HEYLIGHEN (in Bates & Maack. eds)
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In the last two decades, a new paradigm for scientific inquiry has been emerging:
complexity. Classical science, as exemplified by Newtonian mechanics, is essentially
reductionist: it reduces all complex phenomena to their simplest components, and then
tries to describe these components in a complete, objective and deterministic manner
(3,8). The philosophy of complexity is that this is in general impossible: complex
systems, such as organisms, societies or the Internet, have properties—emergent
properties—that cannot be reduced to the mere properties of their parts. Moreover, the
behavior of these systems has aspects that are intrinsically unpredictable and
uncontrollable, and cannot be described in any complete manner. At best, we can find
certain statistical regularities in their quantitative features, or understand their qualitative
behavior through metaphors, models, and computer simulations.
While these observations are mostly negative, emphasizing the traditional qualities that
complex systems lack, these systems also have a number of surprisingly positive features,
such as flexibility, autonomy and robustness, that traditional mechanistic systems lack.
These qualities can all be seen as aspects of the process of self-organization that typifies
complex systems: these systems spontaneously organize themselves so as to better cope
with various internal and external perturbations and conflicts. This allows them to evolve
and adapt to a constantly changing environment.
Processes of self-organization literally create order out of disorder (3). They are
responsible for most of the patterns, structures and orderly arrangements that we find in
the natural world, and many of those in the realms of mind, society and culture. The aim
of information science can be seen as finding or creating such patterns in the immense
amount of data that we are confronted with. Initially, patterns used to organize
information were simple and orderly, such as “flat” databases in which items were
ordered alphabetically by author’s name or title, or hierarchically organized subject
indices where each item was assigned to a fixed category. Present-day information
systems, such as the world-wide web, are much less orderly, and may appear chaotic in
comparison. Yet, being a result of self-organization, the web possesses a non-trivial
structure that potentially makes information retrieval much more efficient. This structure
and others have recently been investigated in the science of networks, which can be seen
as part of the sciences of complexity and self-organization.
The concept of self-organization was first proposed by the cyberneticist W. Ross Ashby
(1) in the 1940s and developed among others by his colleague Heinz von Foerster (2).
During the 1960s and 1970s, the idea was picked up by physicists and chemists studying
phase transitions and other phenomena of spontaneous ordering of molecules and
particles. These include Ilya Prigogine (3), who received a Nobel Prize for his
investigation of self-organizing “dissipative structures”, and Hermann Haken (4), who
dubbed his approach “synergetics”. In the 1980s, this tradition cross-fertilized with the
emerging mathematics of non-linear dynamics and chaos, producing an investigation of
complex systems that is mostly quantitative, mathematical, and practiced by physicists.
However, the same period saw the appearance of a parallel tradition of “complex