self organizing?complex adaptive system?chaos theory?

Jay Vogt JayWV at
Sun Feb 28 20:36:27 PST 1999

In a message dated 2/28/99 6:19:51 PM, birgitt at wrote:

<<It seems to me that when we speak of a self organizing system in relation to

OS, that there is incongruity here. By the very fact that we have "opened

the space", we have introduced something that "bounds" the self organizing

system within a confine of some basics (basic laws so to speak). So, I would

think that this is no longer  a self organizing system but a group of people

that self organize within a set framework, albeit a minimal framework. >>

I welcome this query, Birgitt, and it is a difficult one.  I will let others
answer other parts of your note.  I resolve the incongruity you mention above
by seeing the basic laws of open space (the one law and the four principles)
as essential to self-organization, not antithetical to it.

Forgive me if I quote the poet David Whyte, in The Heart Aroused, at some

"The new science of complexity, ironically, looks this question of simplicity
directly in the eye.  Why should it be that simple elements following simple
rules will often engage in the most outrageous, hard-to-predict patterns?  And
how is it that simple elements will, as if guided by an unseen hand,
spontaneously arrange themselves into astonishingly complex structures like
mountain range, rain forests, planets, supernovas, or detailed three hundred
page reports?"

He goes on to link this question to human organizations, and passions.

"The basic elemental building blocks of human aspiration are the elements of
individual imagination, those particular images to which a person's inner
longings and desires naturally turn to express themselves.  Previously, we
have left this life of the imagination to poets and artists.  What would it be
like to grow organizations whose complexity arises from the cross-pollinating
visions and imaginations of their constituent members?"

He goes on to say:

"All the evidence from the science of complexity says that given certain clear
parameters [my emphasis], 
communities or teams will become self-organizing.
They will be attracted to certain flowing states of organization natural to
the people who make them up.  In chaos theory, these flowing states are
poetically called strange attractors."

I maintain that what people experience as we open space begins with the
momentary disorientation of apparent chaos as we give up control, and evolves
into a growing exhileration with emerging patterns as we discover order.  The
"unseen hand, spontaneously arranging" this order is the phenomenon chaos
theory calls the strange attractor.

Whyte adds, as an example, "A strong vision and purpose acts as a kind of
strange attractor, allowing individual creativity while acting as a natural
constraint to behavior that is detrimental to the team."  We facilitate the
emergence of these beautiful and powerful patterns.  If they are already quite
present, open space allows them to be more so.  If they are buried, open space
allows them to emerge.  That is why we love open space and why people are so
drawn to it.

But how do we actually make it happen?  According to the earlier quotation, we
must have "certain clear parameters."  These clear parameters, or simple
rules, are essential to the process of self-organization.  I am referring of
course to the one law and the four principles.

Whyte quotes Physicist Steven Wolfram:
"Whenever you looked at very complicated systems in physics or biology
generally find that the basic components and the basic laws are quite simple;
the complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components
interacting simultaneously."

So the one law and four principles are Wolfram's "basic laws," which Harrison
has, in his intuitive wisdom, discovered.  The "complexity" which arises is
the interplay of so many human hearts and minds "interacting simultaneously."
The emerging patterns we welcome are those of the community's seen or unseen
"strange attractors".

One final example.  Whyte writes about the poet Samuel Coleridge, and his
fascination with the fluid flocking behavior of starlings.  He cites a
successful attempt by science to simulate this complex behavior.  Once again
in the example we see these central forces - simple rules, complex individual
behavior, and the emergence of patterns as strange attractors come in play.

"A startingly clear simulation of this phenomenon was put together by a
computer scientist, Craig Reynolds, in 1987.  Humorously termed, 'boids,'
Reynold's program attempted to understand, like Coleridge, the flocking
abilities of wild birds.  The fascinating thing about Reynold's program is
that not once did he include the overarching command, 'Stay together at all

Reynold's program depicted a large collection of individual birds, or boids,
attempting to fly around a screen full of walls and obstacles.  Each boid
followed three simple rules of behavior;  M. Mitchell Waldrop, in his book
Complexity, summarizes the three simple behaviors that each boid was
programmed to follow.

1. It tried to maintain a minimum distance from other objects in the
environment, including other boids.
2. It tried to match velocities with boids in its neighborhood.
3. It tried to move toward the perceived center of mass of boids in its

Waldrop goes on to say:

'What was striking about these rules was that none of them said form a flock.
Quite the opposite: the rules were entirely local, referring only to what an
individual boid could see and do in its own vicinity.  If a flock was going to
form at all, it was going to have to do so from the bottom up, as an emergent
phenomenon.  And yet flocks did form, every time.   Reynolds could start his
simulation with boids scattered around his computer screen completely at
random, and they would spontaneously collect themselves into a flock that
could fly around obstacles in a very fluid and natural manner.  Sometimes the
flock would even break into subflocks that flowed around both sides of an
obstacle, rejoining it on the other sides as if the boids had planned it all
along.  In one of the runs, in fact, a boid accidentally hit a pole, fluttered
around for a moment as though stunned and lost, then darted forward to rejoin
the flock as it moved on.'

What then, in this example, and in open space, makes it all "flow"?
• Simple rules (3), just as we have one law and four principles
• Random, local action of individuals (boids), just as we have participants
acting in random, individualistic ways, while governed by "certain clear
• The emergent pattern of "flocks," a strange attractor at work, just as we
surface the emergent patterns of the communities we work with.

Our few "basic laws" are what allow self-organization to flourish!

Best, Jay

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