Applied Complexity Newsletter - October 2020

Applied Complexity Newsletter
October 2020

The garden is fading, the light is becoming filtered, chimneys are clean, my lovely wife has preserved many things we’ve either grown, foraged, or acquired from our CSA* share, — it is time for the contemplative season.

*(CSA stands for “community supported agriculture” and I strongly encourage everyone to look in to programs at farms near them. Better in every way than the supermarket).


Closure and Its Achievement

In cybernetics, which can be considered the study of control and regulation in machines, the concept of closure is central in considering machines that are operating “in good order”.

Closure in this context simply means that if you have some transformation, call it f(), that takes the system from some state, call it A, to some other state, call it B, that no matter what state the system lands on there is always *somewhere* that applying f() again will take you.

In other words, if e.g. f(A) = B, then f(B) = *something* and generally for all *something*s f(*something*) = *something else*. If a machine fails to have this kind of closure, it may reach some state, call it C, for which there IS NO MAPPING from C to anything else. This might represent the machine e.g. failing, jamming, or breaking.

More interestingly, perhaps, is something we might call strong closure. Consider a strongly closed system as one that not only can transition out of any state into some other state, but can get to any state from any state.

In complex living systems, such strong closure is an important achievement. As I watch my daughter expand her range of competency, her a-ha moments come in large part when she is able to achieve some configuration by her own action that she had only been placed in by us to date. She can maintain a sitting up position now, and somewhat gracefully exit it into other familiar positions, but she can’t get herself into a sitting position. She also seems to notice that she can’t — frustrating! This frustration will be overcome in a few days, it appears. Like of all us should, she pushes into the challenge.

A system learning to gracefully exit AND enter the states that might prove useful for it in various circumstances is essential for navigating the complex environment real-world systems face. Behavioral development consists, in essence, of an expansion of possible configurations and the transformations that allow them to be exited and entered.

Self-sufficiency

If your house needed new plumbing, could you install it? If your car broke down, could you get it running again? Could you rebuild your home? Generally, how many people and resources would you need from “the outside world” to achieve the state of your life that you currently enjoy, and how far away are some of them? How far are you from local closure?

I know I am very far from closure on the homestead, although we work towards it every day as an ideal. I marvel at the old stone foundations that man and beast stacked here over 130 years ago. And these themselves pale in comparison to the great structures that still stand from ancient times.


Self-sufficiency is in my view about the ideal of achieving operational and structural closure as locally is possible. It does not mean you reject cooperation and collaboration — indeed being self-sufficient implies you are an *asset* in a collaborative effort! Civilization as such depends on closure at some scope in order to persist through the perturbations and calamities of history.

Globalization is essentially characterized by the destruction of local closure in favor of global-scoped processes that are believed to achieve closure (it’s not clear they they do). What when these processes are disrupted?

As we move forward into more deeply uncertain waters, take the time to consider what basic skills and knowhow you might begin to build that can take you and your loved ones one step closer to closure. Whatever transitions we face, they will certainly be handled more gracefully if, together, locally, we can restore and regenerate the states of the system that we enjoy.


As always, thank you for reading my newsletter and feel free to reach out: joe.w.norman@gmail.com

All best,
Joe