Living in Complexity
by Josh Bacigalupi • September 26, 2016
My last blog explored the ubiquitous aspects of Ambiguity based on the claim that we appreciate art, design and other productive acts, because they reflect and are relevant to our experience of the world. And, since the world itself is ambiguous, our perception and interpretation of that world must tolerate and even embrace similar levels of ambiguity. This blog explores the practical consequence of embracing the world’s Ambiguity in your creative practice, whether artistic, design, engineering or scientific – that consequence being Complexity.
Complexity, what is it and why does it matter?
There is a core tension in all systems, both physical and living: the tension between the perceived part and its whole, the specific vs. the general, the local vs. the distributed. This paradox is expressed differently in different disciplines. Some social examples, demonstrated in our West Gallery, involve the prisoner’s dilemma. Other ecological and economic sciences talk about the tragedy of the commons and the tangled balance between economies of scale and scope. In physics, there is the famous mystery between the particle and wave nature of photons; in thermodynamics, boundaries blur between closed and open systems. In legal spheres, it is the social drama between rights of the individual and those of the collective.
Because of these Ambiguities, life can be complicated. But, can this state of affairs be more than just a vexing complication on the path between where we find ourselves and where we wish to go? Can Complexity be a tool in our creative endeavors?
To answer this we must first define what we mean by Complexity in this context.
Frank Oppenheimer wrote an article called ‘Aesthetics and the Right Answer’ in 1979 that addresses the kind of Complexity I’m referring to and why it matters in our creative practice. He wrote:
“… artists and physicists do more than discern and record patterns. They use perceived patterns to create additional patterns that are not directly derived from sensory perception. … Eyes and ears enable us to absorb and store the patterns of shape and time that are embodied in our experience. A higher level of perception becomes aware of patterns among these stored patterns. We develop patterns of patterns (called theories in physics, or compositions in painting or music) by selecting from the multitude of stored experiential patterns those which somehow, and often surprisingly, appropriately fit together. It is such patterns of patterns that reveal new insights. It is on this higher level at which we create symphonies from melodies, paintings from sketches, and broad physical theories from empirical summaries or ‘laws.’” [emphasis mine]
And, as concisely as it may ever be summarized, the emphasized phrases above are what I intend by Complexity. Similar to theories of learning, the capacity to perceive more Complex patterns in the world is built upon a scaffolding of conceivable simpler tasks that can then be inter-related to synthesize a more sophisticated understanding of the world. In this way, “patterns of patterns” accrue so that a more Complex conception of the perceiver’s world can be conceived to then provide a scaffold for still more Complex interpretations – wash, rinse, ratchet.
Notes played together become chords, chords co-occur to become measures, measures become movements. Different instruments with unique voices are played simultaneously, each creating notes in time intended to resonate and juxtapose with notes from other instruments. Layers upon layers of distinct phenomena inter-relate to beguiling effect.
A tapestry of dynamic trajectories offers a glimpse ever deeper into the complex fabric of the physical terrain.
Jackson Pollock’s drizzle paintings are a great example of Complexity, my favorite: ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)’
But, before many patterns can be integrated into patterns of patterns, we must engage Ambiguity on the path towards greater understanding. The discernibility of patterns of patterns comes in and out of focus, cohering and then de-cohering only to re-cohere. Our practice is an ever oscillating effort to engage ever more Ambiguity, setting the stage for understanding wider and deeper Complexities.
Exploratorium developers understand this careful balance between legibility, discoverability, conclusions and open-ended outcomes. The ideal exhibit will have multiple points of engagement, whereby the visitor, at any level of development, can find a way to discover what that exhibit has to offer at their level of perceptible Complexity. The visitor, by interacting with a single exhibit, may discover new aspects of their world, and then, by inter-relating these discoveries creatively, the visitor is in a position to discover even more Complex patterns of patterns. Each level of discovery evokes powerful emotions of joy and excitement – while sometimes feeling confused and even frustrated – as the visitor finds new ways to interpret their world. The visitor’s accessible world is expanded as new pathways to perceive, understand and ultimately navigate that world emerge. Meaning is made. The visitor is empowered by their own creative act, which was afforded by the developer’s own journey into Ambiguity and Complexity.
“These Patterns of patterns – the compositions, theories, and works that are assembled by artists and physicists – constitute their most important endeavors. They create an ever-broader framework and mapping of reality; they reassure by creating order out of confusion, separating relevancies from trivialities; they provide a framework for memory, enabling one to reconstruct the experiential patterns without requiring that the infinity of them be stored in memory. By enabling people to share experiences they can also, conceivably, make complex societies livable.” [emphasis mine]
The agency to create more “livable” patterns of patterns requires a certain acclimation and comfort with both Ambiguity and Complexity. Perhaps, it is our species' predilection for artistic endeavors that provide a necessary scaffold for future Complexity; and, once acclimated, the agent is primed, providing the citizen the affordance and permission to observe, explore, reflect, experiment, be wrong, synthesize, communicate and ultimately re-create their world.
The ability to engage Complexity isn't just one possible tool to achieve one's ends, it is a necessary tool.
We hope to expand and validate our joint impact by offering people affordances to notice and perceive the complicated, ambiguous and indeterminate world, ideally creating the opportunity for the human imagination to render that world relevant to each other.
“The works of artists [scientists, designers, engineers and developers] are valid because they lead, as do physical theories, to the revelation of things that are happening, but which have not previously been perceived.”
The capacity to affect one’s world is predicated on the capacity to perceive that world in its Ambiguity and Complexity. And, as the world invariable changes, both with and without our intent, the project of both perceiving and conceiving of that world will never be complete. Never the less, if the creative process is willing to engage Complexities – patterns of patterns around us and among us – as they arise, that creative practice stands a chance of being “valid.”
Complexity, looking forward
There is an over-arching intent to all my blog posts, namely, Vitality. I have and will continue to struggle with the question: how is it that any creative practice, organization, species or ecosystem remain vital? This, to me, is the question that frames all other questions, and my core motivation as a designer.
In a continued attempt to rigorously assess our contribution to both the Exploratorium and people at large, three concepts – Ambiguity, Complexity and Work – shall be described via three blog posts, this being the second. These three concepts will then be inter-related in a fourth blog post on Vitality. This composite concept of Vitality will then be the benchmark by which my subsequent blog posts will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of our process, partnerships and projects.