Complexity – Only When You Realize You Are Blind, Can You See:

In today’s post, I am looking at the idea of complexity from a second order Cybernetics standpoint. The phrase “only when you realize you are blind, can you see”, is a paraphrase of a statement from the great Heinz von Foerster. I have talked about von Foerster in many of my posts, and he is one of my heroes in Cybernetics. There is no one universally accepted definition for complexity. Haridimos Tsoukas and Mary Jo Hatch wrote a very insightful paper called “Complex Thinking, Complex Practice”. In the paper, they try to address how to explain complexity. They refer to the works of John Casti and C. H. Waddington to further their ideas:

Waddington notes that complexity has something to do with the number of components of a system as well as with the number of ways in which they can be related… Casti defines complexity as being ‘directly proportional to the length of the shortest possible description of [a system]’.

Casti’s views on complexity are particularly interesting because complexity is not viewed as being intrinsic to the phenomenon. This is a common idea in Cybernetics, mainly second order cybernetics. There are two ‘classifications’ of cybernetics – first order and second order cybernetics. As von Foerster explained it, first order cybernetics is the study of observed systems, where the basic assumption is that the system is objectively knowable. The second order cybernetics is the study of observing systems, where the basic assumption is that the observer is included in the act of observing, and thus the observer is part of the observed system. This leads to second order thinking such as understanding understanding or observing observing. It is interesting because, as I am typing, Microsoft Word is telling me that “understanding understanding” is syntactically incorrect. This obviously would be a first order viewpoint. The second order cybernetics is a meta discipline and one that generates wisdom.

When we take the observer into consideration, we realize that complexity is in the eyes of the beholder. Complexity is observer-dependent; that is, it depends upon how the system is described and interpreted. If the observer is able to make more varying distinctions in their description, we can say that the phenomenon or the system is being interpreted as complex. In their paper, Tsoukas and Jo Hatch brings up the ideas of language in describing and thus interpreting complexity. They note that:

Chaos and complexity are metaphors that posit new connections, draw our attention to new phenomena, and help us see what we could not see before (Rorty).

This is quite interesting. When we learn the language of complexity, we are able to understand complexity better, and we become better at describing it, in a reflexive manner.

What complexity science has done is to draw our attention to certain features of systems’ behaviors which were hitherto unremarked, such as non-linearity, scale-dependence, recursiveness, sensitivity to initial conditions, emergence (etc.)

From this standpoint, we can say that complexity lies in the interactions we have with the system, and depending on our perspectives (vantage point) and the interaction we can come away with a different interpretation for complexity.

Heinz von Foerster remarked that complexity is not in the world but rather in the language we use to describe the world. Paraphrasing von Foerster, cognition is computation of descriptions of reality. Managing complexity then becomes a cognitive task. How well you can interact or manage interactions depends on how effective your description is and how well it aligns with others’ descriptions. The complexity of a system lies in the description of that system, which entirely rests on the observer/sensemaker. The idea that complexity is in the eyes of beholder is to point out the importance of second order cybernetics/thinking. The world is as it is, it gets meaning only when we assign meaning to it through how we describe/interpret it. To put differently, “the logic of the world is the logic of the descriptions of the world” (Heinz von Foerster)

The idea of complexity not being intrinsic to a system is also echoed by one of the pioneers of cybernetics, Ross Ashby. He noted – “a system’s complexity is purely relative to a given observer; I reject the attempt to measure an absolute, or intrinsic, complexity; but this acceptance of complexity as something in the eye of the beholder is, in my opinion, the only workable way of measuring complexity”.

The ideas of second order cybernetics emphasize the importance of observers. The “system” is a mental construct by an observer to make sense of a phenomenon. The observer based on their needs draw boundaries to separate a “system” from its environment. This allows the observer to understand the system in the context of its environment. At the same time, the observer has to understand that there are other observers in the same social realm who may draw different boundaries and come out with different understandings based on their own needs, biases, perspectives etc.

A phenomenon can have multiple identities or meanings depending on who is describing the desired phenomenon. Let’s use the Covid 19 pandemic as an example. For some people, this has become a problem of economics rather than a healthcare problem, while for some others it has become a problem of freedom or ethics. If we are to attempt tackling the complexity of such an issue, the worst thing we can do is to attempt first order thinking- the idea that the phenomenon can be observed objectively. Issues requiring second order approach get worse by the application of first order methodologies. The danger in this is that we can fall prey to our own narrative being the whole Truth.

As the pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty points out:

The world does not speak. Only we do. The world can, once we have programmed ourselves with a language, cause us to hold beliefs. But it cannot propose a language for us to speak. Only other human beings can do that.

If we are to understand complexity of a phenomenon, we need to start with realizing that our version of complexity is only one of the many.  Our ability to understand complexity depends on our ability to describe it. We lack the ability to completely describe a phenomenon. The different descriptions that come about from the different participants may be contradictory and can point out apparent paradoxes in our social realm.

In complexity, if we are to tackle it, we need to have coherence of multiple interpretations. As Karl Weick points out, we need to complicate ourselves. By generating and accommodating multiple inequivalent descriptions, practioners will increase the complexity of their understanding and, therefore, will be more likely to match the complexity of the situation they attempt to manage. In complexity, coherence – the idea of connecting ideas together, is important since it helps to create a clearer picture and affords avoiding blind spots. This co-construted description itself is an emergent phenomenon.

In second order Cybernetics, there are two statements that might shed more light on everything we have discussed so far:

Anything said is said BY an observer. (Maturana)

Anything said is said TO an observer. (von Foerster)

A lot can be said between these two statements. The first points out that the importance of the observer, and the second points out that there are other observers, and we coconstruct our social reality.

Our descriptions are abstractions since we are limited by our languages. All our biases, fears, misunderstandings, ignorance etc. lie hidden in the “systems” we construct. We get into trouble when we assume that these abstractions are real things. This is the first order approach, where we are not aware that we do not see due to our cognitive blind spots. When we realize that all we have are abstractions, we get to the second order approach. We include ourselves in our observation and we start looking at how we make these abstractions. We also become aware of other autonomous participants of our social reality engaging in similar constructions of narratives. As we seek their understanding, we become aware of our cognitive blind spots. We realize that everything is on a spectrum, and our thinking of “either/or” is actually a false dichotomy.

At this point, Heinz von Foerster would say that we start to see when we realize that we are blind.

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Causality and Purpose in Systems:

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