at the Saur Library
"Systemics as a general integrated language of concepts and models"
Charles Francois, Heiner Benking
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin – Berliner Bibliothekswissenschaftliches Kolloquiums,
25. Mai 2004
The need for an integrated systemic-cybernetic language for concepts and models in complex and vague subject areas:
“fields” such as humanities, cultural-, anthropological- and environmental- studies, education,… and last not least: governance
Berlin, May 25th-28th, 2004
The use of simple monocausal deterministic models during the last three centuries in the western world has been a very efficient tool for the construction of the highly developed and sophisticated technical world we are now living in. When Descartes proposed to begin to acquire knowledge by starting from the study of the most simple processes, he settled the bases for the understanding of many natural phenomena that were completely out of the reach (and also the range of interests) of medieval scholastic philosophers.
The so-called ...et ceteris paribus principle was a determinant device that could be used to create what possibly but strangely could be qualified as „purified facts“. It implied however a hidden methodological postulate about the acceptability of the unilateral simplifications thus proposed. It permitted anyhow to circumscribe and clearly state the most elemental linear chains of cause-effect in the study of what seemed to be specific (or at least specified) elemental processes.
This is how and why specialized disciplines could be organized: a situation that is now reflected in the artificial world we have constructed around us, and of course in our decimal classification of topics...
It is also how theoretical models in the form of laws and mathematical formulations could progressively generate techniques and practical applications.
Aided by the massive use of disponible raw materials and energy (mainly fossil), we thus constructed this colossal technical shell in which we now live most of our life. It is now so easy to obtain light and power only by pulsing a switch or even to change a punctured tyre of our car. However, to manage an entreprise or to govern the European Union is a quite more complex endeavour.
In fact, to understand simple and basic process, we must first isolate them from these supposedly random and unsettling perturbations generated by the environmental conditions: Electricity, for example, must be conducted within isolated wires.
It is easy to see that, through the use of Cartesian reductive method, we necessarily cut nearly all the interconnections that exist between natural entities. For example, if we practice anatomy, we do it by dissecting a body whose physiological activity is, or must be, destroyed. A living dog, or rabbit cannot anymore be reconstructed from the severed pieces.
Thus, the ... et ceteris paribus principle leads to construct simplified, but also artificialized models of what we call „reality“. And, of course, much depends on the nature, quality, extension and aims of the simplifications thus
There is also a time dimension to be considered. Some processes last for few milli-seconds... while others last for geological or cosmical eons. The ways different rhythms are interrelated is still quite ill understood.
Long accumulative processes – generally unperceived or ignored – may lead to some threshold of radical unstability, sometimes with catastrophic results, or to the emergence or some quite different process.
We have in fact considerable blindspots in our perception of time dynamics. This is so because we are eternally enclosed in our instantaneous present, or at most very short term perception of the world around us.
A good metaphor for all these difficulties is our perception of a starry sky.To begin with, at any geographical location and at any moment, when we look at it, we always see much less than what could be seen in theory. Also, what we perceive is merely a fleeting glimpse of a reality whose elements are intrinsically disconnected in the time dimension. The light of some star travelled 20 years to reach us while the light of some galaxy was emitted 300 millions years ago. The unity of what we see is merely in our own perception.
This is obviously reflected in our representations: We arrange the stars in constellations, which have in fact practically no relation to the states and positions of the different celestial bodies in space and time. Moreover, representations are also culturally tainted. Chinese constellations for instance differ widely from western ones.
Still more: The starry sky metaphor is not as far fetched as it seems. Possibly, at this very moment, somebody is doing in Tokyo or Moscow something that will affect our life to-morrow, or next month... our grand children in 2075, ... and we will still remain unaware of it for days, or months, or years to come. Possibly, at this very moment our sun could be exploding as a nova. In such case we have now only somewhat more than 8 minutes of life left... but we blissfully ignore it.
Accordingly, we urgently need new models to cope in space and time with many complex situations and issues. The mother of all catastrophes is really our deep lack of understanding of the network of multiple causes and effects simultaneously at work around us.
This can be clearly seen in all the crises that happen in human systems of the most varied types and in the trouble that beset individuals when they are obliged to cope personnally with the multiple unforeseen consequences.
While we remain mentally and psychologically dominated and oriented by the traditional simple deterministic lineal causal models, we always look for so-called "solutions". This is intended to be the timely punctual and supposedly definitive replacement of some unsatisfactory state of affairs by a new and satisfactory one.
In fact, this is merely a jump from one adaptation to another one, with the frequent but illusory belief that „now, the matter is settled“. Bela Banathy Sr., who was a leader in systemic thinking once said: “you cannot solve any problem: you only can manage it“. It should be added: „and you are able to manage it only if you understand its deeper nature and, behind the visible symptoms, its really significant structures and dynamics. And of course, there is always a price to pay.
In short, we need permanent adaptability, and not merely more or less ill connected jerks from one state of affairs to another one.
If the situations or issues are complex, our models must reflect it and thus also be complex. Moreover, if we use some model as a base for action, the situation „outside there“ (what we call „reality“) may react to our action in some way that we did not expected or don’t like. In this case we should not be kicking or stamping „reality“ like an angry child, but on the contrary consciously reconsider our model and try to make it more adequate.
Stafford Beer said as much in his famous 1973 lecture on „The surrogate world we manage“.
The relation between perception, modelling and action should be permanently cyclical. It should also be cybernetic, as any process should ideally be self-correcting in response to its own effects, as well as to the ever changing environmental conditions, including our own tinkering.
In fact, such a new kind of complex adaptive models started to appear during the 20th Century.
The first steps were possibly Poincare’s 1898 work on the possible instabilities in celestial mechanics (the 3-bodies problem) and, in 1932, Walter Cannon’s work on homeostasis (i.e. oscillating dynamic stability) in biological systems. Since 1950, this trend gathered more and more impulse.
It could possibly be considered as a kind of incipient immunological reaction of mankind to the growing dangers that are closing around us, mostly as results of our own actions. The creation of the European Union, after the senseless destructions and mass killings of the two World Wars is a more directly visible effect of the same process.
Of course, this new trend has been, and still is, a result of research and action by some clearsighted, but at the begining sometimes ridiculed individuals, which are supposed to be irrealistic dreamers. Generally the
importance of their work is not clearly understood by most economical, social and political managers, who consider themselves as „practical realists“. This is because it is very difficult to change one’s world view, in most cases based on uncritically accepted postulates and principles not anymore adapted to new issues.
Clearly, one of the most difficult task for anyone is to take distance from his or her own mental and psychological framework. As expressed by the french economist Jean Fourastie: „There is something worse than ignorance and it is ignorance of one’s own ignorance“.
I would like to stress that good intentions and wishful thinking are not enough to extract us from the messes we enmesh ourselves in.
I have recently read a quite well known book about the political, economic and social reforms we should need to reach more satisfactory governance of human systems.
I was however struck by the fact that the author seems to describe aims as if they were means. We should of course need to stamp out corruption,and to elect higher quality politicians. But I have some question marks and comments:
- How and why exactly does corruption always so easily creep into practically all political and social systems?
- What do we understand as „higher quality“?
- Which and where are the mental and practical tools to further our betterment proposals?
- Moreover aims as well as means cannot be clearly defined if we do not understand how the past and present messes were generated.
Let us again consider the example about corruption... but in factual terms
Some conditions for corruption are as follows:
- The existence of a highly necessary, or valued resource
- The practical possibility for some individual or group to have or take control of that resource. For ex. Oxygen in the air cannot be controlled and is practically free for all (at least until some clever fellow finds a way to patent its use). But in some places access to water can be restricted and the disponibility and price of oil generally is technically managed and controlled by cartels. An extreme and dramatic case is the drugs business mafias, whose
power is based on the pathological craving of the victims.
More generally even, the taking control of lawful rights by some group opens the way to corruption. Even lawful prohibitions can have the same effect, as in the case of alcohol prohibition in the United States during the 20‘s.
To have a fighting chance against corruption, it is mostly useless to appeal to ethics, because mafias negate them, or apply them only among their own insiders (let us call this the hommage of vice to virtue!).
What is needed is a good knowledge and understanding of the conditions that are favorable to corruption and the socio-economical mechanisms that make it possible. Then the problem becomes practical and can be defined in terms
of how it can be blocked through some specific social devices, as much as possible automatic ones. Ethical people can help mainly by making as much noise as possible about all kind of abuses.
Most human activities tend toward some goal which is positively valued by the activists themselves. However such positive aims can produce blindspots in their minds:
Fascination with some goal can easily suppress any perception of possible negative side effects of what is intended. This is precisely because the general perspective in space and time is ignored.
We thus obviously need to acquire such a wider and deeper view. Curiously enough, in some cases it even looks simply as a return to common sense.
Let me offer some samples of perspectivist mental tools in systemic terms:
Of course, as it also includes the multiple interrelations in space and time among the elements, We thus cannot understand wholes merely by a good knowledge of the parts. Water, for instance is more than simply hydrogen plus oxygen. As a complex whole it has emergent properties corresponding to specific interrelations at the physico-chemical level.
Any element incorporated in an organized whole loses some of its individual characteristics, or at least find them restricted. For example the hydrogen atom’s role and meaning is different in water and in chlorhydric acid.
Of course, most actions provoke consequences. But in some cases there is a return action of the effect upon the cause. However that so-called feedback can be specific in different cases.
If you kick a dog, it may bark, yelp, wimper, run away, but it can also bite you. So, the understanding and forecast of the possible alternative feedbacks are important.
(which does not imply any psychological valoration).
The positive feedback increases the ongoing process. This is the case for ex. in explosions, fires, bear or bull stock markets, destructions by mutinous or panicking crowds, etc. When such a process has exhausted its inputs or supplies, the trend is normally reversed, as in the case of an overbuyed or oversold market, for instance.
The most interesting possibility offered by feedbacks is when they can be combined to maintain a process within safe limits.
Mature systems tend to fluctuate or oscillate between an upper and a lower limit of activity. The mechanism which secures such behavior is precisely complementary positive and negative feedbacks.
While successive adaptations are static states, adaptability admits that no adaptation is fit forever. Accordingly we should continuously monitor and evaluate change and always be ready to introduce corrective behavior at any moment.
An entity is autonomous, which means able to manage its own behavior only if it possesses „variety“ (a concept introduced by Ashby). This means that it permanently needs a „store“ of different possible adaptive reactions to variations in its environment (and know how to use them). It also needs to have reserves of specific supplies, enabling it to take countervailing action when needed.
Any entity has an upper as well as a lower acceptable limit of activity in its basic processes or parameters. If such a threshold is crossed, the entity is in danger of immediate destruction, as for ex. in case of excessive blood pressure, insufficient cash flow, or energy cuts.
Only in some favorable cases can the entity be saved either by outside help, or by changed goals, or a wide transformation of its internal order. These are typical situations in medicine or in management, for instance:
The behavior of most entities is complex in the time dimension. There is a spanish dictum that says: „What does not happens in a century, happens in one moment“ (of course after the long term accumulation of some specific stress, as for example in the case of an earthquake).
Most processes are a complex superposition of short, medium and long term effects. A good example is again the stock market: The study of the interrelations between such different time spans scales is the basic idea of the so-called „Technical analysis of stock trends“ Anyhow extrapolations from short time trends are always risky. But uncertainty can more or less be reduced if long trends have been already established through accumulative processes, because the long trend “closes in” the shorter ones.
There are many more concepts and models, and their global collection and coherent organization is in fact the content of cybernetics and systemics as a methodology for understanding.
The sudden appearance of massive locusts swarms – already a biblically registered calamity, remained since the most remote antiquity a deep mystery.
It was however finally explained during the last century by two entomologists: the South African Uvarov and the Belgian Hans Bredo. It results of a succession of environmental conditions affecting the behavior of the originally non gregarious locusts.
As we will see, only a coherent observation, wide open and well extended in the time dimension could produce an explanation, of course by competent specialists, but open mind ones…
The successive stages of the process are as follows:
1. In some savannah or steppe region (for example in Zambia), solitary locusts, or very small gatherings of these insects can be permanently found.
2. When successive wet seasons produce very heavy rains, greenery much extends and the locusts multiply.
3. If later rain seasons are relatively dry, the yet solitary locusts start to concentrate in smaller spots which still remain green, for example, near swamps.
4. As the insects, just as many other animals, produce pheromones, they start to perceive each other more strongly.
5. As a result their behavior changes: They all crowd ever closer to each other and orient themselves in the same direction. They become gregarious, which means that a collective behavior superposes to individual ones.
6. At one moment a small group takes to flying.
7. Suddenly the movement propagates to the whole flock and the locust swarm is on its way.
8. Stopping from time to time to eat and to reproduce they can during weeks and months cover distances of thousand of miles, until they get lost in some desert or ocean and thus are finally eliminated.
9. The practical result of the adequate understanding of this complex process was the creation of an international agency for observation and control, and timely spraying of insecticides at the precise moment and locations when and where the solitary locusts turn gregarious. This history includes in fact feedbacks, dynamic stability situations, equilibrium processes and limits, thresholds, and shows how systemic and cybernetic models correspond to the understanding of complex issues and processes.
One of the most difficult problem nowadays is the seclusion of many specialists in different disciplines in their own narrow field, using their own specialized language. In this way, we observe at least two different negative results:
- They do not understand – and still less bother – about the possible side effects – positive or negative – of their action outside their own field. They themselves are completely surprised when some outside negative effects of the action of some specialists in another field has an impact on the issues that they are trying to manage in their own way. And they do not know what to do about these interferences. In order to avoid possible global messes and sterile conflicts between specialists of different trades, a better coordination in common action should be needed.
- Such coordination can be obtained only through conversation, and in a way that the participants become able to understand each others. If not, we reach a new type of Babel situations: people may apparently be on speaking terms, but do not really communicate usefully.
- Accordingly, a common language is urgently needed. As the systemic and cybernetic concepts and models apply in very different disciplines (as for example in biology, ecology, economics, engineering, politics, etc...), this generalist language seems to be a good candidate to become such a conversational transdisciplinary language. It can be used by any specialist to explain at least in general terms to any other specialist what he, or she is doing, and how, and why. In this way conversation becomes possible and meaningful.
- On the other side, any systemic or cybernetic concept or model is generally significant in relation to some other systemic or cybernetic ones.
- Feedbacks for example can lead to unstability thresholds, or to oscillating behavior within upper and lower limits. They are thus related to the dynamic stability conditions. They can also be active at different time and space levels and environmental conditions, as illustrated for instance in the case of locusts swarms.
- In fact, cybernetics and systemics – which are the two sides of the same coin – can become an integrated language adapted to the understanding and governance of complex issues of any kind. Shortly stated, there can be no satisfactory governance process without an understanding as deep as possible of the interconnected multiple interacting causal factors which led to the situation to be managed.
To create the needed integrated and practical transdisciplinarian language is what I have tried to do when I published in 1992 in Buenos Aires my „Diccionario de sistemas y cibernetica“ in Spanish and in 1997 at Saur’s Verlag in München, in english, my „International Encyclopedia of Cybernetics and Systems“, whose 2nd revised and much expanded edition is to come out within some weeks, again at Saur’s Verlag. I size this opportunity here and now to offer to Mr. Saur and his collaborators my deepest gratitude for their help, understanding and permanent comprehension.
My excellent friend Mr. Heiner Benking and myself will now show you examples of the language and how it has been constructed and can be used.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Second Part of the presentation FRANCOIS – BENKING (hyperlinks, hyperframes and image schemas….)
Benking, H., Kampffmeyer, U.B., Access and Assimilation: Pivotal Environmental Information Challenges - Linking, Archiving, and Exploiting Multi-Lingual and Multi-Scale Environmental Information Repositories, GeoJournal 26.3, 323-334, Kluwer, (1992), Context and Concept Mapping - Towards common frames of reference, In: Terminology and Philosophy of Science, TKE ’96: Terminology and Knowledge Engineering; Galinski, Ch.,Schmitz, K.-D. (eds), INDEKS VERLAG, (1996), Embodying Synthetical Spacial Meanings and Situations: Challenges of Appresentation and Apprehension, Section 7, General Systems Theory, In: (eds.) Wilby, J.M. Sustainable Peace in the World System, and the Next Evolution of Human Consciousness, ISSS, Budapest, Benking, H., Veltman, K. (1997): Composing Switching Systems to interrelate multimedia information, International Society for Knowledge Organization ISKO,WISSENSORGANISATION MIT MULTIMEDIALEN TECHNIKEN, - (1996) A Metaparadigm or Sharable Framework (Cognitive Panorama), New Ideas in Science and Art - A New Space for Culture and Society, Project on New Technologies: Cultural cooperation and communication, Council of Europe, 1997, WISSEN ORGANISATION GESELLSCHAFT, INTERNATIONALER HEINZ VON FOERSTER KONGRESS, Future Prospects for Constructivism, Cybernetics – quo vadis ?, American Society for Cybernetics (ACS)2003 Conference Vienna, Austria, Nov. 13-15, Cybernetic Futures – kybernetische Zukünfte, Gemeinsamer Kongress der Leibniz - Sozietät und der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Kybernetik, Berliner November 2003, more at http://benking.de
Dahlberg, I.: (1964) Grundlagen Universaler Wissensordnung. Foundations of Universal Organization of Knowledge, München, Verlag Dokumention, K.G. SAUER, XVIII 366p - Dahlberg, I.: (1995) The compatibility guidelines - A re-evaluation, In : compatibility and Integration of Order Systems, TIP/ISKO Warsaw, 1995 - Dahlberg, I.: (1996) Library Catalogues in the Internet: Switching Systems for Future Subject Access, In: Advances in Knowledge Organization, Vol. 5 (1996), p. 155-164, INDEKS Verlag, Frankfurt, "Zur 'Begriffskultur' in den Sozialwissenschaften: Lassen sich ihre Probleme lösen?" in EuS 7 Ethik und Sozialwissenschaften, Streitforum für Erwägungskultur, Westdeutscher Verlag (1996)]
Deutsch, Karl W.: The nerves of government, models of political communication and control, Free Press, New York, 1963
Dror, Y.: Ist die Erde noch regierbar?, Bertelsmann Verlag, 1995, and Dror, Y., Benking; H,: 6 Thesen zu „Ist die Erde noch regierbar?“ als Zusammenfassung des Club of Reports, UN-Klima Gipfel, Berlin, Online: http://benking.de/Global-Change/
Judge, A.J.N.: (1978/79) Representation; comprehension, and communication of sets, The role of numbers. Int. Class. 5/3, 126-133; 6/1, 16-25; 6/2, 92-103, Judge, A.J.N.: (1988) Encyclopedia of Conceptual Insights from World`s Cultures, UIA, Brussels, http://www.uia.org/projects/cultency.htm, YEARBOOK OF INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF WORLD PROBLEMS AND HUMAN POTENTIALS, 3 Volumes, all Saur Verlag, Munich, more at: http://www.uia.org
François, Charles: La Systémique, un meta-langage connectif, Revue Intern. de Systémique, Vol. 12, no. 4/5, Gauthier Villars, Paris, 1998
François, Charles: An exploration of the historical meaning of systemics in western thought, Systems Journal, Wroclaw, Poland 2000
François, Charles: International Encyclopedia of Systems and Cybernetics, 2nd edition, K G Saur Verlag, München 2004, http://benking.de/encyclopaedia/
Stachowiak, Herbert: Allgemeine Modelltheorie und Handbuch Pragmatisches Denken (5 volumes) (Systematischer Neo-Pragmatismus) (1984 - )
Charles François, Libertad 742, 1640 Martinez, Argentina, firstname.lastname@example.org
for more pls. see : http://open-forum.de/encyclopaedia-pragmatics/