Sunday, January 23, 2011

Complex or Complicated?

I read an excellent post by Lindsay Jordan related to #CCK11, the MOOC that I'm currently engaging. Following a comment by George Siemens, Lindsay makes a fine distinction between complexity and complicated: an airplane is complicated; the weather is complex.

I think I would rather say, however, that an airplane is complicated and creating the airplane is complex — not because the original statement is incorrect, but because it might give the wrong impression that complexity is of natural origins while complicated is of human origins. Rather, an airplane is complicated because it is a mostly static collection and arrangement of parts; whereas, creating the airplane is complex because it is mostly a dynamic interplay of people, ideas, materials, and processes. A specific airplane is a machine, complicated perhaps, but not growing. Creating airplanes is a living process, complex and growing.

As Edgar Morin points out so eloquently in his book On Complexity, we make a huge mistake when we try to reduce the complex to the merely complicated, or worse yet, to the simple. Actually, complicated and simple differ only in degree, whereas complex differs in kind from both. In one sense, both simple and complicated refer to a collection of fewer or greater elements in a particular, static arrangement. Complex refers to a collection of elements in an "infinite play of inter-retroactions" (Morin, 6).

Static entities, such as machines whether complicated or simple, are knowable, and once known, they remain known. Complex entities are not knowable in this manner. Rather, we engage complexities through what Morin calls a dialogic principle: we must constantly dialogue with the complex, for it is constantly shifting, growing, becoming. The complex is always in the middle, passing from this state to that. It is never static, thus never known definitively. Only through our interactions and our various connectivities can we know the complex, and we must constantly fire along these connections to activate feedback loops that inform, shape, and tweak our knowing of the complex entity.

From my experience, this distinction in knowing between the merely complicated and the truly complex makes a useful distinction between training to master a complicated concept or skill and teaching to master a complex discipline. Both training and teaching are exceedingly useful, and each is pre-eminent in its own right; however, they should not be confused with one another. When we are learning the one and only right answer, then we are involved in training. When we are learning to probe open-ended questions with open-ended answers, then we are involved in teaching. Sometimes the same class can be a mix of training and teaching, but we teachers should know when we are doing the one or the other.

And as George Siemens has pointed out elsewhere, we should always keep in mind that the right answer is especially short-lived these days, as the half-life of knowledge is continuing to shrink. Less and less of reality is static (or changing so slowly that it is practically static), thus less and less of our knowledge can be static. Rather, we must be constantly updating what we know so that it matches well with what is.
Post a Comment