Wednesday, May 6, 2009

complex systems

Edmund Burke, the Irish born political philosopher and member of the British Parliament, believed that institutions take time to change. I cannot remember any of his famous quotations but a big idea of his that has remained with me is that the world is a complex place and we must be careful when we tamper with it. What he discussed often were social institutions, the ways in which society functions and interconnects. He’s referred to as the father of modern conservatism and despite that name it seems that today’s American conservative has reinvented the concept behind the word. Burke had a hard time with the French Revolution, for example. His essays criticizing it receive a great deal of textbook attention.

My political science teacher in high school, Mr. Clemens, introduced me to Burke when I asked him what he thought of William F. Buckley, Jr. Mr. Clemens told me that to understand Buckley is to appreciate Burke. The next time I wrestled with Burke was in my freshman year philosophy class. It was then that I learned that I enjoyed modeling systems, organizations, making diagrams of social and organizational institutions.

Rarely do we encounter any useful visual models in the media for explaining systems, events, and institutions. When we do encounter good visual models, most of us are pleased and say the picture is worth a thousand words and all that. Lately, the American news centers upon economics. Complex. Complex and people wish to change it. Complex, yet we wish to understand it. We need some elegant models.

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