Circles and straight lines: shaping the language of complexity

Reality is made up of circles, but we see straight lines. – Peter Senge

I am interested in the way that language shapes how we understand and interact with the complex social and economic system around us. This is not a new fascination. I have written previously about how language can reinforce linear thinking. But more recently, I have been reflecting on how the COVID-19 crisis highlights several limitations in the language we use to express the concept of “change”, particularly in complexity and systems practice communities.

Change is a small, unassuming word, but it is one we use to express the vast array of our experiences with dynamic and complex systems. We intuitively know that some changes are larger than others, some are more significant than others, and some are more final than others. We recognise that seasons change. We believe in political change. We say that people change. But in each of these examples the language of change is remarkably imprecise.

What are the risks of this imprecision, particularly in a moment of significant change? COVID-19 has brought forth a moment that some have called “paradigm shifting”, with many others noting that we have left the “old normal” behind.

To define change as “to make something into something else” seems common sense, but begs the question of what counts as “something” and what count as “something else”? A possible answer can be found in the etymology for the word. The word change has two parallel roots, each giving rise to separate meanings which we tend to use interchangeably. The classical Latin root for change is cambiare, which means to trade or barter – speaking to a significant transformation: money into food or cow into pig; and giving rise to a whole host of other common language like “short-change” and “exchange”. The Celtic origin, on the other hand, *kemb- means “to bend, crook”, which implies a stronger sense of continuity and evolution as inherent to change – change as modification rather than transformation, but change nonetheless.

After six weeks stuck indoors, watching and listening to our response to the COVID-19 and the change that it will bring, it is worth taking a moment to pause and reflect on the language we use to express how COVID-19 will make “something into something else”.

What does “change” mean in a complex system?

Our brains are very good at focusing on the change driven by a crisis, but we forget that complex systems are characterised by both continuity and change.

We like to think of complex systems as non-linear, dynamic, unpredictable – all of which is true – but they also tend to settle down into one of several possible steady states. These steady states are called “attractor basins”.

Think of a bowl containing a ball bearing. The ball bearing will move around the bowl until eventually it comes to rest at the lowest point. We can say that it is “attracted” to that point, so each part of the bowl can be regarded as leading to that stationary point, and the whole bowl is what we call the basin of attraction of that system.

In contrast to the ball bearing, social and economic systems are continuously buffeted by the decisions of actors, which tend to move the system away from that stationary point. These systems often shift and oscillate within a given basin of attraction (what we call “equilibrium”), rather than tending directly toward an attractor. There is often more than one basin of attraction for any given system. The various basins that a system may occupy, and the boundaries that separate them, are known as a “stability landscape”.

In this graphical representation of a “stability landscape” (source), green depressions represent regions of stability (the basins). Two system states are represented. The one on the left is disturbed and returns smoothly to its original position. The one on the right amplifies the displacement, either returning eventually to its original position, or possibly transitioning to another basin, or alternate state.

Metaphors and meaning

These concepts help to shape the distinction between the different meaning the word “change” can hold when we talk about complex systems – a distinction that mirrors its parallel roots. Simply put, there is change that occurs within the stability landscape of a system and change that occurs to that landscape.

The metaphor for change that occurs within the landscape is that of bend and crook – the system absorbs a disturbance and reorganises while retaining essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. The landscape itself remains unchanged and the system oscillates within or between established attractor basins.

We are familiar with this kind of change: it is characteristic of most of our interactions with the world and deeply embedded in shared experience of the cyclical nature of human life. Many have attempted to capture this experience in language: with the saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same” being a common modern expression, but a similar feeling has been captured across the ages. It shows up, for example, in Ecclesiastes 1:9 in a more poetic form:

What has been will be again, / what has been done will be done again; / there is nothing new under the sun.

The metaphor for change that occurs to the landscape is one of transformation – the existing system becomes something fundamentally different to what it was before. In concrete terms, this could be a change to number of basins of attraction, changes in the positions of the basins within landscape, changes in the positions of the thresholds between basins, or the emergence of entirely new basins altogether. We attempt to describe changes like with language like “paradigm shift” and “new normal”, but struggle to capture in precise and material terms what these changes mean beyond flagging that we expect things to be very different. In some ways, though, transformational change must also involve a measure of continuity: circles, not straight lines.

These limitations of language and expression is part of what makes them exciting. We attempt to provide structure, at varying levels of abstraction, the murky depths of our experiences. Drawing distinctions between different types of “change” may seem arbitrary, but as the impact of COVID-19 on our world becomes clearer, reflecting on the contradictory and fluctuating nature of change will help to make our experience of the world comprehensible and communicable.