate to one another in the same language. We are about to witness the greatest revolution history has ever seen, and if successful, perhaps the most important there ever will be.

6 Responses to “What to make of the complexity paradigm?”

  1. Your passion is compelling and the breadth of your intellectual inquiry is timely. Yes indeed, I too see complexity theory as enabling the overdue paradigm shift. And I regard that as the shift of conscious en-framing (after Heidegger) from the reductionist to the holistic. Correlating this Iain McGillchrist’s revisiting of the left-brain/right-brain phenomenon, it allows us to see complexity theory as potentially analogous in function to the corpus callossum in the brain. It is an instrument of enquiry potentially enabling a deeper immanent dimension of human knowing/responding/creating.

  2. Ben says:

    Thank you for those kind words Claudius. Despite that particular scale inspiring my thinking (philosophy of cognitive science), its an area that has not been of much focus to me in the intervening years. I shall check out McGillchrist’s work, cheers.

  3. John Farago says:

    There is an obvious contradiction of “self-organising” hierarchies creating new authoritarian structures and institutions. A small (how many millions out of our seven billion?) but growing cohort of intelligent people with global consciousness is emerging that begins to be aware of the complex problems we humans face. But I for one do not yet see the practical steps that the Complexity Paradigm offers towards the evolution of better more equitable and accountable institutions and structures for global human cooperation .

    • Ben says:

      Hi John. I do not personally see it as a contradiction, since I see ‘self’ as being a variable. When a self develops within a cultural system, it necessarily adopts and replicates the dynamics of that culture (including, near universally, the concept of hierarchy). Throughout history, the vast majority of cultural production has come from, or at least been mediated through, those at the top of hierarchies. Thus people self-organise according to this vision – we just have to accept that the self is not as autonomous at the scale of the individual as we’d like, and view ‘self-organisation’ as referring holistically to society as a whole. At the other end of the scale, the youth of today have a vastly diversified cultural sphere of influence, far greater choice, access, and flexibility to shape an identity that, because of the greatly increased scope and frequency of developmental iterations, leads to a great diversification of a populations self’s and thus values, moralities, beliefs, priorities etc. This for me represents the only significant measure of free will or the self, meaning that i can only conclude that culture and self are two sides of the exact same coin (the self here being inclusive of the biological factors that contribute).

      I agree regarding the ‘growing cohort’, but cultural evolution cares not while we indeed number mere millions. Right now, the most progressive states are still only at representative democracy, and a corrupted (if it has ever been different) one at that. Billions “consent” to that, and while the previous paragraph explains the quotation marks, the punctuation does nothing to invalidate the truth that *that is how those people see it*, for “themselves” 😉

      That is why hierarchy will continue for a while yet. I have been talking to Vinay Gupta (@leashless – really worth a follow) about this issue, and we agree that due to the significant lag between truths becoming known, and those truths saturating culture (aka identity), the telescoping of revolutions could easily fit another sea-change in before a truly horizontally derived identity could emerge. If climate change does what it is expected to, we agree that we could see a new system of environmental-based top-down self-organisation, with the potential for many ‘shock-doctrine’ type events to facilitate change. Qualitatively, it will likely be just as time-consuming and oppressive to those not at the top as it has ever been, but at least the overarching goal would more to environmental issues and not the search for profit.

      Regarding not being able to envisage practical steps: I see many, on different levels. For me, understanding identity and society through complex adaptive systems has led to a giant change in my personality. I have developed an acute sensitivity to cultural diversity, with highly homogenous environments actually producing a visceral repulsion (as when I visited the City of London recently, or any shopping mall). Correspondingly, I am at my happiest when surrounded by cultural diversity, primarily expressed through appearance and language. Of course, that is but me, and while I instantly recognised much about complexity in Buddhism, such a connection is just my personal opinion.

      There are other ways it can help though. Principles of complexity management have decentralisation and spread of power at their heart, recognising the power of individual autonomy in a way that, if implemented, would revolutionise the working lives of billions, to everyones gain. If implemented at the state level, it would greatly reduce the influence of ideology and group-think, and increase the use of evidence and expert debate. The way we organise now is so outdated that there is a veritable forest of low hanging fruit offered by complexity. The lessons complexity management and system theory tells us about governance will, I believe, lead us out of centuries old concepts of hierarchical power toward subsidiarity, direct democracy, and economic secularism. This would be the most legitimate, robust, and resilient model, and would allow for a huge amount of experimentation in governance from which best practice can emerge.

      Beyond that, as complexity thinking saturates culture (through every discipline), individuals will gain a better understanding of humanities place within the wider complex system that is nature. Its my opinion that the Judeo-Christian notion of the self is a crucial, and destructive, element of todays malaise in the West, and complexity can help expose that, and hopefully reshape our shared sense of morality away from the individual and “free will”, toward a greater recognition of the holistic whole to which we each contribute, and from which each of us is made.

      Well, I think this comment is now longer than my original piece, so I’ll stop now. 🙂

  4. Rather than being a strategy for shaping society, complexity theory is a perspective, a lens, for apprehending and comprehending the ‘living/adapting’ nature of complex dynamical systems. With this perspective we ought to be able to identify and engage with ‘trends’ sooner and thus engage more creatively with those ‘forces’ that are shaping our future. Your notion of the holistic ‘self’ as inclusive of human plurality, points to a more diverse and hence robust human eco-system which, enabled by the global connectivity of social media, could lead to surprising re-organization. This creates, with the insights of complexity theory, a whole new opportunity for civil society.

    • Ben says:

      I agree Claudius. Were complexity to be seen as a conscious strategy for shaping society, it would fall into the same pitfalls as every vanguard before it. What I would wish to see with regard to self-organisation is the emergence of new models, from the cultural satuation, and universal use, of the complexity ‘lens’, as you say.

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