Further thoughts on “The Architecture of Complexity”

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Hierarchy of digital distractions

Hierarchy of digital distractions (Photo credit: Emilie Ogez)

In his 1962 paper “The Architecture of Complexity”, Herbert Simon writes that social systems often are what he describes as “near decomposable” – by which he means (the next few are my words, not his) that paths through social hierarchies are narrow:

This is most obvious in formal organizations, where the formal authority relation connects each member of the organization with one immediate superior and with a small number of subordinates.”

Taking the argument further he compares social organisations (and society as a whole) to crystals and other physical hierarchies, remarking:

In social as in physical systems there are generally limits on the simultaneous interaction of large numbers of subsystems. In the social case, these limits are related to the fact that a human being is more nearly a serial than a parallel information-processing system. He can carry on only one conversation at a time, and although this does not limit the size of the audience to which a mass communication can be addresses, it does limit the number of people simultaneously involved in most other forms of direct interaction … one cannot, for example, enact the role of “friend” with large numbers of other people.

This means, he says, that “lower frequency dynamics” will be associated with society than with groups of friends – his parallel here is again with natural hierarchies, where he says the length of the bond or chain of interaction determines the “frequency of vibration”. In other words, the pace at which society changes is limited by the very large number of small interactions that need to propagate along large social distances.

By now I am sure most of you can see the point I am going to make: social media changes all this – as suddenly it is possible to be friends with a large number more or less simultaneously. In this case maybe we should see the events of, say, the Arab Spring, not as driven by social media because it escaped censorship but also because it radically shortened the social distance between those who were previously kept apart: atomised, to use another physical parallel.

Not a particularly original observation over the last 18 months – but worth thinking about as an alternative explanation of the power of social media from that offered by, for instance, by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens when People Come Together.

Shirky says the power of social media is that it lowers the cost threshold – it is not, as he cites in one example, that there were not lay Catholics concerned about sexual abuse before the internet, but that they could not afford to communicate.

But reinterpreting Simon the change brought may be more fundamental – the powerful bonds of friendship may spread as never before and the experience could be rapid and radical changes in society.