Why is writing about complexity and systems so hard?

by | 28 Jun 2021

Writing about anything is difficult. How to describe people, places and things in an engaging and useful way is the problem facing any non-fiction writer.

But we who write about complexity and systems have it much worse.

You can’t touch or see it

Travel writers have it easy with their jolting trains and aromatic markets. The physicality of a place grabs the reader and carries them around the world.

Not so much for the abstractions of complex adaptive systems or the viable systems model. The effects of systems are real, but because systems are a product of our observation filtered through perception and assumptions, it makes it doubly hard to put their sense into words.

It doesn’t work as expected

Put money in, press the button and out pops a snack. A vending machine is complicated, but we can say how it works. Try this for a village, rainforest or economy. We make a simple change and … what’s happening now?!

Complex systems are non-linear with emergent behaviour. When persuading people that this is a more practical way of looking at things, your language must be more precise and persuasive because you are fighting the standard view of how things work and can be changed.

Can’t have full knowledge

Due to the first two difficulties, we can never fully understand a system but still need to act to maintain or improve the situation. That can be hard to hear for those raised on the power of analysis, measurement and decisive action.

Tomorrow we’ll see some ways to approach these problems.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

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