What we’re up against here

Shawn at Anecdote gives a couple of examples of complexity. He uses these to convey how difficult it is to make reliable predictions of complex systems.

When I talk about complexity to clients I mention that complex systems are impossible to predict in detail especially as your forcast extends into the future. I point out that there are so many connections among the objects affecting the system and many of the cause and effect relationships are non-linear (a small thing can have a big impact and vice versa). Every now and then someone will say “but if you could work out all those connections you could predict the outcome.” And this is where I will tell them the chessboard story.

The legendary information scientist, Claude Shannon, calculated how many possible moves there are on a chessboard. It’s a finite system of 64 squares, 32 pieces, 6 movement patterns. The number is big and equates to the number of milliseconds the world has been in existence. And that’s for a simple system. Imagine the possibilities in a social system where the objects have free will.

One aspect of human complexity is that our brains are highly developed to simplify what we see – giving rise to an impressive series of cognitive biases. So we usually don’t recognise the complexity of what we’re up against…


1 thought on “What we’re up against here

  1. Earl Mardle

    I see Shawn too is getting into the Black Swan and I’m in the midst of Taleb’s other biggies “Fooled by Randomness”. Although mostly I’m reading them to reinforce lifelong realisations that nobody is in control and that Yogi Berra’s dictum, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”, makes about as much sense as there is.

    The latter especially is a pretty good version of Taleb’s strategy of exposing yourself to positive Black Swans.

    You may also find http://www.kn.com.au/networks/2004/05/time_to_kiss_of.html on point. I can hardly believe that I wroite it back in 04, and this one on the scourge of the elevator pitch. https://www.kn.com.au/networks/2006/05/the_kiss_of_dea.html


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