{complex [systems} theory]

(This is a light-hearted and ill-researched post. When the infinite amount of free time I ordered on Amazon finally arrives, I might dig into it deeply and be serious.)

Everyone who tries to read widely about systemsy stuff will inevitably feel puzzled by the large-scale flow of ideas. In particular, there is a—sometimes crystal clear, sometimes invisible—border between the lands of engineering and science on the high-dimensional map of human knowledge. In my own random walk in this space of ideas, I often realize too late that I am on the other side of the border than I think I am. So this blog post contains some notes about features of the landscape that can tell you where you are.

Before I stop being vague, I have to point out that none of these traditions is better than the other. Epistemologically speaking, there is probably little reason to separate them. Indeed, writers from either side rarely do. Still, the buzz words, truisms, and senses of purpose are different. So are the saints, scriptures, and temples. I think we all need to be aware of these traditions, but not more. I’m not saying we should either remove or paint the border—it is more important to do actual research, wherever we are.

In the remainder, I’ll list some words and phrases and rate them from –5 to +5 in this dichotomy. And once again, the sign does not mean good or bad. Also, note that these are my interpretations—some might be only my own ideas, others completely consensual. I am also not so sure about my ratings and will maybe revise them.

Systems theory [+3], systems science [+2], systems dynamics [+3], general systems theory [+2], cybernetics [+2]. These are all words for fields and subfields with a stronger connection to engineering, control theory, etc. I won’t attempt to relate or define them.

Complex systems [–1], complexity [–3], complex adaptive systems [–3]. Are correspondingly names of the other side of the spectrum, but could be used at either side (check out Jay Forrester’s [+5] groundbreaking Urban Dynamics 1969).

Systems thinking [+3], Gaia hypothesis [–1], holistic [0] are terms with slightly spiritual overtones. Not necessarily unscientific, but probably easier to assimilate for people whose worldview does not entirely derive from science.

Dynamic systems simulation [+4]. Source: Wikipedia.

Autopoiesis [+1], stigmergy [0], emergence [0], universality [–2]—the funky words we all enjoy.

Feedback [+3]. This concept exists on both sides, but the norm that feedbacks are worth the mention eo ipso does not.

World System [+5] (especially the capitalization) is something you wouldn’t see on the other side. On a similar note: dynamic systems [+3], dynamical system [–1].

Santa Fe Institute [–5], I think the social component is more vital on that side of the spectrum . . . Club of Rome [+5], but there are always counterexamples.

Self-organized criticality [–5]. From Per Bak’s [–5] How Nature Works [–5]. I take this example because it is the furthest from the + side of the spectrum, not saying it is a widely accepted theory even on the – side.

Non-linear [0], self-organized criticality [–5], edge of chaos [–1], self-similarity [0], self-organization [1], scale-free [–3], fractals [0]—some additional random concepts and ideas.

Systems diagrams [+4], ridiculograms [–4]—visualizations at either side that have a love-hate relationship with. Well, mostly love, I guess.

Petter Holme [–1], I first learned about these topics from the + side, then, by the time of my Ph.D., I was probably –3, only to swing back again and will likely hit zero (and satori?) soon.

4 thoughts on “{complex [systems} theory]

  1. This is indeed fun! But/and… can you just clarify what’s the definition of +5 and what’s that of -5?!


    1. –5 for what is most complexity science / Santa Fe Institute, +5 for what is the most systems science. I didn’t want to use the words because ever so often, you come across something called one side that really belongs to the other.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Right, got you – good game and/but… it’s almost like it’s a distinction that *doesn’t* make a difference, isn’t it 😉


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