Complexity Theory

A Science of Cultural Systems?

How to Cite

Cham, K., & Johnson, J. (2007). Complexity Theory: A Science of Cultural Systems?. M/C Journal, 10(3).
Vol. 10 No. 3 (2007): 'complex'
Published 2007-06-01

Complex systems are an invention of the universe. It is not at all clear that science has an a priori primacy claim to the study of complex systems. (Galanter 5)


In popular dialogues, describing a system as “complex” is often the point of resignation, inferring that the system cannot be sufficiently described, predicted nor managed. Transport networks, management infrastructure and supply chain logistics are all often described in this way. In socio-cultural terms “complex” is used to describe those humanistic systems that are “intricate, involved, complicated, dynamic, multi-dimensional, interconnected systems [such as] transnational citizenship, communities, identities, multiple belongings, overlapping geographies and competing histories” (Cahir & James).

Academic dialogues have begun to explore the collective behaviors of complex systems to define a complex system specifically as an adaptive one; i.e. a system that demonstrates ‘self organising’ principles and ‘emergent’ properties. Based upon the key principles of interaction and emergence in relation to adaptive and self organising systems in cultural artifacts and processes, this paper will argue that complex systems are cultural systems.

By introducing generic principles of complex systems, and looking at the exploration of such principles in art, design and media research, this paper argues that a science of cultural systems as part of complex systems theory is the post modern science for the digital age. Furthermore, that such a science was predicated by post structuralism and has been manifest in art, design and media practice since the late 1960s.

Complex Systems Theory

Complexity theory grew out of systems theory, an holistic approach to analysis that views whole systems based upon the links and interactions between the component parts and their relationship to each other and the environment within they exists. This stands in stark contrast to conventional science which is based upon Descartes’s reductionism, where the aim is to analyse systems by reducing something to its component parts (Wilson 3). As systems thinking is concerned with relationships more than elements, it proposes that in complex systems, small catalysts can cause large changes and that a change in one area of a system can adversely affect another area of the system.

As is apparent, systems theory is a way of thinking rather than a specific set of rules, and similarly there is no single unified Theory of Complexity, but several different theories have arisen from the natural sciences, mathematics and computing. As such, the study of complex systems is very interdisciplinary and encompasses more than one theoretical framework. Whilst key ideas of complexity theory developed through artificial intelligence and robotics research, other important contributions came from thermodynamics, biology, sociology, physics, economics and law.

In her volume for the Elsevier Advanced Management Series, “Complex Systems and Evolutionary Perspectives on Organisations”, Eve Mitleton-Kelly describes a comprehensive overview of this evolution as five main areas of research:

  • complex adaptive systems
  • dissipative structures
  • autopoiesis (non-equilibrium)
  • social systems
  • chaos theory
  • path dependence

Here, Mitleton-Kelly points out that relatively little work has been done on developing a specific theory of complex social systems, despite much interest in complexity and its application to management (Mitleton-Kelly 4). To this end, she goes on to define the term “complex evolving system” as more appropriate to the field than ‘complex adaptive system’ and suggests that the term “complex behaviour” is thus more useful in social contexts (Mitleton-Kelly).

For our purpose here, “complex systems” will be the general term used to describe those systems that are diverse and made up of multiple interdependent elements, that are often ‘adaptive’, in that they have the capacity to change and learn from events. This is in itself both ‘evolutionary’ and ‘behavioural’ and can be understood as emerging from the interaction of autonomous agents – especially people.

Some generic principles of complex systems defined by Mitleton Kelly that are of concern here are:

  • self-organisation
  • emergence
  • interdependence
  • feedback
  • space of possibilities
  • co-evolving
  • creation of new order

Whilst the behaviours of complex systems clearly do not fall into our conventional top down perception of management and production, anticipating such behaviours is becoming more and more essential for products, processes and policies. For example, compare the traditional top down model of news generation, distribution and consumption to the “emerging media eco-system” (Bowman and Willis 14).

Figure 1 (Bowman & Willis 10)

Figure 2 (Bowman & Willis 12)

To the traditional news organisations, such a “democratization of production” (McLuhan 230) has been a huge cause for concern. The agencies once solely responsible for the representation of reality are now lost in a global miasma of competing perspectives.

Can we anticipate and account for complex behaviours? Eve Mitleton Kelly states that “if organisations are understood as complex evolving systems co-evolving as part of a social ‘ecosystem’, then that changed perspective changes ways of acting and relating which lead to a different way of working. Thus, management strategy changes, and our organizational design paradigms evolve as new types of relationships and ways of working provide the conditions for the emergence of new organisational forms” (Mitleton-Kelly 6).

Complexity in Design

It is thus through design practice and processes that discovering methods for anticipating complex systems behaviours seem most possible. The Embracing Complexity in Design (ECiD) research programme, is a contemporary interdisciplinary research cluster consisting of academics and designers from architectural engineering, robotics, geography, digital media, sustainable design, and computing aiming to explore the possibility of trans disciplinary principles of complexity in design. Over arching this work is the conviction that design can be seen as model for complex systems researchers motivated by applying complexity science in particular domains.

Key areas in which design and complexity interact have been established by this research cluster. Most immediately, many designed products and systems are inherently complex to design in the ordinary sense. For example, when designing vehicles, architecture, microchips designers need to understand complex dynamic processes used to fabricate and manufacture products and systems.

The social and economic context of design is also complex, from market economics and legal regulation to social trends and mass culture. The process of designing can also involve complex social dynamics, with many people processing and exchanging complex heterogeneous information over complex human and communication networks, in the context of many changing constraints.

Current key research questions are:

  • how can the methods of complex systems science inform designers?
  • how can design inform research into complex systems?

Whilst ECiD acknowledges that to answer such questions effectively the theoretical and methodological relations between complexity science and design need further exploration and enquiry, there are no reliable precedents for such an activity across the sciences and the arts in general.

Indeed, even in areas where a convergence of humanities methodology with scientific practice might seem to be most pertinent, most examples are few and far between. In his paper “Post Structuralism, Hypertext & the World Wide Web”, Luke Tredennick states that “despite the concentration of post-structuralism on text and texts, the study of information has largely failed to exploit post-structuralist theory” (Tredennick 5).

Yet it is surely in the convergence of art and design with computation and the media that a search for practical trans-metadisciplinary methodologies might be most fruitful. It is in design for interactive media, where algorithms meet graphics, where the user can interact, adapt and amend, that self-organisation, emergence, interdependence, feedback, the space of possibilities, co-evolution and the creation of new order are embraced on a day to day basis by designers. A digitally interactive environment such as the World Wide Web, clearly demonstrates all the key aspects of a complex system. Indeed, it has already been described as a ‘complexity machine’ (Qvortup 9).

It is important to remember that this ‘complexity machine’ has been designed. It is an intentional facility. It may display all the characteristics of complexity but, whilst some of its attributes are most demonstrative of self organisation and emergence, the Internet itself has not emerged spontaneously. For example, Tredinnick details the evolution of the World Wide Web through the Memex machine of Vannevar Bush, through Ted Nelsons hypertext system Xanadu to Tim Berners-Lee’s Enquire (Tredennick 3). The Internet was engineered. So, whilst we may not be able to entirely predict complex behavior, we can, and do, quite clearly design for it.

When designing digitally interactive artifacts we design parameters or co ordinates to define the space within which a conceptual process will take place. We can never begin to predict precisely what those processes might become through interaction, emergence and self organisation, but we can establish conceptual parameters that guide and delineate the space of possibilities.

Indeed this fact is so transparently obvious that many commentators in the humanities have been pushed to remark that interaction is merely interpretation, and so called new media is not new at all; that one interacts with a book in much the same way as a digital artifact. After all, post-structuralist theory had established the “death of the author” in the 1970s – the a priori that all cultural artifacts are open to interpretation, where all meanings must be completed by the reader.

The concept of the “open work” (Eco 6) has been an established post modern concept for over 30 years and is commonly recognised as a feature of surrealist montage, poetry, the writings of James Joyce, even advertising design, where a purposive space for engagement and interpretation of a message is designated, without which the communication does not “work”.

However, this concept is also most successfully employed in relation to installation art and, more recently, interactive art as a reflection of the artist’s conscious decision to leave part of a work open to interpretation and/or interaction.

Art & Complex Systems

One of the key projects of Embracing Complexity in Design has been to look at the relationship between art and complex systems. There is a relatively well established history of exploring art objects as complex systems in themselves that finds its origins in the systems art movement of the 1970s.

In his paper “Observing ‘Systems Art’ from a Systems-Theroretical Perspective”, Francis Halsall defines systems art as “emerging in the 1960s and 1970s as a new paradigm in artistic practice … displaying an interest in the aesthetics of networks, the exploitation of new technology and New Media, unstable or de-materialised physicality, the prioritising of non-visual aspects, and an engagement (often politicised) with the institutional systems of support (such as the gallery, discourse, or the market) within which it occurs” (Halsall 7).

More contemporarily, “Open Systems: Rethinking Art c.1970”, at Tate Modern, London, focuses upon systems artists “rejection of art’s traditional focus on the object, to wide-ranging experiments al focus on the object, to wide-ranging experiments with media that included dance, performance and…film & video” (De Salvo 3). Artists include Andy Warhol, Richard Long, Gilbert & George, Sol Lewitt, Eva Hesse and Bruce Nauman.

In 2002, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New York, held an international exhibition entitled “Complexity; Art & Complex Systems”, that was concerned with “art as a distinct discipline offer[ing] its own unique approache[s] and epistemic standards in the consideration of complexity” (Galanter and Levy 5), and the organisers go on to describe four ways in which artists engage the realm of complexity:

  • presentations of natural complex phenomena that transcend conventional scientific visualisation
  • descriptive systems which describe complex systems in an innovative and often idiosyncratic way
  • commentary on complexity science itself
  • technical applications of genetic algorithms, neural networks and a-life

ECiD artist Julian Burton makes work that visualises how companies operate in specific relation to their approach to change and innovation. He is a strategic artist and facilitator who makes “pictures of problems to help people talk about them” (Burton). Clients include public and private sector organisations such as Barclays, Shell, Prudential, KPMG and the NHS.

He is quoted as saying “Pictures are a powerful way to engage and focus a group’s attention on crucial issues and challenges, and enable them to grasp complex situations quickly. I try and create visual catalysts that capture the major themes of a workshop, meeting or strategy and re-present them in an engaging way to provoke lively conversations” (Burton). This is a simple and direct method of using art as a knowledge elicitation tool that falls into the first and second categories above.

The third category is demonstrated by the ground breaking TechnoSphere, that was specifically inspired by complexity theory, landscape and artificial life. Launched in 1995 as an Arts Council funded online digital environment it was created by Jane Prophet and Gordon Selley. TechnoSphere is a virtual world, populated by artificial life forms created by users of the World Wide Web. The digital ecology of the 3D world, housed on a server, depends on the participation of an on-line public who accesses the world via the Internet. At the time of writing it has attracted over a 100,000 users who have created over a million creatures.

The artistic exploration of technical applications is by default a key field for researching the convergence of trans-metadisciplinary methodologies. Troy Innocent’s lifeSigns evolves multiple digital media languages “expressed as a virtual world – through form, structure, colour, sound, motion, surface and behaviour” (Innocent). The work explores the idea of “emergent language through play – the idea that new meanings may be generated through interaction between human and digital agents”. Thus this artwork combines three areas of converging research – artificial life; computational semiotics and digital games.

In his paper “What Is Generative Art? Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory”, Philip Galanter describes all art as generative on the basis that it is created from the application of rules. Yet, as demonstrated above, what is significantly different and important about digital interactivity, as opposed to its predecessor, interpretation, is its provision of a graphical user interface (GUI) to component parts of a text such as symbol, metaphor, narrative, etc for the multiple “authors” and the multiple “readers” in a digitally interactive space of possibility. This offers us tangible, instantaneous reproduction and dissemination of interpretations of an artwork.

Conclusion: Digital Interactivity – A Complex Medium

Digital interaction of any sort is thus a graphic model of the complex process of communication. Here, complexity does not need deconstructing, representing nor modelling, as the aesthetics (as in apprehended by the senses) of the graphical user interface conveniently come first. Design for digital interactive media is thus design for complex adaptive systems.

The theoretical and methodological relations between complexity science and design can clearly be expounded especially well through post-structuralism. The work of Barthes, Derrida & Foucault offers us the notion of all cultural artefacts as texts or systems of signs, whose meanings are not fixed but rather sustained by networks of relationships. Implemented in a digital environment post-structuralist theory is tangible complexity.

Strangely, whilst Philip Galanter states that science has no necessary over reaching claim to the study of complexity, he then argues conversely that “contemporary art theory rooted in skeptical continental philosophy [reduces] art to social construction [as] postmodernism, deconstruction and critical theory [are] notoriously elusive, slippery, and overlapping terms and ideas…that in fact [are] in the business of destabilising apparently clear and universal propositions” (4). This seems to imply that for Galanter, post modern rejections of grand narratives necessarily will exclude the “new scientific paradigm” of complexity, a paradigm that he himself is looking to be universal.

Whilst he cites Lyotard (6) describing both political and linguistic reasons why postmodern art celebrates plurality, denying any progress towards singular totalising views, he fails to appreciate what happens if that singular totalising view incorporates interactivity? Surely complexity is pluralistic by its very nature? In the same vein, if language for Derrida is “an unfixed system of traces and differences … regardless of the intent of the authored texts … with multiple equally legitimate meanings” (Galanter 7) then I have heard no better description of the signifiers, signifieds, connotations and denotations of digital culture.

Complexity in its entirety can also be conversely understood as the impact of digital interactivity upon culture per se which has a complex causal relation in itself; Qvortups notion of a “communications event” (9) such as the Danish publication of the Mohammed cartoons falls into this category. Yet a complex causality could be traced further into cultural processes enlightening media theory; from the relationship between advertising campaigns and brand development; to the exposure and trajectory of the celebrity; describing the evolution of visual language in media cultures and informing the relationship between exposure to representation and behaviour.

In digital interaction the terms art, design and media converge into a process driven, performative event that demonstrates emergence through autopoietic processes within a designated space of possibility. By insisting that all artwork is generative Galanter, like many other writers, negates the medium entirely which allows him to insist that generative art is “ideologically neutral” (Galanter 10). Generative art, like all digitally interactive artifacts are not neutral but rather ideologically plural. Thus, if one integrates Qvortups (8) delineation of medium theory and complexity theory we may have what we need; a first theory of a complex medium. Through interactive media complexity theory is the first post modern science; the first science of culture.

Author Biographies

Karen Cham


Jeffrey Johnson