Fourth Moment of Complexity

When we left off at our previous moment of complexity, the author finally stopped dropping big names on campus (e.g. Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Kant) and got around to defining complex adaptive systems.

evolving complexity

My suspicions were aroused when the author launches into a ten-page review of Gödel, Escher, Bach. (A leftover from another project? A paper from a grad student?) Using the word "ant" as a transition, we're suddenly reading John Holland's observation that the economy, our central nervous systems, ecologies, immune systmes, the development of multicellular organisms, and the processes of evolutionary genetics are all adaptive nonlinear networks at heart. Murray Gell-Mann throws in culture and computer programs.

The instability of complex systems makes you consider them over time. Stuart Kauffman critiques Darwin, noting that organisms resemble Rube Goldberg machines. Kauffman's hot; without self-organization, he notes, evolution would not be possible. If you thought Holland covered a lot of territory, be aware that Kauffman's vision covers not only science but also society, politics, metaphysics, and religion. Kauffman is convinced that the emergence of order is spontaneous but not accidental. We're inevitably headed for a single, global culture wherein people, tech, economics, and knowledge all blend together all over the planet.

screening information

What does it mean if the electricity in our heads conforms to the rules of complex adaptive systems? The author doesn't ask that directly. Instead, he writes several pages worthy of Castaneda's brujo after a double-dose of peyote:

I, Mark C. Taylor, am not writing this book. Yet the book is being written. It is as if I were the screen through which the words of others flow and on which they are displayed. Words, thoughts, ideas are never precisely my own; they are always borrowed rather than possessed. I am, as it were, their vehicle. Though seeming to use language, symbols, and images, they use me to promote their circulation and extend their lives. The flux of information rushing through my mind as well as my body (I am not sure where one ends and the other begins) existed before me and will continue on flowing long after I am gone. "My" thougths--indeed "my" self--appears to be a transient eddy in a river whose banks are difficult to discern.

Wow. That's one hell of a paragraph. I read it three times. Web without a weaver. Nothing new under the sun. Reproducing, not producing. Nobody will re-engineer this one. Unless they look at it as denial of responsibility. Or taking on a new religion which submerges the individual. Or Mark smoking something.

As boundaries become permeable, it is impossible to know when or where this book began or when and where it will end. Since origins as well as conclusions forever recede, beginnings are inevitably arbitrary and endings repeatedly deferred. One of the few things that is clear even if not obvious is that all writing is ghostwriting. This work, like all others, is haunted by countless specters. The silent noise of ghosts clamoring for attention transforms me into a "colony of writers."

Gotta love this one:

Writing, it seems, is the obsession of the possessed. For the possessed, writing is a search for je ne sais quoi.

Oh, God. Kill me before I write again!

All of this takes time; thinking has rhythms of its own--it must simmer and cannot be rushed. It is impossible to know just how much time is required for thought to gel because I am not in control of this process--nor is anyone else. Thought thinks through me in ways I can never fathom. Much--perhaps most--of what is important in the dynamics of thinking eludes consciousness.

The title of Kevin Kelly's great bio book springs to mind: Out of Control.

Gell-Mann writes of cultural DNA, "borrowing a term from Hazel Henderson." Plate-o-shrimp. I'd never heard of Hazel Henderson until June of last year. She said that the economists who control the political side nationally pay attention to only four factors — unemployment, deficits, inflation, and interest rates. But the world is more complex than that. The economists are linear and therefore can’t grok complex systems. A “Post-Cartesian Scientific Worldview” sees interconnectedness, redistribution (recycling), heterarchy (webs), complimentarity (both/and), etc. Bingo! Later in the day I thanked Hazel for cluing me in to why I'd always thought economics was a crock.

Daniel Dennett takes memes seriously. He figures they can reprogram with operating system of the brain. Memes and genes are in a coevolutionary, coadaptive relationship. Ray Kurtzweil goes further: our human software will replace our bodily hardware.

the currency of education

Uh-oh. In this chapter, the author hops on the dot-com era eLearning bandwagon. He says "education is a commodity that is distributable through telematic technologies." He repeats lines from Merrill Lynch's gushy The Book of Knowledge.

No one has been quicker to realize what the new economy means for education than Michael Milken.

The founder of Knowledge Universe was telling academic institutions "We are going to eat your lunch." (A couple of years after this, Milken had bailed, closing the doors of almost all of his educational acquisitions except Leap Frog, which has become such a big winner it has more than covered Milken's losses in the rest of his Universe.)

Bankrolled by investment banker Herbert Allen, the author founds Global Educaiton Network. His faculty critics just aren't seeing the big picture. "The most important legacy we can leave the next generation is the hope that creative change is still possible."


This final chapter has next to nothing to do with what comes before. It's as if Mark needed another forty pages to fulfilll his book contract, so he excised parts of his business plan for GEN and his diary from that time, and just slapped them onto the end of the manuscript.

Now the "book without an author" theme which I found capivating the first time through seems an apologia, a rationalization for starting a book but not finishing it.

Mark C. Taylor's webiste at WIlliams

The website of the Global Education Network has a screenshot, an 800 number, and the words "Our website is undergoing maintenance.
We apologize for the inconvenience."

Posted by Jay Cross at January 25, 2004 12:31 AM | TrackBack

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