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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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4.4 Where is the complexity and what is it?

When I first described some of my experiences of the child-support case study above, I attributed the properties of mess, complex, or hard-to-understand to the situation. So, are mess, complex, and hard-to-understand the same thing? If they are, why is the unit called Managing Complexity, rather than, say, Managing Messes? A glib answer is you might not have been attracted to it because of the everyday meaning of mess. Yet another answer is that complexity is a rich term whose everyday meanings have been further enriched by the so-called new sciences of chaos and complexity (see Appendix C which is attached below for your convenience).

Click on the link below to read Appendix C.

View document: Appendix C117.9KB PDF document
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Let me try to explore some of this rich set of meanings by examining a cause célèbre in the computer world. The story is described by John Naughton's (1998) article from The Observer (Box 4). Read this article now and complete the activity that follows it.

Activity 44 should take a little less than 10 minutes.

Box 4 Open versus closed systems of innovation – an example of self-organisation?

There is a saying in the computer business that ‘only the paranoid survive’. The man who has taken it most to heart is Microsoft's Boss of Bosses, Bill Gates. Although he is the richest man alive and his company has a stranglehold on the world's computer screens, Gates is forever looking over his shoulder, trying to spot the newcomer who will wipe him out.

One can understand his anxiety. The pace of change in the computing industry is such that if you blink you might not spot the threat. Gates himself blinked spectacularly in 1994, when Netscape was founded. He failed to appreciate the looming significance of the Internet, and Netscape had captured a huge slice of the web-browser market before he woke up.

From that moment onwards, Microsoft's corporate ingenuity was devoted to finding ways of crushing Netscape. Its crass attempts to do so eventually stung the US Department of Justice into launching the anti-trust suit which is currently being decided in an American court. But while the eyes of the media are on the trial, those of the Net community have been focused elsewhere – on a leaked Microsoft internal memorandum which is far more revealing than anything released in court. For it shows that Gates & Co have finally realized where the Next Big Threat is coming from. And it's nothing to do with Netscape – or browsers. They're yesterday's battlegrounds

The leaked memo is now all over the Net. It was written by a Microsoft engineer called Vinod Valloppillil last August [1998], but is universally known as the ‘Halloween Memo’ because it was leaked last weekend [November 1998]. Its purpose is to explain to Microsoft bosses the nature and extent of the threat posed by a free operating system called Linux and the ‘Open Source’ software development community that built it.

To appreciate the memo's significance, you need to remember that Microsoft dominates the world market in operating systems – the complex programs which transform computers from paperweights into machines which can do useful work. The Windows operating system is the jewel in Gates's crown, and anything that threatens it threatens his company's dominance. Microsoft's long-term strategy is to move us all on to a version of it called Windows NT (for ‘new technology’). But NT is in trouble. The release date for the next version has been postponed so often that it has had to be renamed ‘Windows 2000’. And as NT flounders, the world's attention has increasingly focused on a rival operating system called Linux which offers many of the same facilities as NT, is incredibly stable and reliable – and is free. Anyone can download it, free gratis, from the Net.

Linux is free because it was developed collectively across the Net by skilled programmers working in the Open Source tradition which created the Internet and which holds that software should be freely accessible to the community. The name comes from the fact that ‘source code’ is computer-speak for the original version of a program – as distinct from the version you buy and install on your computer. If you have the source code you can do what you like with it – alter it, damage it, improve it, whatever. Linux is powerful and stable because it was created by clever people working collaboratively on the source code and because it's been tested to destruction by more programmers than Microsoft could ever muster. The Halloween Memo warns Gates that Linux and its ilk pose a serious threat to Microsoft. It argues that Open Source software is now as good as – if not better than – commercial alternatives, concedes that ‘the ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing’, and concludes that Linux is too diffuse a target to be destroyed by the tactics which have hitherto vaporized Microsoft's commercial rivals. The people who built Linux cannot be driven out of business, because they're not ‘in’ business. Henceforth, Microsoft will be fighting not another company, but an idea.

The Halloween Memo provides a chilling glimpse into the Darth Vader mindset of Microsoft. The reason Linux is so powerful, reasons Valloppillil, is that its basic building blocks – its technical protocols – are free, openly distributed and not owned by anyone. The only way to kill it therefore is for Microsoft to capture the protocols by pretending to adopt them and then ‘extending’ them in ways that effectively make them proprietary. The new (Microsoft) revisions will – surprise, surprise! – be incompatible with the ‘free’ versions. Gates calls this process ‘embrace and extend’. In reality it's ‘copy and corrupt’.

The coming battle, then, will be between two philosophies – closed shop versus Open Source, commercial paranoia versus altruism and trust. The outcome is already predictable. Microsoft's difficulties with Windows NT show that some software is now too complex for even the richest, smartest company. Instead of trying to suborn Linux, what Gates should do is release the NT code and let the collective IQ of the Net fix it for him. He won't do it, of course, which is why his company has just peaked. If you have Microsoft shares, prepare to sell them now.

(John Naughton; writing in the Observer, a British Sunday newspaper, November 1998)

Activity 44

What form does the complexity take in the situation described in Box 4?

You may have experienced Naughton's article as complex in itself because of the range of concepts it uses and some of the specialist language, e.g. Internet, web-browser, open-source software, anti-trust suit. Try to put this aside for the moment and focus on how Naughton uses the term complex.

Is Naughton, in your terms, describing a complex situation? Outline your reasons. In what ways was the term ‘complex’ used by Naughton in his article in Box 4?

Please note that you do not require definitions of complexity from other sources to answer this question.

Naughton specifically describes ‘complex programmes’ and software that is ‘too complex’ (e.g. Microsoft's Windows 2000). It is possible in both instances that Naughton ascribes complexity to the programmes and the software. But he does suggest in the latter use that the ‘closed’ approach Microsoft and its staff pursued led them to experience the task of developing Windows 2000 as highly complex and that this is qualitatively different from the ‘open’ process being followed in the development of Linux. It seems to me he could be attributing several meanings to the word complex.

I do not regard myself as computer literate and I'm not particularly enthusiastic about computers, so when I encounter a story like that told by Naughton I experience the situation it describes as complex. I do so because there are many actors in the situation. The issue has a global span. There is apparent or potential conflict, suggesting a range of perspectives on the situation just as in the Child Support Agency case study. And the outcomes of these different technological trajectories are likely to have profound economic and social implications. When I use complex in this way – and it has been used in this way most of the time in the unit so far – I am speaking about perceived complexity.

John Casti (1994) said ‘when we speak of something being complex, what we are doing is making use of everyday language to express a feeling or impression that we dignify with the label complex.’ He also argues that the meaning we give to the word complex is dependent on the context. For Casti, the complexity of a situation or a system is not an intrinsic aspect of the situation or ‘system’ taken in isolation but ‘a property of the interaction between two ‘systems’ where one of these is more often than not an observer and/or controller’ (i.e. a person). So, in this explanation, complexity arises in the relationship between the observer and the observed. This is my response to the question in Figure 19. It is also another way to understand what is happening in Figure 20.

Although the language is different, the process I have just described is the same as the one I described earlier for messes. Perceived complexity arises because of our cognitive limitations as well as characteristics of the situation. Our embodied ways of knowing – individuals and the explanations they accept have different traditions and histories – lead to only seeing aspects of a situation never the whole as discussed in Part 3, Section 3.

There is no viewpoint or perspective that can appreciate the full variety of a situation. It is from the recognition of these limitations that a range of systems approaches have been developed (see Part 3, Section 5). The notion of perceived complexity addresses one of the ways I experience Naughton using the word complex in Box 4. But are there other ways complexity is currently used? The short answer to this is: Yes, lots.

There are in fact many explanations provided for what complexity is or is not. Someone who went to the trouble of counting in the early 1990s claimed to have found 31 different definitions. Five pages, many more than for any other concept, are devoted to aspects of complexity in the International Encyclopaedia of Systems and Cybernetics. This situation has arisen partly because in the 1990s the field of complexity science has emerged, made popular by the activities of the Santa Fe Institute in the USA; partly because of a series of popular books; and the association of complexity with chaos research (Gleick, 1987). Horgan (1996), a sceptic and critic, describes the academic field as ‘chaoplexity’.

A selected range of perspectives on complexity are provided in Appendix C. This appendix is background material if you want to explore the subject matter in more detail. It is not essential reading and can be extended by a search of the World Wide Web. I outline the context in which complexity science is evolving below.

Click on the link below to read Appendix C.

View document: Appendix C117.9KB PDF document
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I suggest you browse Appendix C now before moving on. As you read you may like to add to the spray diagramme you began to develop as part of Activity 40.

One of the main driving forces behind the current interest in complexity is the advent of computers and sophisticated non-linear mathematical techniques. Horgan claims these ‘will help modern scientists understand chaotic, complex, emergent phenomena that have resisted analysis by reductionist methods of the past’ (Horgan, 1996, p.192). He uses the following quote to exemplify some of the claims being made:

Through its capacity to process what is too complex for the unaided mind, the computer enables us for the first time to simulate reality, to create models of complex systems like large molecules, chaotic systems, neural nets, the human body and brain, and patterns of evolution and population. (p. 193)

In an essay entitled ‘The Lure of Complexity’, Steve Talbott (2002) asks whether claims that the study of complex systems, or complexity is a new scientific revolution are, instead, a ‘retrenchment and strengthening of the most serious limitations of traditional science’. He asks if in the drive toward generality and abstraction complexity theorists have lost the features of a qualitative science that refuses to sacrifice the phenomena to abstraction in the first place? For me, as a member of an Open University group that has been teaching and researching systems approaches to managing complexity for the best part of 30 years, many claims made by complexity theorists appear extravagant. (This is taken up in Appendix C.) While I do not wish to deny the potential unleashed by increased computing power and non-linear mathematical techniques, and thus the new questions that are being asked, my preference would be to situate these ideas in a historical context. If this were to happen, and those making these claims were to look into the traditions that give rise to these claims, there would be much to be learned – particularly about the difficulties caused by a multiplicity of meanings embedded in one word as well as a lack of attention to the theory-practice relationship.

Given the wealth of ideas within the notion of complexity, is it possible to be clear what is meant by the terms complex situation and a complex system? Does a historical context illuminate this question? The next section, represented by the second blob on the main spine of Figure 36, explores these issues.