A few times recently I have come across discussions where complex systems have been described as self-organising. Whilst being strictly true within the limits of logical possibility, I believe such descriptions to be significantly misrepresentative. I hope you’ll forgive the frivolity, but I find it useful to think about this in relation to the infinite monkey theorem (if you give a bunch of monkeys a typewriter and wait long enough then eventually one of them will produce the works of Shakespeare). I think describing complex systems as self-organising is a bit like describing monkeys as great authors of English literature. Perhaps the underlying issue here is that evolutionary timeframes are of a scale that is essentially meaningless relative to human concepts of time. Natural selection’s great conjuring trick has been to hide the countless millenia and uncountably large numbers of now-dead failures it has taken to stumble upon every evolutionary step forwards. In monkey terms, it is a bit like a mean man with a shotgun hiding out in the zoo and shooting every primate without a freshly typed copy of Twelfth Night under its arm, and then us visiting the zoo millions of years later and thinking that a core attribute of monkeys is that they write great plays!

So, are complex systems self-organising? For the one-in-trillions freak exceptions that have managed to survive until today the answer is yes, but in a deeply degenerative and entropy-saturated way. For everything else – which is basically everything – then the answer is no. An example of this is being played out around us right now in the financial crisis. The laissez-faire economic ideologies of recent decades were primarily an expression of faith in the abilities of complex financial markets to self-organise, as enshrined in the efficient market hypothesis championed by Milton Friedman and the Chicago School. The recent return to more Keynesian ideas of external government intervention via lower taxation and increased public spending together with the obvious need for stronger regulation are indicative of a clear failure in self-organisational capability.  

When people in technology talk about self-organisation, what they are normally referring to are the highly desirable personal qualities of professional pride, initiative, courage and a refusal to compromise against one’s better judgement. A couple of years back Jim Highsmith argued that “self-organisation” has outlived its usefulness. I would agree, and for the sake of clarity perhaps we might do better now to talk about such attributes in specific terms?