Thursday, March 9, 2017

Complex Open Classes: Light and Word

I started my unpacking of complex open systems with the notion that they are multiplicities, but not a multiplicity like a bag of differently-colored and differently-sized marbles unified only by virtue of being in my bag. If the bag breaks and the marbles bounce away across an expansive concrete floor, then we would hardly think of the marbles as a unified system anymore. I think I have tended to view my students this way sometimes: just a random collection of differently-colored, differently-sized people wrapped up in the bag of my Composition 1101, Section 99 class. Of course, seeing them this way is unfortunate for them and for me, but it seems to be an expedient reduction to help me through the busy trivia of my day. It's a way of disengaging from the multiplicity of the class, the swarm, to get other things done.

When I'm rested and mindful again, then I know that the students are not a grab-bag collection of random, inert things to be acted upon. Rather, they are a swarm of living, striving beings (actants), all animated by flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. Regardless of the scale at which I consider them, they are animated and sustained by the Light and the Word.

Energy, matter, information, and organization are hard-nosed scientific concepts that I borrow from Edgar Morin's discussion of complexity in his book On Complexity, and I will use those terms in various configurations throughout this exploration, but I like the poetic imagery of the Light and the Word. These are old images that have crossed the millennia to reach us and that along the way have taken on much social, political, philosophical, and religious baggage, but that's because they can do the heavy lifting. They are deep images that echo from the Beginning: "Let there be light" or "Big Bang". I also like that they echo my conservative Christian background. There is something pleasantly perverse about using the Light and the Word to account for a worldview and ethics that fundamentalists will see as do-your-own-thing, anything goes, and relativistic. They are wrong, of course. Complex open systems and the complexity ethics that attend them are anything but anything goes, but more on that later.

As a complex open system, then, my writing class cannot exist without a sufficient flow of Light and Word, energy and information. A writing class needs flows of energy and information to animate the multiple actants—students, teachers, texts, computers—into a functioning system. Everything needs those flows. This current post, for instance, needs flows from electrical systems, computer hardware and software, a millennia-long conversation about ethics, ontology, and epistemology, the organizational structures of the English language and Google Blogger, and of course, you the reader and me the writer with our own inherent flows of energy and information. Without all this throughput and more, this current text could not come to life and emerge into the wider world. Nothing comes to life without similar flows of Light and Word.

This is, as far as I know, a universal principle. In his 1968 book Energy Flow in Biology: Biological Organization as a Problem in Thermal Physics, Harold J. Morowitz notes two important ideas about complex, open, self-organizing entities: "that energy flow alone can give rise to order in a system" and "that energy flow is necessary to maintain order once it has been achieved" (26). Morowitz convinces me that complex, open systems (including my writing classes) emerge, express, and maintain their lives as flows of energy and information—flows of Light and the Word. Morowitz doesn't deal specifically with information, and I confess that I do not know which came first: the Light or the Word. From this great distance of 14 billion years, the existing evidence can seem tenuous and ambiguous, the ancient texts obscure; still, I am convinced that all the activities of life need flows of both Light and Word.

The flows are always from a hotter source to a colder sink, and they must be just right: too little, and a complex open system freezes into stasis; too much, and a system explodes into fiery chaos. As Morowitz says it:
At very low flows the system approaches equilibrium with the thermal sink; at very high flows the system approaches equilibrium with what must effectively be a very hot source. Order generally means that the system has a character different than equilibrium systems. At both extremes of flow, this condition fails to obtain. Sustained order must therefore be a property of systems of intermediate flow rate. (42, 43)
Both extremes mean death. Life happens in the sustained tension and turbulence between too cold and too hot. Learning happens in this same temperate zone. Of course, too little and too much, too cold and too hot, are not fixed values but depend mostly on the situation at hand, and all systems have some room to move. Complex open systems—we humans, for instance—have real choices to make about which flows of Light and Word to engage and how much, but we have no choice about engaging. We must engage the Light and the Word, or we die. So we must engage, and we must make choices, or have those choices made for us. This is the agonistics of the rhizome, and I think the ethics should be obvious, but I will draw out those implications later. Still, the hard fact is that no classroom can exist without appropriate flows of Light and Word: energy/matter and information/organization. Period.

We need the Light and the Word, then, to animate a system, and this, of course, involves us with entropy, or the amount of disorder within a system. We redirect flows of energy and information through a system such as a class in order to reduce the amount of disorder, or entropy, in the system. It takes a fair amount of energy and information to organize a class into a functioning system (think just of the transportation systems needed to make it happen), and there is always the first law of thermodynamics to deal with: the preservation of energy. In short, the amount of organization and complexity created in one place is always equal to the amount of disorganization created elsewhere. For instance, using a traditional print textbook requires a destruction of trees and a manufacturing plant somewhere. When we choose to direct our own, personal energies toward a given class, then we are not directing our energies elsewhere: we aren't writing our dissertation, playing with our families, working on our next presentation or novel. We must feed a class, and that always means taking from something else. To me, the ethics here are also obvious, but more on that later.

Note that energy and information flows come from outside the system proper. This may seem obvious, but it is not trivial. This relationship changes everything, and I will explore these changes in the next few posts, but for now, we should note that Light and Word come from beyond us and through us. We humans begin as fertilized eggs with a mix of DNA coming from two parents, and then we are nursed and fed Light and Word in a womb for nine months, before living for a number of years with caretakers who are responsible for feeding us energy/matter and information/organization. We eventually assume primary responsibility for our feedings: we feed, process, and feedback, feed, process, and feedback in constant cycles as Light and Word flow through us. As Edgar Morin notes in On Complexity, this means that we never achieve equilibrium, or not until we die. He says:
A closed system, like a rock or a table, is in a state of equilibrium. In other words, matter and energy exchanges with the exterior are nonexistent. The constancy of the flame of a candle, the constancy of the internal environment of a cell or an organism are not at all linked to such an equilibrium. There is, on the contrary, disequilibrium in the energetic flux that feeds them, and without this flux, there is an organization deregulation that quickly leads to decline. (10, 11)
As Mark Taylor says in his book The Moment of Complexity (2001), we live in a state far from equilibrium, and we are always in danger of slipping too close to the cold or the heat, toward fixed order or chaos.

I must say something about what I mean by Light and Word, or energy/matter and information/organization. I'll start with energy. I am not enough of a scientist to give a very precise definition of energy, so I'm comfortable using the definition from Wikipedia: "In physics, energy is the property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on – or to heat – the object, and can be converted in form, but not created or destroyed." It's that primordial force released at the Beginning, and that has expressed itself in many different forms as the Universe has self-organized over the past 14 billion years, or so, eventually becoming one of my writing classes (all in all, that seems a disproportionate effort for one writing class, but I'll take it as a blessing). I use the word Light to express this vitality, this ability to organize oneself and to perturb and to respond to perturbations.

This ability to self-organize and to perturb and to respond to perturbations segues directly into my understanding of information and reveals how entangled energy and information are for me. I'm open to the idea that Light and Word are different terms for the same thing, but that isn't a question I want to engage in this conversation. Rather, I'm comfortable saying that information is any perturbation that makes a difference. Mark Taylor quotes Gregory Bateson as defining information as "a difference that makes a difference" (105). That captures the gist of it for me this morning. All complex open systems can organize themselves in such ways as to sense perturbations, differences in their environments, and respond to those perturbations in ways that are meaningful to the system—respond if only barely enough to survive the perturbation. This information processing can be quite basic and fundamental as when early particles first sensed wrinkles in space/time and began to aggregate, self-organize, into galaxies under the constant and persistent instruction of gravity, as thorough and patient a teacher as I've ever met. I confess that I do not know how quarks sense things such as gravity waves, but my confusion is evidence that they can. Otherwise, I wouldn't exist and neither would you. So for me, classroom discussion, coo-chats with my four-month-old granddaughter, and this very blog post all share the same fundamental communication mechanisms as those processes that created the Universe. I like that.

Complexity ethics, then, must map well to the flows of Light and Word that sustain complex open systems and to the dynamic relationships between any system at any scale and the ecosystem that animates it. That's a tall order for classroom ethics, but it grounds the ethics, driving the pylons deep. So far, I like where this is going for me. We'll see.


  1. Hi Keith. Hmm. Not sure students in a classroom are necessarily a swarm. Rare there is enough buzz.

    There is a word which keeps coming back to me reading this:


    1. I think you are correct, Simon, at least for most classrooms. However, we did have a swarm in #rhizo14/15, and that is the model that is inspiring all of this. So what if our classes were swarms? Actually, they probably would be a swarm if it wasn't for the power, no?

      Thanks for visiting.

    2. For them to be a swarm it requires self-Organization. I have experienced swarm classes. I try to work on the principles of "party-planning" to enable emergence (cf Dave Snowden) but more often than not the teacher is the "party-pooper" :-)

  2. Example swarm class