The Architecture of Complexity

HERBERT SIMON, one of the founding fathers of systems theory and artificial intelligence, identified hierarchical recursion as a fundamental feature of computational systems. In a seminal 1962 paper “The Architecture of Complexity”, Simon claims that “It may not be entirely vain, however, to search for common properties among diverse kinds of complex systems”. This search for common properties (patterns, harmony, rhythms and more…) in complex systems (emotions, death, time, and more) which refers “to all complex systems analyzable into successive sets of subsystems” (Simon, 1962) has ramifications for many systems (from mathematics to physiology to ecosystems to culture).

Recursion(L-systems, fractals, and more..) in living structures, linguistics, and digital systems points to a deep continuity between life, language and computation.

ALBERT-LÁSZLÓ BARABÁSI,  45 years later published a paper with exactly the same titleThe Architecture of Complexity” (August 2007, IEEE Control Systems Magazine).  He too identifies the unifying force of network paradigms:

Networks exist everywhere and at every scale. The brain is a network of nerve cells connected by axons, while cells are networks of molecules connected by biochemical reactions. Societies, too, are networks of people linked by friendship, family, and professional ties. On a larger scale, food webs and ecosystems can be represented as networks of species. Furthermore, networks pervade technology; examples include the Internet, power grids, and transportation systems. Even the language used to convey thought is a network of words connected by syntactic relationships.

By identifying the structures and principles of networks, Barabási hopes to articulate a science of systems (he sees network theory as a prerequisite for a robust science of complex systems). Empirically-validated network properties such as scale-free (non-random power laws), small world (connecting each to the next “the typical number of clicks between two Web pages is around 19”), and preferential attachment (the probability of links influenced by previous links) have implications for the Internet and for epidemics.

The architecture of complexity continues to expand.

Shelley Jackson : Skin (2003)

Tattoos are an accumulation of ink pigment particles too large to be eaten by white blood cells, it is a technical invasion designed to exceed the body’s defences. Under the skin, injected, tattoo ink merges with the body, becomes part of it. Shelley Jackson’s Skin “A story published on the skin of 2095 volunteers” began with a published online call for volunteers to agree to merge with a story, to tattoo one word each on their body; the conditions:

“the text will be published nowhere else … The full text will be known only to participants … From this time on, participants will be known as ‘words’. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the texts they bear, but as its embodiments. … Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.”

Skin forms a distributed network story, a collective meme viral archive of intimate ink injected into social psyche; the internet enabled it. Jackson’s work as an internet hypertext writer was seminal. Patchwork Girl, released by Eastgate Systems in 1995, was a branching narrative, retelling the story of Frankenstein, the word made flesh in cybernetic form available on usb stick for Macintosh at $24.95 (Jackson, 1995). Her work now extends that branching linked structure into the flesh of lived lives, the skin of bodies (that will over time wrinkle, distort and eventually decay) releasing one by one the text they hold. As she visits each funeral, the writing and erasure of the text constitute a story only she is told.

Jackson’s recent work continues this distributed patchwork publishing technique using ephemeral media (snow) and social networking (Instagram): Jackson, Shelley. “Snows” on Instagram, 2014.

Avalanche: Libraries

We live in an age of excess. Information flow increases exponentially. Art output, population, online activity, scientific research, theories, cults, climate change etc… increase.

Keeping up is impossible: each must find a niche, navigate the torrent. click on image to read more. [There is always more.]
Keeping up is impossible: each must find a niche, navigate the torrent. click on image to read more. [There is always more.]
Sifting and curating this excess, archives sprout across the internet. Below is the screenshot of a page sent to me today by a friend: it seems to hold many interesting items. Will I remember it if my social feeds erupt?

Open page of the circa January 2016
Open page of the circa January 2016

But is this excess anything more than surface chatter? Biosemiotics is a field that applies information theory to biological organisms. If that model is correct then measurements of internet information are human-centric, they obscure the immensity of the networks our bodies are already embedded in. Theoreticians of Information and Living Systems, note that the interpreter in Peircean semiotics is defined as a quasi-mind active within biology.

In this
In CityU Library in both book and ebook


Open Syllabus Explorer [beta]

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“Open Syllabus Explorer [beta] The top ~10,000 texts. Texts assigned on the same syllabi are clustered together.” – Zoom in!
Books assigned on university syllabi : visualized as nodes, size mapped to popularity, position based on number of times books were assigned on same syllabus.

This chart reveals reading habits across masses of students. It also represents an opportunity for a motivated self-learner to read across diverse disciplines in an organized fashion.

Monoskop & International Art English

Monoskop is an open distribution hub for academic-art-media-discourse.
Monoskop is an open distribution hub for academic-art-media-discourse.

Among the top search results for “Kittler discourse networks pdf”, Monoskop regularly releases online open-sourced pdfs of contemporary art-academic discourse. It is an exemplary loop: a discourse network which contains sections of Friedrich A. Kittler’s  Discourse Networks 1800 / 1900.

Many of these intellectual art repositories operate as self-reinforcing ideological feedback loops amplifying the dispersion of variants of aesthetic experience along with the terms and types of speech appropriate to discuss them.

An article which satirizes the complex system of discourse.

Language is a network composed of many discrete spaces. Also intriguing: Martha Rosler’s response to Rule & Levine’s International Art English

Guy Ben-Ary: Cellf

CellF started with what could be seen as a “new materialist” question underpinned by the belief that artistic practice can act as a vector for thought: What is the potential for artworks using biological and robotic technologies to evoke or elicit responses in regards to shifting perceptions surrounding understandings of “life” and the materiality of the human body?

Gy Ben-Ary, Cellf (2105) : this visualization of the artwork’s process reveals that is a feedback system and a network including human, molecular and technological agents

Guy Ben-Ary’s art-research project Cellf (2015) involves harvesting skin cells from himself and reprogramming them to be stem cells that are used to grow a ‘living’ bio-art neural network. The electric signals from this neural network are then transferred to an anolog synth and converted into audio signals. During concerts, sounds from human musicians are fed back into the ‘brain’ to perturb its growth and signal. In short, an external ‘brain’ makes music in collaboration with human ‘brains’. The artwork involves process, devices, people, ideas, living tissue and sounds. In essence, Cellf is a complex feedback system.

With cellF there is no programming, no computers, no zeros or ones; just biological matter and analogue circuits – a “wet-alogue instrument

Contrary to many contemporary digital installations, Cellf does not rely on computation. It draws inspiration from biological recursion. The instruments used on the surface resemble old telephone switchboards, but underneath are circuits: no midi, no software, no microprocessors.

Gephi (visualization software)

If you want to really understand network visualizations or see if some data you have contains patterns (and don’t want to code!), use Gephi:

“Gephi is the leading visualization and exploration software for all kinds of graphs and networks. Gephi is open-source and free.”

Gephi is a network analysis tool, one of the easiest to use: which means you can give it data, and it will create a visualizations of patterns in that data. The data does not necessarily need to be anything that would conventionally be called a network: load a database of spreadsheets about movies, or give it the text of every essay you ever wrote.

Digital humanities scholar, Martin Grandjean’s introductory tutorial to Gephi is very helpful. It contains many definitions of terminology (with images) and many examples: archives, twitter, social networks, books.

Betweenness Centrality (made by Martin Grandjean with Gephi)
Betweenness Centrality (made by Martin Grandjean with Gephi): letters sent between groups

Franco Moretti: Stanford Literary Lab

Fig. 3 from Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet: Network Theory, Plot Analysis
Fig. 3 from Stanford Literary Lab pamphlet #2: Network Theory, Plot Analysis

In the above diagram (created by Franco Moretti) characters are nodes/vertices, communications are lines/edges. Moretti uses the techniques of statistical analysis — in this case simple binary counting: do they communicate? Yes/No — to measure interaction between characters. This simple technique permits an understanding of plots as networks of relationships clustered around central hub characters. It is a mode of computational interpretation that both confirms and refutes many of the accepted theories about famous plays.

In other “distant reading” analytic works, Moretti’s team converts entire archives of literature into data in order to reveal patterns that emerge at the macro-scale.

For more info see the complete set of pamphlets of the Stanford Literary Lab.