Complexity is in the Eye of the Beholder

macro photo of five orange ants
Photo by Poranimm Athithawatthee on

Trying to explain complexity theory is, well, complicated. It’s complicated because it is both a way of representing a world out there while at the same time constructing a world out there. What I mean is that there are complex systems in the world such as economies, the human body, and ant colonies, and these systems are relatively easy to see. They are made up of multiple interacting elements or agents, and they develop through local interactions that produce systemic patterns or emergent properties. At times, however, we can and do think of these systems as individual objects. I am immediately reminded of the glass sand-filled display cases with elaborate ant colony patterns garnering the awe and admiration of the young boys in whose rooms they inhabit. (Stereotypes dictate that the subject is a boy.) (And, yes. My own eyes  are rolling too.)

Well, complexity is a way of describing such systems, but it’s also a way of seeing that can be applied to any object. As observers, we tend to look around and try to categorize and differentiate objects in the world, and so it’s rather normal to look at things and say: “This is complex and that is not.” For example, would we characterize a whiteboard marker as a complex system in the same way we would characterize an ant colony? Not usually, as it’s not as easy to see complexity in such a seemingly benign and inanimate object. While most would say no, I would argue that complexity is a way of looking and is not inherent in an object or phenomena. So, yes, a whiteboard marker can be characterized as a complex system as well.

notes clean whiteboard board
Photo by Startup Stock Photos on

The question then is not whether something is complex or not. The question is whether we apply a complexity lens or not. A simple whiteboard marker may appear to be an uncomplicated object. It’s a simple writing implement, from one point of view. From a complexity point of view, it is a set of atoms and molecules held together by technology designed by engineering intellectuals who are typically far removed both physically and socially from the manual labour required to extract the natural resources necessary to build this product and compile the requisite ingredients into said object. To the complexity-attuned observer, the marker simultaneously, through the presence of symbolic elements or ‘agents,’ conjures the emergent historical properties of civilization that sprang from the development of language and communication, laws and revolutions, and a variety of positive and not-so-positive human endeavors. We could look at how, traditionally, the ones who use the writing implement generally have more power than the ones constructing the implement. I could go on and on. Just as we can reduce the complexity of an ant colony to single display case, so too can we amplify the complexity of the simple inanimate whiteboard marker. Complexity is in the eye of the beholder.

Interdisciplinary Studies is the study of complexity. It is the process of developing and applying a complexity lens. Teaching interdisciplinarity is thus not about merely combining disciplines. That is a reductionist and ultimately impoverished conceptualization of this field. Teaching interdisciplinarity must be about cultivating the capacity to see complexity, understand complexity, and ultimately, impact complexity in ways that improve and empower our living realities.

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