April 2021

Function and Scale

Applied Complexity Science Newsletter - April 2021


The Spring 2021 incarnation of the Introduction to Complexity and Applied Complexity course has officially closed. I am deeply humbled by the group of individuals who came together to make this happen, and the things we all explored and learned together. Thank you for that. Someone commented that I’m “living the dream” — and they’re right. 

The next round begins in September, I’ve capped the course at 60 seats (a little over half full as of now), experience suggests that is a sweet spot for not getting too big.  It’s important for things not to get too big. More on that below. [Info on the course: https://appliedcomplexity.io/education]

Function and Scale - The Operational Fallacy

When we observe the operation of systems it is natural for us to perceive a function tied to particular components. The wheels of the car are for enabling it to move with minimal friction; the handle on the drawer is for the hand to have a graspable surface with which to pull it open; the heart beats in self-organized synchrony in order to deliver oxygenated blood to the tissues of the body.

All of these observations are perfectly mundane, and yet they are something that reductionistic science is fundamentally blind to. This is because the “function” of a thing depends entirely on the way that thing interfaces and interacts with other things outside its own boundaries. The wheel’s function is in how it relates to the rest of the vehicle; the heart’s function is manifest in how it relates to the tissues of the body — what it does for them. The functional component must of course have the properties necessary to *fulfill* function in a given context, but it would be a mistake to suppose that function exists in some ‘intrinsic’ way in the component. Its function is entirely a matter of context.

It’s nearly impossible to talk about anything without invoking functional properties. The reductionist bends over backwards to justify it: it’s “shorthand”, it’s an “epiphenomenon”, or even an “illusion” —  and it must be so for the reductionist, because what is real for them are the things, never how the things relate. The difficulty they face in articulating their subject matter without invoking functional properties (especially biologists) should give them a clue that something is wrong with their world-model. But, alas, it is for this type always the world that is coming up short, never the model.

The complexity view: relational properties are real. Perhaps they are the only thing that is.

Given that functional properties are tied to how something relates to its context changing the scale of the thing can have a profound effect on its function. In John Gall’s “System’s Bible” book he identifies what he calls the “Operational Fallacy” which essentially says that whatever we say a thing does, or is meant to do, it really does something else, especially at scale.

Take for instance the recent cloggage of the Suez canal. There are many scale effects we might linger on here, but for now let’s focus on the source of the clog: a very large container ship getting turned sideways and preventing all traffic from flowing through the canal. Let’s remind ourselves of the purported function of the ship: to transport and deliver goods. Let’s now note its realized function: to prevent itself and other ships from transporting and delivering goods. Not only do functional properties break down at scale, they often realize the opposite function.

The scale of the ship and the canal — their relation to one another — changed in a qualitative way. There are many ships that could not clog up the canal despite which way they get turned.  A threshold has been crossed, a single ship can halt the entire thing. The ship is now free, but don’t expect this is the last we will be hearing of this kind of thing. One man’s malfunction is another’s function.

Another “thing” which has recently scaled: Bitcoin. Stated function: free the economy from the shackles of centralized bureaucracy. Realized function: the most legible and trackable currency on Earth. I wonder if the bureaucracy will find that attractive or useful. 


I called it “monthly” but recently it’s been more like “quarterly”. I have a lot more I’d like to say, but not enough time to write a short letter. To that end I am working on several items that may be interesting to the readers of this newsletter — stay tuned!

As always, I greatly appreciate your reading my note and hope you find some enjoyment and value in it. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

All my best,