Misrepresenting Complex Systems

This post was prompted by the recent traffic of a piece by Zeynep Tufecki ( Can “Leaderless Revolutions” Stay Leaderless: Preferential Attachment, Iron Laws and Networks ) here: http://technosociology.org/?p=366

It dismays me to see people like Zeynep Tufecki lapse into tired complex systems rhetoric to present a biased picture of networks and organic systems.

Time and again we see the standard responses: preferential attachment, the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), the supposedly “iron law” of oligarchy, the evolution of power laws.

It is disingenous to present one side of the evolution of networks, i.e. the growth phenomena, without presenting the other side, which are the constraining phenomena, such as carrying capacity.

By way of example, imagine airports. As the global network of air traffic increases, a small world network evolves in which most air traffic goes through particular hubs. Those dynamics are well known.

BUT, those hubs cannot grow indefinitely. The “rich” cannot get infinitely “richer.” There are limits. Complex systems reach built-in homeostatic limits that cause them to evolve to the “edge of chaos,” a dynamic balance which is neither “too little” nor “too much.”

In other words, there are upper thresholds AND lower thresholds. I have shown this graphically in a post about carrying capacity here: http://blog.p2pfoundation.net/understanding-carrying-capacity/2010/07/01

In addition, flocks and swarms can be said to have a member who is “out in front” but not necessarily a leader. Furthermore, when the group changes in response to its environment, a different “leader” emerges.

( Also posted as a response on David Weinberger’s blog here: http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2011/02/14/the-twitter-doesnt-topple-dictators-cliche-undone-but-leaderless-networks-dont-stay-that-way/ )

5 Comments Misrepresenting Complex Systems

  1. Zeynep

    Always happy to engage in this discussion but the “iron law” of hierarchy is despairingly common in the world. It’s not just a tired cliche.

    The next step would be understanding the counter-forces to these mechanisms — not just to understand but to further and experiment with!

  2. ramon sanguesa

    Good post! And good point!

    You are right in pointing to the typical interpretation of complex networks and the bias towards the usual explanations for their growth instead of also taking into account other aspects as capacity.

    But even if the case of just looking at growth mechanism, it is interesting to see that there are other explanations beyond the typical “preferential attachment” mechanisms. In fact, some research we did years ago hints that there may be other factors to explain the growth one type of network or another, and none of them require a global knowledge of the characteristics of the network (as the preferential attachment mechanism does). In our case we explored the relationship between types of knowledge interchange between individuals in a group and watched which type of network interchanges arises. It all boiled down to the difficulty to actually get new knowledge (i.e., “learn”) from the interchange and also how hard it was to be accepted in an interchange (this is a very simplified explanation of the operating mechanism). There is some connection with capacity too, since there are intrinsinc limits to what an individual can store as knowledge and how many connections it can sustain simultaneously.

    If you have time and patience, here goes the (very technical) account of this research in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation.


  3. Michel Bauwens

    Dear Zeynep, thanks for your thoughtful interventions on your blog. I agree that the most interesting path is to focus on counter-forces. Stephen Downes, in his counter-posing of ‘Knowing Networks’ to Scale-Free Networks, describes a number of counter-mechanisms.

    I have collected a number of interventions on this topic here: http://p2pfoundation.net/Power_Law


  4. david ronfeldt

    i share hartzog’s critical reaction to tufekci’s articulate post, but for somewhat different reasons. as i read them, their contrasting views reflect a broader tension between those who view networks as a general social form and those (myself included) who prefer to regard it as a distinct organizational form:

    tufekci’s orientation is that of social network analysis (SNA), which tends to treat all forms of organization (tribes, herarchies, markets, whatever, etc.) as networks. she makes a valid point that preferential attachment and other SNA dynamics may generate leaders in such networks, thereby producing some hierarchy.

    hartzog’s orientation is about organizational more than social networks. his work concerns the emergence of information-age networks as a distinct form of organization, one that is different from classic tribes, hierarchies, and markets. his orientation — with its emphasis on peer-to-peer relations and panarchy — does not deny that leaders may be present. what he is trying to show is that networks, even with various leaders, do not have to evolve into institutional hierarchies. actors in cohesive peer-to-peer networks attuned to the information age can develop doctrines and processes that sustain the network form, keeping it from evolving into an institutional hierarchy. it is still unclear what areas of society may be most appropriate for this form of organization, for it has barely begun to emerge. but it continues to emerge, and as hartzog indicates, carrying capacity may be a significant factor.

    in my view, the risk in egypt is not so much that the activist network(s) will evolve (devolve?) into a new set of hierarchies, but rather into a new set of tribes/clans that compete and conflict more than they cooperate. for the new networks to continue developing as exemplars of the dawning age of peer-to-peer civil-society networks will be a challenge — one that may need leadership, and not one that is necessarily contradicted or subverted by it.

    how preferential attachment plays out will surely be part of the explanation. but only a part. and it remains an open question whether such dynamics will lead mainly to new tribes/clans, new hierarchical organizations, or a growth of the network form among the activists (not to mention hybrid possibilities).

  5. david ronfeldt

    i see — and call your attention — that the points i tried to make above are made more thoroughly by milton mueller in chapters of his new book “networks and states: the politics of internet governance (2010).”

    see the review just posted by clay spinuzzi at his blog, where he focuses on the contrasts mueller draws between networks as a school of analysis and networks as an organizational form:


    also, to pick up on a couple of other comments above, if p2p and other info-age networks are indeed on the rise as a distinct organizational form (as i believe they are), then their rise may be subject to “counter-forces” but will not be determined by them. perhaps it’s possible that social network analysis may turn out to be more a hindrance than a help in understanding the rise of networks as a form of organization distinct from tribes, hierarchical institutions, and markets.


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