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Complexity and the Networked Society
By Alan McCluskey
alan@connected.org

In his book The New Alliance written with Isabelle Stengers, Ilya Prigogine writes, "It is no longer stable situations or permanency that interest us, but rather evolutions, crises and instabilities." In the book, Prigogine and Stengers depict modern science as being "against nature because it denies the complexity and the coming-into-being of the world in the name of a knowable, eternal world that is dictated by a small number of simple, unchanging laws." It is true that a great many phenomena can be described in terms of simple, linear mathematics. Yet, as Prigogine and Stengers point out, this approach unfortunately led to a mechanical vision of nature in which science became an instrument of domination and scientists shut themselves off from nature with the rest of humanity in the ivory tower of supposed objectiveness.

Prigogine and Stengers plead for a new approach to science, in which "the experimental dialogue is based on the two essential elements of the relationship between man and nature: understanding and modification." They go on to say, "Experimentation demands an interaction between theory and practice that implies a veritable strategy." In another book, entitled The End of Certainties, Prigogine writes, "We are witnessing the emergence of a science that is no longer limited to simplified, idealized situations but rather one which confronts the complexity of the world and allows human creativity to flourish as a singular expression of a fundamental trait common to all levels of
Nature."

In presenting Ilya Prigogine at IST98 during a session entitled The Networked Society, Roger Camrass pointed out that the development of logic had enabled the emergence of modern science, modern economics, and modern social theory. However, logic alone no longer provides a suitable framework to carry us forward in today's transition to the networked age. "We are seeking new tools to replace or complement those techniques that have enabled our sciences and our many academic fields to mature, new techniques that will form a framework for the future," said Camrass. He went on to say, "One such powerful tool is complexity theory as a possible underpinning of our new information society."

Prigogine began his talk to a packed hall in Vienna by saying that no one had planned either a networked society or the information revolution. He considers this a sign that self-organization was at work, drawing a parallel to certain phenomena observed in physics and chemistry. Prigogine went on to talk about the importance of bifurcation in self-organization. By bifurcation he meant all of those moments when choice is possible, a choice that can lead to novelty.

Bifurcation in physics and chemistry requires two conditions, according to Prigogine. The first is that the system be far from equilibrium. The open systems Prigogine was interested in differed from the closed systems hitherto described by physics in that they managed to maintain a stable state even though-or, rather, because-there was a continuous flow of energy or matter through them. The second condition was that the pertinent equations governing those systems be nonlinear. The difference between a linear and a nonlinear system is that in the former, the effect of change on the system is proportional to that change, and so, small changes have little or no effect. In a nonlinear system, small changes can have dramatic effects because their impact may be repeatedly amplified by self-reinforcing feedback. Bifurcation leads to novelties: new space-time structures. Such bifurcations occur when a system moves from one stable state to a new one. For given boundary conditions for a given environment, the system has many possibilities. Prigogine says, "That is why I spoke about self-organization, because it is not the boundary conditions which create the self-organization, but elements of spontaneous development. The human universe is only one of the possible realizations. The possible is richer than the actual."

Going on to connect that idea to the information society, Prigogine raised the issue of the effect of the present bifurcation with the move to extensive use of information technologies. He argued: "Because of the scales involved, we expect larger fluctuations and increased instability. That is why we need more precise methods to deal with all these things. That is why we need the theory of complex systems." Apparently, in the previous meeting of Nobel prize winners there had been a discussion about whether the technical revolution hailed the arrival of the Apocalypse or the beginning of a new dignity of man. According to Prigogine, the vote for the dignity of man won by a very small majority.

Prigogine ended his talk with three questions he felt were more on the order of guidelines for reflection and action than questions. "We have to direct the information revolution so that these questions can be answered in a positive way," he said. Here are Prigogine's three questions:
  • Who will benefit from the networked society?
  • Will it decrease the gap between nations?
  • What will be the effect of the networked society on individual creativity?

A recent poll shows that among the large majority, the hope for the third millennium lies in greater harmony between people and nature. What will be the impact of the networked society on that issue?

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