Wednesday, November 30, 2005

complexity and liberalism

Okay, so I've been mulling over these ideas of complexity in terms of my own interests - open source computer programming. Open source is essentially computer programming that relies on community collaboration rather than corporate structure. It's been described (by its champions) as "sprawling" but "elegant." Basically, the rhetoric mirrors that of Waldrop's discussion.

Whereas I was not ready to buy that Hutchins and/or LPP were ignoring power structures, this talk of complexity sometimes makes me uncomfortable. It's not that I think these models ignore power structures, but they can be really utopian. Rather than looking closely at "contradiction" (as an activity theorist or Marxist might do), some of these theories of complexity tend to smooth over contradictions. Whether they intend to or not, these theories evoke the "agents" as being on equal ground.

This gets me to the title of my post: Are theories of complexity dependent upon/an outgrowth of ideas of a liberal/Enlightenment subject? This is blasphemy for sure, considering that this whole course has been about troubling the notion that a self-contained subject is even possible. However, I'm starting to think that if I use theories of complexity in my own work (i think it's inevitable), I'm going to have to answer critiques like this - some of which will be coming from me. I'll be fighting with my-self. Okay, I just made a self joke - I'm going to stop typing now.


Blogger Alison said...

I'm glad you stopped typing (just kidding - thanks, I'm laughing at my computer screen)

So I have to say I think you are totally wrong about the "agents" being equal. How did you get to this conclusion? Didn't you think QWERTY, the clock, and the butterfly impacting weather examples were validating the inequality of agents?
Contradictions, as I understood it, are part of a system and themselves act as agents through how/if/when they are resolved.

I'm not sure about the liberal/Enlightenment part of your questions but my gut says most likely.

12:04 PM  
Blogger jmj said...


I agree with Alison that I don't think Waldrop presents the agents as being equal. However, I do believe there is a kind of Utopian feel to the complexity issues in the book. Though they admit that the best options don't always win out, it seems like some of the main players believe that complexity theory implies a movement towards some sort of perfecting of the world.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Glad you got the same impression about agents (I'm always wondering in this class if I'm getting anything?). Your point about perfecting the world, however, is slightly misinterpreted, I think. Complexity theory as a lens was/is revolutionary (as I'm understanding it anyway) and that's why perhaps you get the feeling from the book that it's "everything." It's not about perfecting the world but perfecting our interpretations in understanding that which makes up the human world.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Annie said...

I agree with you, Alison, on both points. Another element of the power discussion is "attractors" (see pp 225-235). In a complex adaptive system, attractors influence agents as well as the emergent patterns within the system. Maybe Peg can help us with this topic tonight--I don't have a very strong hold of it.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

I like the discussion that came out of my post, and I'd like to talk more about this in class. I'm still trying to work some of these ideas out - and most of what I've posted here is an attempt to play devil's advocate.

1:37 PM  

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