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FC — So, now we can ask the question, "Is a social system a living system that can be analyzed in those terms?" I have struggled with this question for many years. What I have done is to look at human organizations, because that is a smaller scale than to look at society as a whole. I asked myself the question "Can a company be regarded as a living system?" First, I tried to understand whether we can use the living system as a metaphor for a company. Can we talk about "the living company" as a metaphor? There is a very good book by Gareth Morgan, a Canadian organizational theorist, called "Images of Organization." He talks about the machine image, and about the company as a brain, as a prison, as all kinds of things, including a living system.
Then I wanted to go beyond metaphor and imagery, and really see if you can understand a
human organization as a living social system. I tried to follow the network approach, and in particular the work of the German social scientist Niklas Luhmann, who took the concept of autopoiesis from Maturana and applied it to social systems. Luhmann concluded that a social system is a network of communications. It is self-generating (or autopoietic), so that each communication generates ideas, information, thoughts, and meaning, and thereby triggers further communications. So, the whole network generates itself. I have used this view of social systems to analyze human communities. By the way, I think "community" is a good term to use, because people have a direct experience of community. So, I looked at a community as a network of communications, and made a detailed comparison between biological networks and social networks.
One difficulty that has plagued all the discussions of how to deal with social systems as living systems, has been to identify the space in which the social processes take place. In a cell, you have a physical space and you have chemistry going on in that space; so you can write equations and talk about gradients, concentrations, densities, and things like that. It's pretty straightforward. With social systems the question is: do the individuals within the social system — the nodes in the network — operate in a physical space, or in a mental space, or is there something like a social space?
These are very difficult questions, and I don't think they have been resolved. But Luhmann at least started by saying social systems are networks of communications. I tried to expand that idea by comparing social networks with biological networks. In a living biological network, there are production processes, and the network produces material structure. You can say the same thing in a social network. In a business organization, for example, it's quite obvious that the main purpose of the organization is to produce goods and to sell them. So, there are products. The organization is a network of production, but there is also a nonmaterial dimension where the products are nonmaterial structures — ideas, thoughts and so on. In the book, I call them semantic structures. So, there are material structures and semantic structures, and social networks produce both, whereas biological networks produce only material structures.
You can go on and look at the material structures produced by social systems, and you will see that they are quite different from material structures produced by biological networks because they are usually reproduced for a purpose, according to some design, and they embody meaning. The painting here behind you is produced for a purpose; you could say the artist wants to sell paintings and make a career; but there is more to it — the purpose of self-expression and other goals an artist can have. And the painting embodies meaning, including cultural meaning. This is true also for this coffee cup. It embodies cultural meaning. The whole field of anthropology is concerned with that.
I have made two parallel lists with the characteristics of biological and social networks. Biological networks operate in the realm of matter; social networks operate in the realm of meaning. Both produce material structures, but those produced by social networks are always connected with the realm of meaning. I also looked at boundaries, which is very interesting because part of the definition of a selfgenerating, living network is that it generates its own boundary. It needs a boundary to acquire an identity; otherwise it could not exist as a unity in the world. In a cell, the boundary is not a boundary of separation because it's a semi-permeable membrane. It is a boundary of identity; it restricts the chemical processes that can take place inside the network, because it lets in only certain things and not others.
In the social realm, when you look at a community, there is also a boundary, but it's not a topological boundary. It does not go around a community in a topological sense. It surrounds it in a metaphoric sense. The boundary of a community is a boundary of belonging, a boundary of loyalty, a boundary of expectations — there are many words you can use. It's always a boundary of meaning. The continuing interactions and communications within the boundary create a culture, that is, a shared system of knowledge, beliefs, values and norms of behavior. That's the standard definition of culture.
This is a very interesting situation. You see, the boundary is created by the system, and at the same time it feeds back on the system and restricts the behavior of its individuals. That is true both in biology and in the social sciences. Taking all this together, I have very good evidence for the fact that it's useful to apply the network concept to social systems. This work is far from complete. There are many problems when you try to be more specific. But it looks very promising.
FP — What do you see at the very edge of this research?
FC — Well, let's talk again about, morphogenesis, the generation of biological form. I said before that we need to understand both the biochemistry and the nonlinear dynamics of the biological network. Then we need to see how this nonlinear dynamics, this network of chemical processes, encounters the physical and chemical constraints of its environment, and how this results in a limited number of forms. Mathematically speaking, it results in a limited number of attractors. This is how you can explain the generation of biological form. The genetic part determines certain parameters. A certain plant will respond to chemical conditions in a certain way, another plant will respond differently because it has a different
This is much more precise than just saying "we have a network, and we have a boundary, and we have production of material structures." I can translate that general description into the social domain. But what about the more specific descriptions? What about the genesis of biological form? Can we compare this with the genesis of semantic structures, like language, meaning culture and political systems? I think it would be extremely interesting to do this.
FP — What is the space in which this takes place? What are the important nodes?
FC — There is something very important here. In extending the framework of the network approach from biology to the social sciences, I assume a commonality of patterns; I assume that life always generates the same kinds of patterns. There is a network pattern in biology, and there is a network pattern in the social sciences, and so on. But in order to understand the details of the network, you have to say, "What are the nodes, and what are the processes that are involved?” In a biological network, the processes are biochemical processes. In a human community, they are processes of communications, which involve values, ideas and knowledge; and, very significantly, they involve conflicts, relationships of power and all that. So, we can use complexity theory to learn about the network pattern and apply this to social science, but we need political theory, anthropology, philosophy, all kinds of social sciences, to explain what's going on in the processes, just as we need our biochemists to explain what enzymes do in the cell.
FP — That's where your work with Manuel Castells can be significant in the application of a network perspective in the social sciences…
FC — Absolutely. One thing I have learned from him is that in society, there is always conflict, and there are relationships of power. But in a network society there are no absolute centers of power. This does not mean that everything is equal. A network can be very asymmetrical and certain nodes have a lot of power while others have very little. But networks need to take all the nodes that are in the network into account. There is a mutual dependency among all of them. Although some of them will be more powerful than others, they cannot ignore the less powerful ones because there are so many nonlinear connections that things will inevitably come back to haunt you if you ignore other things.
Another thing I have learned from several theorists who study networks is that the importance of a node in a network comes from its connectivity. Nodes that are more connected are more important. They are not necessarily leaders in a qualitative sense, but they are more connected. And I think I am just realizing now, that there is an interesting connection to cognitive science here, because this is how one can define intelligence, in terms of cognitive connectedness. So, intelligent nodes are more important, because they are more connected.
FP — We are now in the area of information. You have not used this word, in this sense at least. You have mentioned matter, patterns, etc. How do you see the difference between information and meaning in your approach?
FC — I have thought a lot about both. I use "meaning" as a label to include the social dimension in this framework. I define meaning as the experience of context. I have known for a long time that it has something to do with context. Gregory Bateson wrote about meaning and context, but he did not connect the two in a precise way. I believe now the connection is that meaning is an experience. When we find something meaningful we have an experience of a context.
Let me give you a few examples. Let's begin with the meaning of a word in a linguistic context. In order to explain what a word means, for example in a dictionary, we have to give the context. The meaning of the word always resides in the context, and it's a never-ending game. In my seminars I sometimes use the example of a group of lawyers sitting around a table and having a discussion about the meaning of a legal text. They very precisely analyze the sentence structures of the text, compare it with other legal texts and with other cases, and will derive a precise meaning of that legal text by studying its context. This can be a purely intellectual exercise where they apply their knowledge of the law. Now, suppose that one of them remembers that a very similar case was one of the first cases he ever argued in court, which launched his whole career. For that lawyer, the text is meaningful at a very personal level. It acquires an emotional charge, which is quite different from the linguistic and legal context. Typically when we say "The meaning of something is that and that," we refer to the intellectual context. And when we say "Something is meaningful," there is emotion in it. When the context of something includes my own self, then it becomes meaningful in a personal way.
FP — Context, then, can be seen as a set of relationships…
FC — Yes, absolutely. It is a set of relationships with other things, That's why it fits with the network.
FP — There is an interesting notion, which is that of the "text of the network". Would you think that in the same way as it is legitimate to go from biology to cognitive sciences to social sciences, that there would be a need for a "network text?"
FC — I have not thought about that. It's a very interesting question. Do you mean that, rather than writing things down linearly, we could write them hypertext fashion? But let me come back to your previous question about information. I have not, in my written work, connected meaning and information, although I have written about both. I think the connection is that meaning is the context and when the context is stable, and we know it well, then we can abstract part of that context, parts of this network of relationships, and create a short "piece," and this is what we call "information."
I'll give you an example. I can ask you, what's the time? And you say 2:30. That's a piece of information which is quite clear cut. Many people think, it's an objective piece of information. I can pick it out from the world around me and communicate it to you. That's true, but it requires a lot of contextual ideas. It requires a common view of the solar system, of how we measure time with the revolutions of the Earth. It requires a cultural consensus to divide the day into 24 segments and each segment into 60 minutes, and so on. That's just convention. You could do it in many other ways. In California, if I say to a kid it's 14:30 he probably won't understand what I mean, whereas you, being European, know exactly what I mean. It's a matter of cultural context. That whole context is stable; we share it, and therefore I can abstract it and call it "a piece of information."
I learned this from Francisco Varela a long time ago. He convinced me that there is no such thing as information in nature . Information is a human construct. We discussed this with the example of genetic information. Everybody says that DNA contains genetic information. But that's again abstracted from a whole context of a metabolic network, which we need to know in order to understand the information that is in the genes. So, meaning is related to context, and information is also related to context, but in different ways. Information is an abstracted piece of context and meaning is the experience of a wider context.
FP — You had something to say about hypertext…
FC — Yes, that's more anecdotal. Anybody who works with networks, nonlinearity and patterns has the problem that, whenever you speak or write, you have to do it in a linear way. This raises the question of how can you write linearly about a nonlinear reality, a nonlinear system. There are several ways of dealing with that. One way that I use extensively is to use nonlinear conceptual diagrams. I put words on paper in a pattern and connect them with lines. I have adopted a system over the years where I use different kinds of lines to picture different kinds of connections.
FP — Do you use software?
FC — No, I find it too slow. I prefer working with pencil and paper, and I use this technique extensively. This is one example of how to deal with nonlinearity. Another one is how I write my books. Over the years I have developed an elaborate system, even a ritual, of writing. I prepare my books for a very long time. Obviously, I do a lot of research. When that is done, I have a stack of notes that are pretty structured. And then I go about structuring the actual book. When I decide, I have enough information and I can start writing, I spend several months to structure the book. I map out the chapters, and the sections in each chapter. Then, when I write, I start from the beginning and write the chapters in sequence. But when I start with chapter one, I know exactly what will be in chapter 5, because I've mapped it all out. This allows me to make many cross references, even to things I have not yet written. In my books, there are always abundant cross references, backwards and forwards. They complete the conceptual network. The text is linear, but the cross references provide the nonlinear connections.
Recently, I saw a paper by a colleague of mine, Amory Lovins, on the Internet, in which the references are all hyperlinks; they are not numbered. In the reference section, the author gives the corresponding page number of the hyperlink, but the links themselves are not numbered. It's an interesting new technique, and you could do the same with hyperlinks between different parts of the text.
FP — Have you read "One Thousand Plateaus" by Deleuze and Guattari?
FC — No
FP — I think it's a very important book for what we are talking about. They use the concept of rhizome. The construction of the book is in plateaus which they take from Bateson. What strikes me in the way you build your books, is that you build them in a very solid way and you can have connections, but it's fixed while the structure of the mind is not fixed because you can go from one place to another.
FC — Another thing I did many years ago when I was teaching a course, was to draw a conceptual map in preparation for every lecture. During the lecture, I would transfer the map onto the blackboard. This technique has a great advantage, because usually when you teach with a blackboard, especially in science, you write a lot of equations, you take up a lot of space. And then you don't quite know what you can erase and what you need to save on the blackboard. In my system, there is nothing to erase, because I already know the final network. I just put in the words, and I put them in the right places from the beginning. Then I connect them. I also told my students that they should not copy the whole thing. They should rather listen to me, and I would give them handouts at the end, so they could take the finished conceptual diagram home. It's a lot of work. But the advantage is not only that you don't need to erase anything; you can also start from any point, because it's a network. And you never get lost.
FP — You mentioned that you were interested in communities, and you mentioned the fact that in businesses organizations there are communities, or informal networks. People might not pay enough attention to this in institutions and outside.
FC — This was an important insight for me when I began to analyze human organizations as living systems. I heard many people talking about "the living company," or "the living organization," as a metaphor. They would give talks on the emotionality of a company, on its deep purpose and so on. All this sounded a little phony to me because I knew that what is really going on in a company has to do with competitive advantage, shareholder value, power struggles and so on. And they never addressed any of these issues. They would brush them to the side.
On the other hand, I also realized that people who only speak about the structure of organizations and cannot talk about processes of emergence, creativity, and things like these. Finally, after many years, I came to the conclusion that any human organization has a dual nature: it is a social institution, you could even say a social tool, designed to achieve a certain purpose, such as producing goods, making money, disseminating knowledge and so on. On the other hand, it is always a collection of communities which are now called "communities of practice” by organizational theorists. These are the informal networks in the organizations. And this is the part of the organization which is alive, and which I can analyze in terms of my network concepts. This living part, the informal networks, is where the flexibility lies, the learning capability, the creativity.
Now, it's important to realize that a human organization always needs both. It needs a formal structure which embodies the purpose. These formal structures are always structures of power. They are the structures where power is managed and communicated. When you have a hierarchy in an organization, it's always a hierarchy of power.
FP — What about the informal part that you have mentioned?
FC — Organizational theory and management theory generally deal only with the formal
structures and not with the informal ones. The formal structures are needed for the routine work; they are needed for the company to function smoothly, for the distribution of tasks, and all that. But the informal structures are where the creativity, flexibility, and adaptability lie. An organization always needs both.