Showing posts with label Complexity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Complexity. Show all posts

Friday, February 8, 2013

The World’s Complexity

We think that the visible universe is complex: big bang, black holes, dark matter, great walls, the great attractor (link). But the same appears when we look anywhere. A recent acquaintance and I were having a conversation a few days ago; I’ll call him DF. We were both waiting for our wives to emerge from swimnastics exercise. I asked him what he’d been doing before retirement. Printing, he said. Ah yes. A link. Printing had been part of my early life as well, including part-ownership for a while of a tiny printing enterprise. We got to talking. DF sighed at one point. He recalled the greatest investment he’d ever made in his life—in a $5 million printing press, the sort of thing you use for printing magazines. He explained the sigh as well. What with such investments requiring recovery—and the vast rolls of paper one had to buy for every job—so little tricked out between these two massive pressures that one lived, always, on the edge. Ours was the briefest of exchanges, but later I looked into this.

The press DF had talked about turned out to be a Hantscho Mark 16—the kind of machine that’s half of a football field long, prints 32-page sheets in eight colors at the rate of about 11 impressions per second, with dedicated computers monitoring each color in real time and adjusting them by automatic tweets. The Hantscho was present in my early days already—but the big name then was the Heidelberg. The ant-sized press we used was a Multilith—monitored by a single human brain and adjusted using hands. But I remembered visiting the big presses and being in proper awe.

I got to wondering if the Hantscho still existed. In a way yes, in a way no. Back in the days when DF bought the Mark 16, it had already lost its independence to a giant called Rockwell International, a company remembered, if at all, as an aerospace giant. It had acquired, along the way, a major printing giant called Miehle-Goss-Dexter. Hantscho was either part of that combination already, the Goss part, or was acquired at around the same time. Eventually—in what seems to have been the “reorganization” caused by the end of the Cold War, Rockwell fell apart into pieces. One of the spun-off parts was Goss Graphic Systems Inc., in which Hantscho once more surfaces as a product. But Goss, having spruced up its name to Goss International, was eventually (in 2010) acquired by a Chinese Giant, Shanghai Electric. That company was then, and probably still is, assembling an overwhelming presence in mass printing machinery—in answer to a vast expansion of newspaper and magazine printing that marks China’s rise to a global capitalist power.

Little did I imagine that DF’s supplier—whose press left such a deep impression—would eventually lead me all the way to China, to Shanghai, the worlds largest city proper (for an explanation go here). But it shouldn’t have surprised me. My second corporate employer, J.F. Pritchard, an engineering company, followed a similar track and has long since been absorbed by a giant engineering corporation in South Korea.

Those invisible lines of ownership. Network upon network upon network—all marked by ownership. The close-to-the-highest layers above us is mostly empty airspace. But recently a Russian airplane violated “ownership” of Japan’s airspace, thus embroiling Japan not just with China to the west and south but with Russia to the north. Somewhere within Shanghai Electric is a person, no doubt male, who owns more of that company than any other person and therefore has the greatest claim to “owning” what had once been Hantscho. As a single person, what power does that gentleman have to enforce his rights of ownership in far away America?—a land ever more covered by clouds of irrelevance to the dawning future.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


Complexity is an interesting concept because it can be, and is, understood both in a positive and in a negative way—and sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph. And when people give it a negative flavoring, they are actually referring to the exact opposite of that which the positive connotation means. To illustrate…

People will, for instance, berate the tax code because of its complexity. What they mean is that the code is virtually impossible to comprehend rationally based on the principles on which it is supposedly built. The code, in other words, is opaque to the rational vision. But to use a description like “complex” to signal this opacity misleads. The difficulty we experience in seeing the whole may be due to complexity—or it may be due to other features of the target. In all such cases a great deal of work is required even to obtain the information we need to make a judgment.

When I use the word I almost invariable use it with a positive connotation. What I mean is that I’m in the presence of a “higher order.” A simple series (1, 2, 3) is already an order—but not yet complex. Complexity appears when simple but rationally discernible structures are meaningfully combined so that they are mutually related and supported for some purpose. That purpose may be discernibly intended; such is the case in human artifacts. The purpose may also be perceptible, but only in a philosophical manner, thus as in Aristotle’s fourth, the final, cause of things, that for which the thing exists.

In the positive sense of the word, higher order, it is the harmonious, indeed one might say the necessary, relationships and interaction of the parts that create the sensation of order and the implication of some purpose and—using a word like purpose—of intentionality. And this intentionality is, you might say, focused, concentrated. It’s not distracted, flighty, or frivolous—it is pointed. That is the reason why the complexity, the higher order, is discernible at all. I note here that the word is almost never used to refer to a big, hopeless mess. After a tornado has wreaked its havoc on a township or a tsunami on a coastline, people don’t refer to the results as complex. Chaos is the more usual phrase.

Behind the negative connotation of complexity—the expression of frustration that the word implies when people complain of complexity—lies a disordered intentionality, the conflict between two or more competing intentions, compromises that distort a rational tendency in the whole and render it opaque to view.

This, surely, is the case with the tax code. It overweening purpose is to obtain money from the governed—and it does that job just fine. Complexity arises, in the negative sense, because other intentions are present in it as well—but are poorly implemented. One of these is the intention of justice: to obtain the money fairly so that burdens fall on everyone in equal measure based on capacity or some other rule. And that intention, while it is arguably possible to apply harmoniously, competes with yet other intentions. Among these is that of powerful interests to escape the burden and of others to use the tax code for purposes of negative or positive stimulus (to cause people to quit smoking, to cause others to invest or to employ). And I’ve not even begun to list all of the competing intentions that the tax code manifests, not least mixed modes in which stimulus represents payoffs and punitive taxes are beneficial to others. And so it goes. And in these cases—where intentionality is all too present in the structure—the same internationalities are not harmoniously balanced at all. They depend on the balance of power at any one point in time; they reflect a vast layering of past balances of might left in place but partially weakened or strengthened, and so on. Complexity is present but it has become deformed. Such is the deposit of centuries of civilization. Reforming it, alas, invariably requires a new start.

The word also lives in an environment where the very concept of intentionality is in question—not in the courts of law but certainly in the courts of science and philosophy. For this reason a phenomenon like life, the very apex of genuine complexity visible to us, is difficult to understand. How can such a complex something come into being without any intentionality at all—purely by accident…