Saturday, January 28, 2006

Some Wise Words About Our Approach to Dealing With Complexity in Real Life

I've started to read Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," which gets into Friedman's observations and thoughts about globalization. Here is a blurb from it that I personally think hits the nail on the head when it comes to thinking about globalization or any type of complex system. It starts with a quote Friedman has from Nobel Prize winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (developed the quark theory in particle physics back in the 1960s, and helped found the Santa Fe Institute for the study of complexity). This is on pages 27 and 28 of the book:

"Here on earth, once it was formed, systems of increasing complexity have arisen as a consequence of the physical evolution of the planet, biological evolution and human cultural evolution. The process has gone so far that we human beings are now confronted with immensely complex ecological, poitical, economic and social problems. When we attempt to tackle such difficult problems, we naturally tend to break them up into more manageable pieces. That is a useful practice, but it has serious limitations. When dealing with any non-linear system, especially a complex one, you can't jsut think in terms of parts or aspects and just add things up and say that the behavior of this and the behavior of that, added together, makes up the whole thing. With a complex non-linear system you hae to break it up into pieces and then study each aspect, and then study the very strong interaction between them all. Only this way can you describe the whole system."

Friedman adds:

"That to me is the essence of what I consider the globalist school in international relations. But to have a globalist school, we need more students, professors, diplomats, journalists, spies and social scientists trained as globalists."

One last quote from Gell-Mann:

"We need a corpus of people who consider that it is importnat to take a serious and professional crude look at the whole system. It has to be a crude look, because you will never master every part or every interconnection. Unfortunately, in a great many places in our society, including academia and most bureaucracies, prestige accrues principally to those who study carefully some [narrow] aspect of a problem, a trade, a technology, or a culture, while discussion of the big picture is relegated to cocktail party conversation. That is crazy. What we noce considered to be the cocktail party stuff - that's a crucial part of the real story."

These are words of wisdom that can provide the beginning of a roadmap for the path all disciplines and schools of thought should consider taking. Life consists of multiple complex systems interacting with each other, and looking for things like organizational principles and understanding the interconnections between the smaller parts of systems that make up the whole is the next step in understanding the reality of the world. As I like to say to my students, we need to keep taking steps away from the nice neat world of 'physics land' and constantly try to figure out how to make it more and more real; it is not easy to do, for each little extra piece one adds means an additional layer of complexity, and it is out job to determine how it all relates to other features of the system. This way of thinking is important for understanding cultures and politics as well, as Friedman points out. Just look at the complicated problems introduced by Hamas winning a majority of the Palestinian seats in their government! How do we break that down in terms of the peace process? Political relationships? What is the 'big picture' way to think about this and other issues in the Middle East? Do we simply say we will never negotiate with Hamas and ignore the reality that they are part of the whole (i.e. government) now? That is a simplistic, unrealistic way to approach it, so now the world is stuck with trying to figure out what all the possible pieces are, and how are they related, and also try to predict what the consequences are if certain actions are taken. Talk about complexity! We absolutely need to consider how to train people to think in these ways and get away from single-issue or single-topic thinking.


Bob Klapetzky said...


vonny said...

Thanks, Bob. Hope all is well.