Wednesday, December 07, 2005

An ecology of making a mess?

In line with what has already been posted, I also enjoyed this week’s reading! I now feel more certain that I have grasped the concepts from our previous readings. And I now see how these concepts can be applied to a variety of human interactions. Chapter three captured me, probably because it elicited memories of devastating collaborative writing projects that I have been engaged in myself. I know what it feels like to be sitting in front of a computer with two other persons and arguing about the wording of a particular sentence – at four o’clock in the morning. And finally, the reading directed my thoughts back to the co-op were I currently live at. Could there be an ecology of making a mess? If so I will one day write a book about it (as part of my recovery process from the traumatic experience of living there). But since that project is far into the future and I cannot think of anything else to write about the co-op has to serve as my topic for today.

The co-op certainly is a complex system. With more than a hundred students – “independent agents” – who act and interact in a multitude of ways the course of events is never quite predictable. If we include each student’s family, classrooms and friends, thus a number of other complex systems, the co-op can be described as an ecology – “a set of interrelated and interdependend complex systems”. In this ecology, the mess in the kitchen is a special phenomenon. Making a mess is a distributed process. No single individual could be responsible for the piles of dirty plates and the heaps of trash on Sunday mornings. Therefore the process is divided among the members of the co-op. However, the process is also shared because at times there are certainly two persons in the kitchen. One might see the other stack a dirty plate on top of a pile and this might influence the actions of the witness. As I have described in my post a couple of weeks ago, the mess is an emergent property of the complex system consisting of more than a hundred co-opers. There is no central figure at the co-op. The mess emerges as the result of countless local interactions between co-opers, kitchen utensils and food. The mess is also a physical experience and thus embodiment is another characteristic of this process. Fourth and last, each of the co-opers experiences the emerging mess at more than one time between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning, and most students probably contribute to it more than once. When I enter the kitchen on a typical Saturday night I am aware of what is happening and based on my prior experiences of the weekly mess I form interpretations of the behaviors of the fellow co-opers I meet in the kitchen. This process of repeated experience and interpretation is not restricted to me. Although I have no proof of this I am sure that other students are aware of the process and interpret it themselves. Therefore the process of making a mess is characterized by enaction.

Building on this very cursory analysis of the processes going on at the co-op, I have one question to ask. Everything we have read about complex systems before gave me the impression that complex systems are only named such if they function well. But what about a system like the co-op? I see no other way but to describe it as a complex system (at the edge of chaos) but the mess is not a positive outcome. Could I still describe it as a complex system? I see so many ways of applying our past few readings to social processes and group functioning. In a more serious way than above, could there be an ecology of making a mess?


Blogger asw said...

Your real-life example of the co-op was good in connecting it complex systems. At the end of your post you mention whether complex systems can be classified based on outcome.

For me and the way I understood the readings, complex systems and complexity theory don't necessarily function by whether there are good or bad outcomes, but by the outcome itself. I think if we tried to make complex systems all result in good outcomes, then it would not be a complex system?:)

I think what makes it complex is the ability for it to be dynamic and constantly changing from good to bad, low to high, etc. I don't think we could classify it on a scale.

I think the complex system POV allows for the good and bad outcomes to be seen in the same light and to allow the nature of the ecosystem to play itself out. Not sure if I am on the same page with you..but this is what I took out of it...

7:00 AM  
Blogger Annie said...

I don't think your kitchen is on the edge of chaos, I think it's gone over the edge!

A couple of years ago, I took a class on systems thinking that included a great reading from "Competing on the Edge: Strategy as Structured Chaos" by Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt (1998). The authors explain that the edge of chaos is actually where systems can most effectively change:

"...when systems of any kind (e.g. beehives, businesses, economies) are poised on the edge of chaos between too much structure and too little structure, they 'self-organize' to produce complex adaptive behavior. If there were more structure, then these systems would be too rigid to move. If there were less structure, then they would fly chaotically apart." (p.29)

I think you're right on when you describe your co-op as a complex system. It sounds like it simply needs a bit more structure (simple to say, but difficult to effect when you're dealing with 100 people!!).


9:20 AM  

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