Complex systems.

Grabow, Paul C.
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The “extension” of the self is a dominant theme in McLuhan’s (1911-1980) Understanding Media, in which “all technologies are extensions of our physical being”. His discussion of “extension of consciousness” via “electric technology” was prophetic, whereby “the entire business of man becomes learning and knowing” and “all forms of wealth result from the movement of information”. The net result is a “total field of inclusive awareness” where we are both aware and affected by things outside of us -- as part of a large, complex, system. In Technology & Justice, Grant (1918-1988) wrote that “... modern technology is not simply an extension of human making ... but is a new account of what it is to know and to make in which both activities are changed ...”, where “... technology is the pervasive mode of being in our political and social lives”. In other words, technology has permeated the whole of society. This too can be regarded as a large, complex system. Both writers recognized that technology simplifies this complex system to conform to its assumptions and goals. Consequently, the system often behaves badly. “Even specialist learning in higher education proceeds by ignoring interrelationships; for such complex awareness slows down the achieving of expertness” (McLuhan). And “… technology … tends to pare down the actual novelness of our situation, so that we are not allowed to contemplate that situation for what it is” (Grant). In other words, the messy (often, human) elements are simplified to fit the assumptions and goals of organizational structure, terminology, or methods. Unfortunately, neither writer addresses how to deal with this oversimplification. Nassim Taleb (b 1960) suggests that a complex system should be seen for what it is (volatile and random) and not what we often imagine it to be (stable and deterministic). In particular, he advocates making decisions (and building systems) that are antifragile, i.e, capable of benefiting from random events, errors, and volatility. He also warns against cause-effect predictions with complex systems, recognizing that “… the notion of cause itself is suspect; it is either nearly impossible to detect or not really defined.” The presentation will sketch some concepts from Taleb for problems described by McLuhan and Grant.

Complex systems., Marshall McLuhan., Nassim Taleb., Technology and society.