Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Why do we care??

One of the key concepts in CAS is that the behaviour of the system isn't easy to predict. So if you reach in and poke some element of a complex adaptive system, you can't know for sure what the eventual outcome will be (remember the monkeys around the campfire - was the difference between an opposable thumb and a prehensile tail really so significant??)

And yet every action humanity takes - a single person writing a blog, or a company accidentally spilling oil into the ocean - is poking a CAS on some level. So there are billions of people out there interacting with many levels of CAS every second of every day...And yet by the definition of a complex system, the outcome of all these interactions is difficult to predict.

Giving a monkey a thumb didn't change the world overnight, but over millenia, the ripple effect has been huge. How could anyone have predicted this? Between the monkey and an octopus, I probably would have bet on the octopus being the one to take over the world...After all, it's got eight bloody arms to figure out how to make a good cup of coffee!

Our problem is that in complex adaptive systems, changes are constantly occurring - how do you know which one will have a significant impact? Especially when the impact can take a long time to become apparent?

The evolution of the thumb is a perfect example of a lever point: a small change with a big impact.

Figuring out how to identify the lever points in a given system is a huge motivation for the general study of CAS. I would almost define "self-preservation" as identifying the lever points in the systems with which you interact, then doing your best to push the good ones and prevent the bad ones.

What are CAS??!

A single person
Bee hives
The Earth and everything in it.

All of these are CAS - complex adaptive systems.
"System" because the whole is made up of many smaller parts (for example, all the businesses in a market; but don't forget their suppliers; and their consumers; and their employees; and...)
"Adaptive" because the smaller parts change over time depending on their situation (which organisms evolve to prosper in a particular ecosystem over time...and which die out?)
"Complex" because...well...the behaviour of these systems isn't always easy to understand or predict. If you sat down around a campfire a bazillion years ago with all of the primates in the jungle and asked, "what would happen if I gave one of these guys an opposable thumb instead of a prehensile tail?" your answer probably wouldn't have been "Well, that one guy would become the most dominant species on the planet, and along the way develop self-awareness, technology, language, etc."
And yet that very thing happened because our ancestral primate existed in a system made up of many independant, evolving parts. The interactions between all the parts of that system range from the obvious (the guy with the thumb got better at killing animals for food once he figured out how to throw a spear) to the obscure (when a single-celled organism called Phaeocystis globosa is eaten by bigger creatures, it helps reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; but when it is eaten by smaller creatures, it doesn't...)

The whole point is that the universe is full of complex interactions, and yet by their nature we have trouble connecting the dots. By studying CAS, we're trying to understand some general rules about how these complex interactions work, whether we're looking at an ecosystem, a market, or the blood cells in your body. Hopefully we can get to a point where every time we learn more about one particular system, we learn more about all the other, unrelated systems too.

We're trying to connect the dots.

Hello world!

Hi there, welcome to my blog about complex adaptive systems and related concepts.

I'm no kind of expert about anything - I'm a computer and games nerd. But I've started looking into complex adaptive systems - CAS - since reading John Holland's book Hidden Order. This blog is a place to organize the stuff I've found most interesting; to hopefully distill some of the more difficult concepts into something easier for other newbies to manage; and to eventually share some computer programs I've written to help explore the behaviour of CAS.

Remember - I'll probably get a lot of this stuff wrong. I'm not qualified to "lecture" about any of this. But I occasionally come to my own conclusions after reading work by the people actually defining this field, and I plan to share them. So take me with a grain of salt!!!