Simple Rules – Complex Behavior

Updated: Aug 10

One of the key insights from complexity theory is that complex phenomenon may not require a very complex rule set or design to create but, on the contrary, may be the product of a quite simple set of rules and their interaction.


This is something that is not intuitive to us when we see something that exhibits very complicated structure or behavior – say like a sunflower or ant colony – we are inclined to believe that some very intelligent being must have created it or there is some very complicated rule set built into it which created it. Indeed for most of human history that is how we must have seen the world, that it was created by some divine entity or entities that were all-knowing.


This perspective is really a function of a very static view of the world, where we do not recognize the potential of evolution and emergence. More recently complexity theory has introduced this idea of emergence into this equation, that these complex systems may be the product of simple rules that are iterated upon, with the interaction between the parts leading to the emergence of complex behavior over time.


There are many examples, take as one the synchronization of firefly light flashes. Swarms of fireflies who may start out flashing their light in a random fashion with respect to each other come, through their interaction, to coordinate their behavior into an emergent pattern of the whole swarm flashing in synchrony. Ant colonies are another often-cited example of self-organization through simple rules. Without a centralized coordinator the colony as a whole exhibits quite sophisticated differentiation and specialization of its functional organs that then work together to maintain the whole system.


The rules under which the agents act is very basic, individual ants interact and communicate through exchanging chemical scents that induce other ants to do more or less of a given activity in this way feedback works to create emergent patterns. Through feedback loops some local pattern or behavior can become amplified to create an attractor state that will draw local elements into a particular synchronized configuration, thus arising some pattern of organization without the need for any form of a top-down control system.


We actually see this in all kinds of complex systems. To build a sustainable complex system you can not specify a very complicated set of rules for its construction in some master plan, what you do instead is understand the simple rules that the agents operate under and try to use that as the engine behind the construction project.


We might think about the vast complex adaptive system of our global economy, an organization that is capable of producing things like laptop computers and sports cars that no individual could produce in isolation. They take the coordination of thousands or possibly millions of people in order to complete the full production and distribution process, but no one is in control of this whole operation. No one makes these people coordinate their activities. They have done so according to their own local rules and incentives. No one entity could coordinate such a vastly complex system, instead, it is all about harnessing the distributed capacity within the system.


This is one reason why our political systems are stalling today at the same time that economic organizations like enterprises have been able to operate more successfully in this globalized world. The solution to governance that we have is one that tries to specify a very large and complicated rule set for how agents should act in the system. Don’t park your car here, pay your taxes by this date, don’t throw rubbish in the river, etc. and then, of course, we need a huge apparatus to regulate all this from surveillance to courts to penitentiaries.


So you might ask, what alternatives to these large rule books and extensive bureaucracies are there other than lawless chaos? Well, the idea of simple rules creating an emergent overall organization that applies when it comes to ant colonies also applies to socio-economic systems of organization. We just have to stop and look to see what are the simple rules that people operate under.


I would say there is one thing clear about why people do what they do, it is value, people do what they value and don’t do what they don’t value. Not only this but we also have to consider that people find themselves within given structures in this world and they work within those constraints to try and realize their desires, ambitions, hopes, wishes, and aspirations. To achieve the things we value, whether this is just going to the shop to get something to eat because of hunger to traveling the world, or having children, we do all those things because we value them and don’t do them if we don’t value them and in making our decisions about what to do we take into account not just what we wish for but also the cost of trying to achieve those things.


Although this is clearly abstract because we are talking about all the different dimensions and motivations and value systems that we have and all the different kinds of constraints and cost that the world has us pay to realize those it is still at its essence a simple rule set.


Of course this is no new insight and what is more it is actually how our elaborate rule-based system works, rules like; drop litter and you will pay a fine of 100 euros is working on this very premise that people will see that it is not worth the potential fine of 100 euros to drop litter and will thus not do it. Likewise, economics and marketing is based upon this same premise, reduce the cost and people will by more. The difference is that one is based upon negative incentives – government rules – and the other positive incentives. The government may fine you but the business will not they only promise to give you something if you do something in return.


So if we already knew all this stuff, why should we care, what has changed? What has changed is that we have moved from a natural environment where we were relatively disconnected with physical constraints governing our lives to an engineered environment – eg urbanization – where we are connected and surrounded by information. This is really a new context where we can create systems of organization and governance by, not as we did in the past controlling for isolated components through negative incentives but now – because we are all increasingly embedded within information networks – instead build governance into the protocols of exchange.


This new world of big data, advanced algorithms, Internet of Things and secure distributed networks can be a world where we perpetuate and extend the control systems of the past but it can also be the means for a new form of distributed governance. A form of governance where we start to understand everything in terms of value. With pervasive data we can start to track and account for these different forms of value, the exchanges we make with each other and with our environment. Dropping litter is a kind of environmental degradation with a loss of natural capital, bullying is a kind of exchange of social capital. The more damaging something is the more it costs.


Connectivity will change everything including governance. The exchange of tokens of value along information networks will become the new form of governance in an age of pervasive data sources and networked organizations. This connectivity – I would say – is the biggest thing happening in our world today, with urbanization, the expansion of global supply chains and markets, the build-out of infrastructure around the world, telecommunications, expansion of the Internet and Internet of Things, we have/are going from a disconnected world to a connected world, that is a paradigm shift that will rewrite the rules for how we do everything from governance, to security, to transport and education. It means that organizations of different kind become defined by the dynamic exchange of value instead of control within fixed boundaries.


I think there are many aspects of developing a system of governance relevant for the Anthropocene and an age of complexity, but starting to understand it in terms of value is a key component. Coupled with this is the need to recognize that we now live in an information-rich networked environment and trying to impose complicated rule sets on to this is redundant – it needs to be built into the information networks that now intermediate so much of human organization and activity.


This means stop trying to control the existing private platforms but invest public energy and resources into building new information commons, new open source platforms that work better than the existing private ones but have public values built into them, and this is exactly what the next generation Web enables. We need to move away from an outdated discussion surrounding the governance of private platforms based upon hugely complicated legacy legal systems, start to shift our focus and look at what is already emerging as we move farther into the world of networks – that governance doesn’t have to be externally imposed but can instead emerge out of the protocols for the exchange of value along those connections. Where cooperative behavior is being rewarded for and uncooperative behavior subtracted for with tokens keeping track of this.


In short, to deal with the complexity of a globalized world we need to shift the focus to simple rules and protocols of value exchange that give rise to the emergence of organization rather than complicated fixed rules imposed.

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