Thursday, March 26, 2015

Science, History, and Systems of Systems

In Isaac Asimov's Foundation series (The Foundation Trilogy), a scientist develops a way to predict the fall of a galactic empire, and the steps that would be necessary to maintain some level of civilization. He establishes the Foundation in order to carry out his plan, with a series of timed holographic recordings to ensure that things stay on course.

In real life, the discipline that attempts to map out possible futures is called Future Studies, and one place to study it is the University of Houston. The program migrated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake to the main campus in the mid-2000s (~2005-2006).

One of the textbooks that was required for World Futures was Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Years later, when I studied Systems of Systems through Purdue University, many of the concepts matched what I had been taught in the Future Studies classes, and particularly in Panarchy.

One of the issues with complex systems-of-systems, is that the future result is dependent upon the current state of the system.


In human social systems, the current state includes memory: history, culture, the stories that are told within families, at reunions, at school and civil events, the things that families experience that don't need to be talked about, because the whole family lived them.

In Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach , the authors discuss the Utilitarian discourse system and its relationship to scientific inquiry. Early scientists, believing the universe to operate like clockwork, attempted to understand everything by pulling the pieces apart. This can work fine for inanimate objects.

It's less useful when dealing with dynamic events, and downright deadly for living creatures:


I've noted that in business classes, students are often taught to look at the previous ~100 years of history in their attempt to understand the culture of the "other."  The CIA World Factbook is uneven in its approach, providing dates for ancient Egyptian civilization, but scarcely noting the "long history" of South Korea.

So much of who we are as human beings, where we come from, depends on understanding, if not the ~500,000 years of homo sapiens, then at least something of the 5-7000 years of recorded history. *I* get tired of hearing the progression from the Tigris and Euphrates, to Ancient Egypt, to Greece, Rome, and Europe, over and over again, with no mention of the Indus river, the Yangtze river, or any other (non-Egyptian) parts of Africa.

In order to be effective with cross-cultural communication, in order to fully understand the systems of systems of humanity, we need to accept that every culture has a history full of both the things they are proud of, and the things that they are ashamed of.

Here is a good essay that discusses Ethical vs. Cultural Relativism, and some of the ways in which we need to accept that some actions are cultural, while other actions... require more discussion.