January 29, 2008

A new Alan Sokal?

Is Nick Winder a new Alan Sokal? These are the abstract and key words of his Innovation and Metastability: a Systems Model, published in Ecology and Society:
The culture trap is the tendency to put cultural markers and habits above the demands of reason or compassion. It can reduce receptivity to new ideas and trigger Phoenix Cycles of catastrophe and renaissance. System research is then complicated by the historiographic problem of continuity and change, because there are no objective criteria for deciding whether "the system" survived or was destroyed by the catastrophe. This paper explores the differences between uncertainty emergence and self-organizing emergence using the concept of a "possibility space" to clarify the relationship between anti-causal events and causal states, i.e., the meso-history of conjuncture. Conjunctures are interpreted ex post in the context of deep time. The paper distinguishes autopoiesis, i.e., a new instance of a species, from elaboration, i.e., the origin of new species. It also describes a spectrum ranging from metastability, in which the possibility space is time invariant, to innovation, in which the possibility space is a synergetic artefact of changing habits and beliefs. Metastable systems are computably complex; we can make predictions across the boundaries of successive conjunctures, subject to statistical uncertainties. Innovative systems are uncomputably complex; although we can make predictions within a conjuncture and anticipate bottlenecks, we cannot predict beyond the conjuncture because conceptual taxonomies will not be conserved. The relationship between adaptive potential and constraint remains fundamental, although debates about whether the system is resilient are meaningless. System boundaries are artefacts of a dynamic consensus. The analytical sciences use methods designed for metastable systems, whereas the discursive sciences presume innovation. These methods predispose researchers to different space-time perspectives that, in turn, make it possible to generalize about their roles in different policy arenas. Tensions between analytical and discursive scientists become more understandable and manageable if these historiographic issues are clarified. The relationship between innovation and metastability is illustrated in an appendix on the emergence of social complexity in Europe.

Key words: adaptive potential; cultural ecodynamics; complex adaptive systems; innovation; metastability; resilience.

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