Friday, December 30, 2005

Complex systems 

Michael Crichton's lecture on complex systems is well worth reading. The history of the management of Yellowstone alone is very interesting, especially if you have ever been there and heard the Park Service's version.

CWCID: Roger L. Simon.


By Blogger Cassandra, at Fri Dec 30, 08:10:00 AM:

Now, if we are to do better in this new century, what must we do differently? In a word, we must embrace complexity theory. We must understand complex systems.

We live in a world of complex systems. The environment is a complex system. The government is a complex system. Financial markets are complex systems. The human mind is a complex system---most minds, at least.

By a complex system I mean one in which the elements of the system interact among themselves, such that any modification we make to the system will produce results that we cannot predict in advance.

Furthermore, a complex system demonstrates sensitivity to initial conditions. You can get one result on one day, but the identical interaction the next day may yield a different result. We cannot know with certainty how the system will respond.

Third, when we interact with a complex system, we may provoke downstream consequences that emerge weeks or even years later. We must always be watchful for delayed and untoward consequences.

Strangely enough, there were two paragraphs I deleted from my post (below) that could have come right from Crichton's essay. They came right after the part about being stuck in the weeds, because I work in software, which deals with complex non-linear systems.

I started to comment that Iraq is such a system and that it was ludicrous for people to expect neat, predictable results just as it was for people to expect that in the software world where there are non-linear relationships between size, time, effort, and productivity.

I also thought it was interesting that he mentioned children as my second deleted para had one of my favorite quotes, "Children are a slow crop". We recognize that time and patience are required to raise children and that the results of our tutelage may not be seen for literally years, but somehow in Iraq we think that we can just add water, stir, and have instant democracy.

Silly, really. Not that the Iraqis are children by any means, but we are asking them to change their whole frame of reference - literally a titanic shift. They can do it, but I think we are talking a generation for it truly to take hold.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Fri Dec 30, 08:23:00 AM:

I had a similar thought, divided into two parts. First, that in decided what we should do today and in the future, it is essential that we look on Iraq as a complex system. Clearly, the press does not write about it as if it were one, just as it fails to write about any other topic that way. As longtime readers know (those who have been reading my many posts about the failure of the NYT's editors to predict the value of the dollar), the most august paper in the country does not even write about financial markets as if they were complex.

Second, this failure to think of Iraq as a complex system has been a problem on both sides of the debate about Iraq. It is pretty clear that the administration's chief civilian advocates for the war, including particularly the civilian leadership in the Pentagon, were thinking in very linear, rather than complex, ways before the war. The early statements from that crowd that we would be reducing troops to levels in the tens of thousands by the summer or fall of 2003 revealed a simplicity of thinking that has pretty clearly extended the suffering of that country. History may eventually challenge that view, but on the accumulated writing about the early days of the occupation -- Garner, and the first few months of the CPA -- it is pretty clear that we really did not have an idea in the world how to deal with extended resistance.

The anti-war crowd, though, has been equally guilty of thinking linearly. Their partisanship has prevented them from recognizing, or accepting, that the essence of Bush's strategy is correct -- that apart from the specific threat posed by Iraq, there were innumerable potential strategic benefits from changing the political dynamic in the Middle East in some fundamental way. These benefits include the object lesson to dictators (Libya) and to democrats (Lebanon). Indeed, the core of the Bush Doctrine is that we will not sacrifice democratic values for the sake of "stability." This is "complex system" thinking of the first order, which makes it all the more surprising that our planning for post war Iraq was so one-dimensional.  

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