Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Open House and Open Human

House and Human

I want to explore these five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation by comparing and contrasting the human body to a human house. This is mostly a matter of convenient proximity, as I have one of each. I start with the assumption that a house is more of a closed system and a human is more of an open system. In other words, on the sliding scale from simple system to complex system, a house skews to the simple and a human skews to the complex.


The first characteristic that Preiser mentions -- openness -- suggests that the contrast between house and human may not be as distinct as I imagined. As Preiser describes in her dissertation, the openness of a complex system both internally and externally involves us in the issue of boundaries both internal and external. I can, of course, see and model the boundaries of my own house, both inside and outside. I can also see the boundaries of my own body, mostly on the outside, but I know that the inside can be seen under special, medical conditions. I can in the common light of day point to both my house and my body and say, "That's my house. That's me." Most everyone will know what I mean and agree with me. I can walk through my house in the dark, and mostly the walls do not shift and the floors don't rock. My own body stays mostly inside my skin, a convenient and customary area of demarcation -- a boundary.

However, as soon as I begin shifting my gaze to see through a complexity lens, then both house and body begin to open, though I think the body opens more. As it happens, both my house and my body emerged in 1951, so we are the same age. The boundaries of my house were fixed at birth/building and have changed very little since then. The original owners had about 2,400 square feet under roof in 1951, and we -- the second owners -- still have the same. The room layout is about the same, though the surface features have changed with new paint, carpets, and furnishings. 

The boundaries of my body, on the other hand, have changed much, certainly more than my house. I have more cubic footage under roof than I did 69 years ago, and the contours are different -- though thankfully my head is still atop my shoulders, my heart in my chest, and my legs underneath me. Still, even the most casual observer will note that I am not what I was 69 years ago. I don't occupy the same space. My boundaries have shifted mostly due to the growth and rearrangement of my internal components, but also because of complex interactions both internally and externally. For 69 years -- or rather for 70 years, as my body was growing and interacting with its environment in the womb -- I have been open to energy, matter, information, and organization from outside. My entire body is a porous sponge that soaks up my environment. I process those inputs internally more or less well and feed back outputs into my environment. 

One scale down, my organs are doing the same. My heart is jostling with its neighboring lungs and stomach to get along (it mostly does) and to be a productive member of the society that I am. It takes in blood and oxygen for energy to do its work and feeds back the blood and energy to its community. Round and round, a constant, essential cycle. I can scale down through tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms as deeply as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness all the way down or in.

One scale up, my family is doing the same. We jostle with each other to get along (we mostly do) and to be productive members of the society that we identify with (we mostly are). We take in and feedback in a constant, essential and necessary cycle. We gather often, exchanging information and energy that coordinates us and maintains our identity as a family. Again, I can scale up through clan, community, town, state, nation, world, and cosmos as far as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness and flows all the way up or out.

However far I go inward or outward, I see the same flows of energy, matter, information, and organizational patterns back and forth through whatever boundaries I define. My skin is a convenient and handy boundary with physical and informational implications ( social, economic, and political). It's also the boundary that most people see and that photographs capture. It shapes my perception of myself and my world, and it shapes my environment's perception of and interactions with me, but it is by no means absolute. I leak inward and outward. Each scale in or out stains the next scale, and understanding my skin requires understanding those proximate scales. Complete understanding of my body requires understanding all the scales inward and outward -- an impossible task. I am infinite, and I could study me forever and still not get to the bottom of me.

Well, I did not expect to follow that line of sentences to that period, but I'll let them stand to see if they have legs.

It's easy for me to see that my body is a more open system than is my house. I tend to think of a house as protection from the outside -- a fixed, inviolable, somewhat sacred boundary, or barrier, between my family and the environment, but complexity thinking questions those assumptions. Similar to my body, my house is made up of different systems that manage the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization into and out of my home. My house has electrical, gas, and plumbing systems that bring energy and water in and take heat and waste out. My house has television, telephone, and network systems that exchange information between the inside and outside. During this pandemic I've been more conscious of ventilation in my home, and so I've opened my house's windows more often to allow a better exchange of air from outside to inside, but really, my house is old and was built back when insulation was not a priority, so it has long exchanged air with the outside.

If I look for them, then I can find lots of exchanges and flows between my house and the environment, and the interactions between my house and environment become even more open and complex when I think of my family and me as my house's microbiome. We live inside the guts of my house similarly to the way all those bacteria live in my guts, and the interactions between the microbiome and host are complex and critical. The interactions become even more complex if I extend the microbiome metaphor to the holobiont, which includes the host, the microbiome, and all the other species living in or around the host and that contribute in some way to the functioning, whether for good or ill, of the host. I can see my house as the host and me, my family, my friends, workers, insects, pets, furnishings, devices, cars, lawn mowers, and other things as the holobiont. I've now included my yard as a second, more porous skin of my house. Clearly, my house is not a closed, simple system, but open and complex.

Of course, there are differences between my body and my house, as the other characteristics of complexity are likely to reveal, but the lesson for me here is that if I start looking from the framework of complexity, then I find that there really are no absolutely closed systems. Even rocks and black holes exchange some energy, matter, information, and organization with the rest of us, though on very different time scales and perhaps in coarser chunks. Still, everything is part of the weave, the complexus ("what is woven together") as Morin calls it.

I have a couple of reservations about openness as I have described it. First, the proximate scales are more important to us and to our identity. The farther I focus my attention away from my human scale, then the more obscure I become and the more difficult it becomes to trace the influences of my human scale on the behaviors of the other scales. I'm fairly confident if I move one scale inward toward my internal organs or one scale outward toward my immediate social groups, but if I move much further, I start losing Keith Hamon. At the molecular level, I'm just a nebulous cloud. At the national level, I'm just a bland dot. Either way, I Keith Hamon recede into the background as just part of the general noise, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what impact, if any, my behaviors at the human scale are having on either the molecular scales I enclose or the national scales that enclose me. Whatever influences that might be attributed solely or even mostly to Keith Hamon at the human scale seem to diffuse and become muddy as they delta out or in to other scales. At some scale, I seem to lose myself. Once I move beyond a certain horizon, I dissolve into something else. My house does the same. If I focus too far in or too far out, I can no longer recognize my house. (You can illustrate this graphically with Google Earth). Later in her dissertation, Preiser talks about the critical importance of horizons and boundaries for knowledge.

Second, the term openness suggests superficially that complex systems are all open and not closed. This is not the case. Openness in the sense of allowing the flow of energy, matter, information, and organization across some boundary of a complex entity must be counterpoised by closure in the sense of restricting, modifying, or at least monitoring the flows across some boundary. Both opening and closing boundaries are absolutely necessary functions for the maintenance of the complex entity, for its internal interactions, and for its external interactions with its environment. Openness and closure work hand-in-hand in constant, irreconcilable dialog, and the life of my body and my house plays out in the dynamic tension between them. Both my house and my body have boundaries that keep the rain water out of the inside while allowing some water in. Failures of either function leads to catastrophes. A leaky roof or a burst pipe can allow water in where I don't want it and stop water where I do want it. When the plumbing breaks, the party is over. Most activity ceases until the boundaries are repaired. My body works the same. Drowning and extreme thirst both lead to catastrophes. I just googled oxygen poisoning and learned of oxygen toxicity. Apparently, this is a condition, though I've never heard of it. Too much oxygen, just like too little, is bad for my body. All life on Earth depends just as much on the flow of light from the Sun AND on the layers of atmosphere, seas, and vegetation that filter that light. The dialog between sunlight and sunshade is a constant interplay in our lives, and we absolutely need both.

Openness, then, must be managed -- either by the boundary itself (my skin or my roof) or by the complex entity that depends on the boundary (me, when I decide not to have that next beer). Both my house and my body need both more liberal impulses of openness and more conservative impulses of closure, and the mix of both depends on the internal interactions of the complex entity and the external interactions with the environment. The mix is never static; rather, it needs constant attention and care. That's the responsibility of life as a complex entity.

Finally, I have issues with the implications that some entities can be almost completely closed while some entities are almost completely open. I don't think any system in reality is ever completely open or closed. I don't think Reality itself is completely open or closed. We must always account for the interplay to some degree of interaction of the forces and components within a complex system and the forces and components without that system. Even a rock has something going inside, though it takes a very long time to emerge, and what happens inside the rock is dependent on what is happening outside the rock, between it and the environment. Over centuries, even a rock must learn to adjust to its new environment or cease to exist. A black hole may be the most nearly closed entity in all the Universe, and yet we are learning to tease information and energy from it -- if not matter or organization. And who knows what matter and organization may lie on the other side of that hole? So dialog and interplay it is all the way down, all the way out.

Well, I intended to write about all five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation, but I'm up against the boundary of post length. It appears that I will devote one post to each characteristic. So more next post about relationality, non-linearity and non-equilibrium.

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