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Complexity Theory

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The science of complexity – or Chaos Theory as it is commonly known – has been evangelised by some writers like James Gleick [1992] as a third great paradigm shift in Physics. Previous paradigms had been the Newtonian model, which began the codification of the universe in ‘mechanistic’ manner, and the insights of Einstein, which opened the way for the quantum mechanics of ‘relativistic’ physics. [Capra 1975] Like models of society in the social sciences which contrast the collective and the individual, Physics focusses on the very large through Newtonian science, and the very small through quantum mechanics. However, both branches of Physics investigate phenomena by isolating them from their environment, observing them as essentially ‘closed’ systems. The key idea of closed systems, first proposed as the concept of ‘heat death’ in thermodynamics, is that there is only one optimal historical outcome for the system. “Philosophers such as Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer… introduced thermodynamic concepts into social science” [De Landa 1996b: 267] through analogous ideas such as the ‘fittest design’ of evolutionary theory. This kind of thinking also seems to be in evidence in Durkheim’s assertion that society would avoid the ‘chaos of short-term contractual alliances’.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Chaos theory looks instead at ‘far-from-equilibrium’ systems such as dripping taps and fluttering flags. It seeks to model phenomena where there are “strong interactions between local variables” [De Landa 1996a: 182] such as crowd movements and flocking birds. “The new science deals with systems that are subject to constant flow of matter and energy from their surroundings.” [De Landa 1996b: 267] They are ‘open’ systems, subject to continuous change – without a singular historical outcome. “When a system switches (bifurcates) from one to another form of stability, minor fluctuations can be crucial in deciding the actual form of the outcome.” [De Landa 1996a: 182] This is often referred to as their “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.” [Hofstadter 1985: 387] The result of change in an open system may be a static, periodic or chaotic system known as an ‘attractor’. Such phenomena have resisted explanation through conventional theories, so that, as Gary Zukav wrote of the revolution which quantum mechanics brought to physicists thinking, “what we actually discover is that the way we have been looking at nature is no longer comprehensive enough to explain all that we can observe and we are forced to develop a more inclusive view.” [Zukav 1979: 45] A similar situation has occurred with the recognition and examination of far-from-equilibrium systems within the social sciences.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Functionalist and Structuralist paradigms of social science have hitherto dealt mainly with stable and enduring social relations, and sought to codify these relations into ‘social institutions’. Proponents of the language of complexity within social science, “instead of emphasising the stability in nature and societies… emphasise instabilities and fluctuations.” [Escobar 1994: 221] For them, it is not what happens in the mainstream that is interesting, but rather what happens at the margins. Turner suggests that communitas occurs “in the intervals between incumbencies of social positions and statuses, in what used to be known as the interstices of the social structure.” [Turner 1969: 125] Bey points to “a decentralised proliferation of experiments in living” [Bey 1991: 98] such as hippie communes and virtual communities, coining the term ‘Temporary Autonomous Zone’ (TAZ) to describe them. If the Mandelbrot Set, the resonant image of Chaos Theory, is considered as “a cartographic projection of the Net in its entirety,” [Bey 1991: 112] then the TAZ can ‘disappear’ without ceasing to exist, embedded in ‘the interstices of the social structure’ as if it were a data peninsula hidden in the depths of a fractal.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In cyberspace, these interstices are analogous to Bey’s notion of ‘the Web’; an open, horizontal communication network – that which is more commonly called the Internet. Its data resilience, originally built in by the military, makes centralised control of the Internet impossible. Email ‘disappears’ from central control; it moves by ‘piggy-backing’ data onto the existing traffic of the institutional networks. The Internet is decentralised, non-hierarchical and ‘in-between’ the transactions that take place between individuals and institutions. Indeed when it comes to networks, “chaos theory predicts that any universal control-system is impossible.” [Bey 1991: 110] The content of the Internet is in continuous flux, being changed and added to by participants all over the world. Like coalitions and communitas, a virtual community occurs at the periphery of structure. They rely on Boissevain’s intimation of “change as a basic structural principle” [Boissevain 1968: 546] for their effectiveness and appeal. A virtual community can be seen as a node which arises as an ‘open’ system in cyberspace, subject to flows of participants, information and data across the network. The Internet itself can also be seen as an ‘open’ environment for such groupings and associations, in which the concepts and language of complexity have considerable, although not unique, descriptive power.

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Source: http://cpmu.haystack.co.uk/newbie/discourses/complexity-theory/