Notes on the complexity-sustainability trade-off

Notes on Vladislav Valentinov’s (2014) “The Complexity- Sustainability Trade- Off in Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory.”

According to Luhmann, the basic rationale for the existence of social systems is the reduction of complexity, which is understood as the infinite horizon of possibilities of action and experience (cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 251). This horizon is immensely complex. Human action implies an actualization of some of the possibilities out of
this horizon and is in this sense necessarily contingent. Luhmann rejects all forms of teleology that would deny this contingence (Krause, 2005, p. 8). As the horizon of possibilities is infinite, it must be adequately filtered to prevent it from overburdening an individual mind. Luhmann designates this filtering function as complexity reduction which is undertaken by social systems. By reducing complexity, social systems make human action possible. (P. 15)

The explanation of systems in terms of their complexity reduction role makes it clear that Luhmann rejects Ashby’s principle of ‘requisite variety’ and considers the environment to be necessarily more complex than the system (cf. Luhmann, 1991, p. 249). The latter fact leads Luhmann (1991, p. 250) to postulate the central existential challenge faced by every social system: the system has to ‘assert itself against the overwhelming complexity of the environment’. (Valentinov 16)

Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety says “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.” The implication is that “since the variety of perturbations a system can potentially be confronted with is unlimited, we should always try maximize its internal variety (or diversity), so as to be optimally prepared for any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency.” But Luhmann’s theory of operational closed (self-referential) systems rejects this view. Intrasystemic variety must be limited, not expanded to meet every new perturbation.

According to Luhmann (1997, p. 133), ‘the overall effect [of operational closure] . . . is . . . not adaptation [to the environment], but amplification of deviations’. Being to some extent free from this environmental influence, systems are likely to develop in ways that make them less, rather than more, adapted to their environments. Therefore, while adaptation to the environment is a prerequisite to structural couplings, it is possible that the intrasystemic freedom emerging from them will result in this prerequisite being undermined. (Valentinov, p.16)

The complexity-sustainability trade-off: There are two interrelated principles underpinning Luhmann’s understanding of system-environment relations.

The first principle, which can be called ‘the complexity reduction principle’, posits that systems increase their complexity by becoming increasingly insensitive to the complexity of the environment. This principle captures the basic meaning of Luhmann’s seemingly paradoxical dictum that systems increase complexity by reducing complexity (e.g., Luhmann, 2009, p. 121). The second principle, which can be called ‘the critical dependence principle’, posits that the increasing complexity of systems is associated with their growing dependence on environmental complexity in ways that make the continuation of their autopoiesis increasingly unlikely. (p. 18)

It is the complexity reduction principle that captures the main logical difference between the theories of open and autopoietic systems and that enables the latter theory to see the relationship between systemic complexity and sustainability as potentially precarious. (p.18)

The key lesson that can be drawn from these principles is that it may be rational, for any type of social system, to withdraw its internal complexity to maintain its sustainability in a given environment. (p.19)

Follow this link  to an archive of Vladislav Valentinov’s work.


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