The basic conditions for complexity
Exhibit A: The Zettelkasten System
I’m currently working on my book and came to a realization that what the book will be about is one answer to how to create a type of complexity from scratch.
Wow. That’s pretty exciting. In the past two newsletters I’ve basically been painting complex systems as a relatively hard things to start and maintain. But already I’m challenging my own beliefs on this.
On the one hand, we tend to completely misunderstand signals we receive from complex systems and take action based on misconstrued assumptions, because we have difficulties seeing/accepting the bigger picture.
Then, on the other hand, writing down my zettelkasten process is helping me identify and name its essential components. The Zettelkasten Method is basically a way to create and maintain a complex system of knowledge. Creating language around these esoteric processes helps demystify them so that my results can be replicated by others. This is the goal of writing this book.
So, I decided to write this super lay-person explanation to myself about curious things I’ve observed about complex systems, mostly to see if I’m making sense over time.
So, how to start?
I think that before anything else, complexity must start somewhere along a flow of something I’ll call “energy” for now, since I don’t have another word for it at the moment. Identifying the energy denomination is different for every complex system.
For the zettelkasten, it’s information.
For cities, it’s human social activity.
For life on earth, it’s sunlight.
So first: find a steady energy of something.
The next thing you need for complex systems is to identify the innate impetus of the energy which establishes some kind of global direction to work along. A complex system is opinionated. It wants to do things based on finding better ways to satisfy its impetus. It seeks some kind of “order”, but it can take many forms.
For the zettelkasten, the impetus is to generate new insight by connecting related ideas over time.
For cities, the impetus is to supercharge essential social activities like survival, reproduction, work division, innovation.
For life on earth, natural biological processes chain into more and more complex organisms that feed on system abundances and inefficiencies.
In short: figure out what direction the energy wants to flow.
Also, the impetus ensures that the system is self-correcting over time. To invert the above, when an actor disregards the innate impetus of a flow that feeds a system, it disturbs the self-correcting process and creates an unsustainable and energy-hogging situation. A disrupted complex system presents chaotic situations that are undecipherable on the ground.
For the zettelkasten, the writer needs to spend effort to be discerning about the ideas being brought into the system. Indiscriminate hoarding quickly turns ones notes into a dumping ground for meh-ideas, which feeds a negative spiral which turns the writer off from using their zettelkasten. It becomes an archive.
For cities, the car and its accompanying infrastructure stretches our settlements to inhuman scales and costs us an unsustainable amount of resources to maintain.
For life on earth, turning pulsing rivers to still dams ensures that all the life that existed because of the flow of water ceases to exist.
Ignoring the impetus of a well-established complex system is expensive and unsustainable.
In addition to impetus, a complex system likes to answer one question over and over again. If not a question, then the application of some formula. There’s some kind of pattern to the results, and every answer is slightly different and slightly better, but never wrong. The quest is to generate answers with greater fit over time. Basically: fitness.
For the zettelkasten, every idea is expressed differently.
For cities, every building is unique.
For life on earth, every offspring is a random mix of their parents’ DNA.
A complex system seeks to answer the question over and over again, always in slightly different ways.
However, there is a cost to answering the question.
For the zettelkasten, the writer must chew on the idea in their head to break down its essence. This task cannot be automated, or else the writer won’t gain the benefits of keeping such a system.
For cities, it takes resources and effort to build a city. There is no unlimited source of any of these things.
For life on earth, the cost is the birthing and seeding process.
There is a minimum fee for answering the question, and it must be paid in order to play the game of complexity.
Finally, a complex system expresses itself as a whole in beautiful generative form that is difficult to replicate unless you understand the underlying currents and processes that gave rise to the system. I discussed this in the previous newsletter about how difficult it is to replicate systems of complexity.
I think humans have an innate ability to identify the beauty of complexity. We can appreciate it, and experience a sense of wonderment from it. But this, again, is like being the end consumer of a croissant. If we want to intervene on the process, we need to study the process and learn how it works.
To summarize the basic conditions for complexity:
Find a steady “energy” of something
Figure out what direction the energy wants to flow; its impetus.
Reminder: Ignoring the impetus of a well-established complex system is expensive and unsustainable.
Establish a question the energy want to answer, over and over again, always in slightly different ways
Remember to pay the fee properly for answering the question. No cheating.
If you do it right, over time a beautiful generative artifact will result from the cumulative and continuous work. But you, being wise to the ways of complexity, know that the artifact is mainly a by-product of a complex system. The real essence of complexity lies in the process.
What are your thoughts on complexity? Have you learned anything from it, or perhaps you happen to be a complexity scientist of some kind and can give us the real deal on how it actually works? 😍 I’d love to hear about your insights in the comments please!
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Until next time, stay safe and stay curious.
I love the parallel comparisons you give here btw note taking, cities, life on earth! I've been contemplating the human body/health as a complex system. wow, i really want to spend some time thinking about these answers...