When is a system complex?

“Flocking birds, weather patterns, commercial organisations, swarming robots… Increasingly, many of the systems that we want to engineer or understand are said to be ‘complex’. But what does this mean? How do these so-called ‘complex systems’ differ from the more easily understood systems that we are familiar with?”

Visit: http://complexityprimer.eng.cam.ac.uk for more on complexity and modularity.

When is a system complex?

They’ll have your attention…

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence, a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information resources that might consume it.

In an information-rich world, most of the cost of information is the cost incurred by the recipient. It is not enough to know how much it costs to produce and transmit information: we much also know now much it costs, in terms of scarce attention, to receive it. I have tried bringing this argument home to my friends by suggesting that they calculate how much the [news] costs them, including the costs of [consuming] it. Making the calculation usually causes them some alarm, but not enough for them to cancel their subscriptions.

–Herbert A. Simon
“Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World” (1971, PDF)

They’ll have your attention…

Do children and money really bring happiness?

The belief-transmission game is rigged so that we must believe that children and money bring happiness, regardless of whether such beliefs are true.

This doesn’t mean that we should all now quit our jobs and abandon our families. Rather, it means that while we believe we are raising children and earning paychecks to increase our share of happiness, we are actually doing these things for reasons beyond our ken.

We are nodes in a social network that arises and falls by a logic of its own, which is why we continue to toil, continue to mate, and continue to be surprised when we do not experience all the joy we so gullibly anticipated.

Daniel Gilbert
Stumbling on Happiness (find in a library)

Do children and money really bring happiness?

Handling complexity

Under conditions of true complexity–where the knowledge required exceeds that of any individual and unpredictability reigns–efforts to dictate every step from the center will fail. People need room to act and adapt. Yet they cannot succeed as isolated individuals, either–that is anarchy. Instead, they require a seemingly contradictory mix of freedom and expectation–expectation to coordinate, for example, and also to measure progress toward common goals.

–Atul Gawande

Handling complexity

Simple, Complicated, and Complex

Brenda Zimmerman and Sholom Glouberman have proposed a distinction among three different kinds of problems in the world: the simple, the complicated, and the complex.

Simple problems, they note, are ones like baking a cake from a mix. There is a recipe. Sometimes there are a few basic techniques to learn. But once these are mastered, following the recipe brings a high likelihood of success.

Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. They can sometimes be broken down into a series of simple problems. But there is no straightforward recipe. Success frequently requires multiple people, often multiple teams, and specialized expertise. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination become serious concerns.

Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can repeat the process with other rockets and perfect it. One rocket is like another rocket. But not so with raising a child, Zimmerman and Glouberman point out. Every child is unique. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable but most certainly not sufficient. Indeed, the next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one.

And this brings up another feature of complex problems: their outcomes remain highly uncertain.

Yet we all know that it is possible to raise a child well.

It’s complex, that’s all.

Atul Gawande
The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (find in a library)

Simple, Complicated, and Complex

Figures are not always facts

The Woman and the Hen

A Woman had a Hen that laid an egg every day. The Fowl was of superior breed, and the eggs were very fine, and sold for a good price. The Woman thought that by giving the Hen twice as much food as she had been in the habit of giving, the bird might be brought to lay two eggs a day instead of one. So the quantity of food was doubled. The Hen thereupon grew very fat, and stopped laying altogether.

Aesop
Aesop’s Fables (find in a library)

Figures are not always facts