Thursday, August 29, 2019

RhizoRhetoric: Writing as a Complex System

I've been reading about complexity science and thinking — I prefer here the active form thinking over the static form thought, verb over noun, doing over being — and I want to write a few posts about writing as a complex adaptive system. I will shamelessly pilfer from some of the works that I've been reading to see if I can make some connections between the ancient art of rhetoric and the modern science of complexity. I start with Joss Colchester's short (57 pages) introduction into complexity: Complexity Theory (2016), which is accessible to most anyone interested in the topic.

For Colchester, complex systems are subsets of systems in general. He defines a system as "a group of parts called elements and relations between these parts through which they can function together and form a whole" (5). Colchester then adds complexity to the idea of systems, presumably to distinguish complex systems from other types of systems, presumably complicated or even simple systems, though he is not clear about this. I find it useful, then, to use Snowden's categories of the simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic domains to understand the distinction that Colchester is trying to make with complex systems.

As do many writers dealing with complexity, Colchester begins by noting that "there is no formal definition for it" (5), and then like the others, he lists some characteristics of complexity, noting that complexity can be treated as a parameter, or a measurement of something:
  • Complexity is a measurement of the number of elements in a system, with a rule of thumb that the more elements a system has, then the more complex it is.
  • Complexity is a measurement of the number of connections among the elements within a system, with a similar rule of thumb: the more connections, the more complexity.
  • Complexity is a measurement of the adaptability of the elements. The more elements can adapt to themselves and to their environment, the more complex they are.
  • Finally, "complexity is also a measure of the degree of diversity between elements within a system" (6). The more diverse the elements, then the greater the complexity of the system, as a general rule.
This can be a useful starting point for thinking of writing systems such as academic English as complex. Let's see how.

First, and obviously, writing itself is a system. It is a "group of parts" and "relations between these parts" that enable the system to "function together and form a whole". We can start with the small elements: marks (letters and punctuation) and work upwards through words, phrases, clauses, paragraphs, and more which all function together to make memos for your boss, tweets to your peeps, poems for your lovers, and research papers in your college chemistry class. All of the elements of writing relate in regular ways to other elements, and these relationships form the documents that make writing useful to us humans.

But writing is a system not just within itself but also within other systems — social systems, for instance. Within other systems, writing can act as both one of the elements within the system and as one of the connectors and connections among other elements within the system. Writing connects people — especially texting. Writing is also a part of educational and commercial systems, which I will explore more in future posts.

But is writing a complex system? Yes.

First, writing has lots of elements. I'm not particularly happy with number as a defining parameter of complexity. I think that some systems with few elements (slime mold, for instance) can be complex and some systems with many elements (jet airplanes, for instance) can be merely complicated. Still, by most any measure, writing systems have sufficient number of elements to be considered complex. A study by Google and Harvard estimates over a million words in the history of English, while the Second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary lists about 600,000 words with 171,000 words in current use, and an average of 20,000 to 30,000 words used by individuals. Those are big numbers.

Second, the elements in writing (from letters and punctuation marks to paragraphs) can be connected in countless ways to form an almost infinite number of different documents, most of which feature a surprising degree of novelty. Almost any writer of English can form a sentence that has never before been written yet is still recognizable as English writing. This is astounding.

Third, writing systems can adapt in almost infinite ways to each other and to their environments. We are all witness to the new writings (words, grammars, documents, and more ) that have emerged with modern electronic technology. This blog is itself witness to how a writing system can both map and adapt to new landscapes. Of course, spoken language adapts just as well, but I'm focusing here on writing systems. This means that writing can learn. More on that in later posts.

Finally, writing systems have a sufficient diversity among the elements within the system. In this respect, English writing is somewhat like DNA: it has only 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks with which to generate countless documents. Though we start with only 26 letters, they can combine and recombine to form countless other elements, just as the four DNA bases can (A, G, C, and T).

So, based on Colchester's brief definition of complex systems, I'm quite comfortable saying that writing systems meet the cut. I'll continue to look at other definitions, but I'm confident that writing will meet those definitions as well. So writing is a complex system. What does that mean? More on that in future posts.