Complexity and chaos

When termites work together to produce sophisticated messaging systems and intricate nest structures without any plans or central control, it is obvious that something unusual is happening. It cannot be explained by any intelligence within the termites or by examining their genes.

In fact, the explanation is beyond rational description. Termites interact with their environment by changing it, and these changes cause their behavior to change. This creates an endless loop of new and different changes and reactions. Technically, this situation is known as a 'dynamic complex system', brought about by positive feedback between the termites and their environment.

Over the last two or three decades, much research has gone into the study of dynamic complex systems. It has resulted in a branch of mathematics known as 'chaos theory', which explains how dynamic complex systems automatically settle down into stable states. . Making changes to variables or placing restraints upon the system can alter these stable states -known as ‘attractor basins’. It is by these means that dynamic complex systems can be coaxed to progress towards increased order and organization.

Nature makes much use of this technique in steering complex biological systems towards order and organization. This is evidenced in the self-organization observed in social insect colonies, where it is given the name 'stigmergy'. We can use this same technique ourselves, to create efficient systems of communication and self-organization.

On the left are a few links that together will provide an outline description of dynamic complexity, chaos, emergence and attractor basins. These should be sufficient to set you thinking as to how these theories can be put to work on the Web.