Systems and Complexity.

I’ve been reading books on soil microbiology, capitalism and the growth of railroads from 1850 to 1900 and (last but not least) a book by Kevin Kelly on the evolution of technology in the last 50 years. All three books have a common underlying theme: through the use of well developed systems  a problem is solved with sublime balance and simplicity.

All three books are really about evolving systems: from the way protozoa eat bacteria in soil to the way railroad companies organized freight schedules to the progression of technology from vacuum tubes to the modern high speed internet. The evolution of technology is by far the most rapid of all three because modern progress is continuously becoming a more complex and interwoven system. Case in point: an advance in material technology leads to a faster computer processor, which helps a geneticist unravel a viral genome, and from this another doctor figures out how to graft human skin onto a metal prosthesis, which leads to more human-like robots, etc.

Even singing in a choir you need complex systems… taken in pieces the notes are very simple and unremarkable, but when they are combined in the complexity of voices and instruments a complex and multi-level beauty emerges, all from the organization of simple notes on a sheet of paper.  Perhaps this is why so many scientists and engineers are also musicians on the side…..

Inherent in everything is a quiet system at work. Even the words that you are reading right now are a small part of a highly evolved language system that was started 10,000 years ago and continues to develop even to this day.

Language enabled humans to pass along knowledge from one generation to the next, our forebears learned how to make weapons, which mushroom it was safe to eat… or which root would help cure certain illnesses. We are the products of a vast system of oral and written knowledge that has been modified and grown through ten thousand generations.

Look at any form of biological reproduction: from bacterial replication to mammals bearing live young to a dandelion being visited by a pollen-hungry bee. Vastly different in implementation, but the goal of all three is the same.

The most successful businesses use systems internally, and the largest companies on the planet sell systems that help the consumer simplify their lives. All IT companies sell systems, from Apple to Microsoft to Google.

Take a look at the entire world around you, there is a system quietly humming right there in front of your nose, from the orchid blooming on your desk to the swirling electrons and organized binary bits inside your computer that manifest the words on your computer screen.

As technology moves into the Conceptual Age everything will revolve around clever systems designed to solve a problem.

You might invent the next billion dollar system!

Ben Alexander

2010

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