Friday, November 27, 2009
Systems are in constant state of flux, they change all of the time, over time, and even when they don't or can't, the environment around them changes in response to their behavior or simple presence.
Systems evolve. The super-systems in which they live, evolve. It's what happens, it is the only thing that can happen. Stuff constantly adjusts its behavior in response to the stuff around it. And things can not help but mess with the things near them. Change is inevitable. But more than that, change has pattern that can be teased out, measured and described.
These patterns are generalizable and can be found in all systems regardless of domain. All systems evolve. All evolution is similar. What Darwin described in biology, once generalized, can just as accurately describe the interaction of gases or the layered persistent structure of ocean currents, or the way I came to these thoughts and decided to write them down.
An interesting aspect of systems is the way they are made up of layers of subsystems each bound by unique structural and behavioral rules, and all of this can exist simultaneously across many dimensions. These 'layered grammars' are perhaps easiest to see in language, where symbols are assembled in ever more complex aggregates (phonemes, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, themes, sections, volumes, collections, etc.), each governed by its own rules of construction. Of course an utterance can be parsed by the layered rules of symbolic grammar (as above) or any other set of layered grammars… take for instance it's semantics or meaning.
But what interests me today is the life span of a system. Though it is problematic to do so, it is often useful to define, at least loosely, the beginning, middle, and end of a system's life span, the arch of its development through time. Individual humans have life spans of course, and from a more distant vantage, so too does a culture, and though the arch of of these classifications hasn't run its course, the human species. From ever wider vantages, one can talk of the stacked life span of hominids, great apes, primates, mammals, chordates, multi-celled animals, eukaryotes, and biota itself.
What interests me here are the patterns can be teased from any life span? More to the point, the patterns that are universal across all life spans. What, for example, is there that can be accurately, and predictively said, of the difference between the first half and the second half of any life span? What is it about the beginning of an individual human's life that is similar to the beginning of the life span of the human species or the beginning of the life span of life itself?
A reasonably robust set of these life span meta-patterns might work well as a way to better define the boundaries that give meaning to the most general concept; "system" ("category", or "thing").
But what I find most valuable about this strategy, is the possibility of predicting the relative age of a system without ever having witnessed the full arch of a life span, as example. Is the system of focus in its infancy, is it a teenager, or is it middle aged, old, or nearly dead? Are there reliable parameters that can be mapped over a system to help us determine such things? I am convinced there are. My confidence in this guess stems from the dramatic symmetries that have been exposed over the past century and a half in the fields of information theory, thermodynamics, classical physics, and quantum dynamics, linguistics, and logic. What this work has exposed is equivalence transforms that show causal connections between energy, mass, time and distance, and importantly, information. This overarching symmetry hints at symmetries in systems themselves and in stacks of systems, and the way systems change through time.
It is this knowledge these profound symmetries, uniting such apparently separate systems, that best describes the most important contributions of the last century of scientific exploration. Wielding this knowledge, we can use the same language and logical tools to examine any system, be it physical, behavioral, or descriptive, or cognitive.
The slippery and ghostly similarities we have noticed across domains, the ones we previously chocked up to metaphor, have been shown in fact to be causal and real (and we have the math to prove it!).
It is frustrating, that the topics I am most interested in, require the assembly of so much preliminary conceptual scaffolding. All these words, and I haven't even gotten to my main point. Here goes.
I talk often of what I call "productivity paradigms". They are ethereal and mercurial economic entities defined by some factor that gives rise to previously unachievable levels of the value of an average hour of labor.
As systems, productivity paradigms should avail themselves to the kinds of 'life span' parsing we would apply to any system. So, we can ask things like: can we determine the relative age of a given productivity paradigm?
And, is it possible to can we know this from the rising or falling rate of growth resulting from that paradigm?
Are these questions, addressed as I have, to a subset of systems, or are all systems productivity paradigms, making my questions universally applicable? Is there such a thing as a non-productivity paradigm? Can a system ever become a system if it doesn't follow some sort of life-span arch? Is productivity, as I suspect it is, a perquisite for the existence and persistence of a system?
Lets assume it is. Now what? How can we extend this assumption in order to acquire something salient to say about a system?