Something nerdy I wrote post 9/11..


It’s just one of those days when you feel like posting a paper about systems, al qaeda, and post-9/11. & thanks to Meg for keeping me company while I did this presentation. S.

An alternative model for approaching system theory, design and operation.
Stuart Glendinning Hall.

A paper for presentation during the 12th Annual International Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences in Portland, Oregon, August 2002.

Reporting a study into an alternative model for designing systems.. Of particular interest are the possible benefits the model provides over the current  “complicated/easy” model. For example the desk-top computer is more complicated  than the hand-held abacus, but not necessarily more complex. The former is designed with a hugely sophisticated back-end in order to provide an easy-to-use GUI front-end interface. The abacus conversely relies on a greater interaction between the user and the technology in order to provide value, it is therefore both complex and simple. However, analysis suggests that the current paradigm has a number of in-built weaknesses which the alternative model can help resolve, such as in the design of systems which require a high-degree of usability and stability for end users. It is based on an understanding of system design which formerly has put user and system outside each other, whereas the complex/simple model has the relationship as co-involved. Several practical suggestions about the value of the model for extracting greater value for organisational management will also be explored. Indeed it offers government bureaucracy a way out of its inefficiencies of thought and action, enabling an effective tackling of the global terrorist threat from top to bottom.

Keywords: alternative, current, complex, simple, system, complication, easy, organisation, change, terrorism, Al Qaeda.

I have designed my alternative system to be intelligible to technical people and the uneducated alike, and to function for both. The implications of this are true from start to finish. The need for such a fundamental re-think of system theory, design and operation is inspired by the attack of Sept 11. I hope therefore this discussion paper is providing some “specific answers to questions of widely shared concern”. (1) I may not be posing questions of the current system, but perhaps it may be of interest to individuals impressed by the particularly unique challenge of September 11. It’s not a case of more of the same, as I will go onto argue, but I readily accept that’s what most people will be looking for – an improvement in organisation’s ability to deal with such a challenge. In turn I am using the challenge to slowly start thinking about how organisations, particularly state-run organisations, can change to accommodate change in the 21st century and offer them a way out of their inefficiencies of thought and action.In essence my alternative system is based on a different conceptual framework from current systems in that it is from the start designed to be both simple, and complex.

For the sake of understanding lets say this is designed from the bottom up, whereas the current system tends to be designed from the top down, with a tendency towards complication of structures, and consequent weaknesses when faced with subversive threats or rapid changes in the environment generally. I might venture to be a little pretentious and say that my alternative system is, drawing on complexity science, based a little closer to how reality works than current systems, which implicitly still work on traditional maths and science models – in other words the structures change but the ‘dynamical key’ stays the same. Therein lie their strengths but also their weakness when faced with a player who refuses to play by the same rules of the game.

To reiterate this discussion paper is about changing organisations, but to make my point understood I have related much of the relevance of my argument to the fight against the Al Qaeda brand of highly mobile terrorism: “Because we the modernists place a vastly higher priority on education, science and technology, we have managed, in addition to being infidels, to become very powerful infidels, while they are left with being very weal impoverished believers – enraged, impoverished believers…but which (in the shape of Al Qaeda) has managed to find exceptional financing and to adapt itself surprisingly well to a shrewd if minimalist application of borrowed or stolen modern technology.” (2)

Current system theory, design & operation
The effectiveness of the current system involves an implicit theory, design and operational separation between ‘the system’ and ‘the system users’. The usability professional is one example of the current system approach trying to square its own circle in this respect. But fundamentally, as it is based on traditional mathematics which at crudest says complex effects have complex causes, the effective relationship is one between what I have termed complication/easy. Complication is the essential state of mind under the current system approach, easy is the user interface which is supposed to make it all OK. But it’s not OK, because we falsely confuse complication and complexity, easy with simple. Or to be crude once more, we misunderstand the difference between normality and reality – a cardinal sin for any budding scientific genius: “For our everyday experience has led us to expect that an object that looks complicated must have been constructed in a complicated way…(but) at least sometimes such an assumption can be completely wrong…unlike engineering nature operates under no such constraint.”(3)

As a result we have complicated organisations and complicated technology to meet aims which falsely appear simple – in contrast to Al Qaeda which spent just over $1m in its September 11 attack. (4). The risk is that if we simply persist with current system approach, more of the same, in the face of a global terrorism that is fighting not for nationhood but for belief that it will as with the war on drugs only make things worse, not better – a case of “push down, pop up” (5).

Alternative system theory, design & operation
Let me start with a little theory. From an essentially scientific point of view the struggle for survival for all living organisms can be boiled down to two fundamentals – adaptability and invasion. (6) In other words what is the relationship between internal (adaptation) and external (invasion) change? Is it merely a one-way process? Not according to Gaia scientist James Lovelock: ““The deepest error of modern biology is the entrenched belief that organisms interact only with other organisms and only adapt to their material environment. This is as wrong as believing that the people of a village interact with their neighbours but merely adapt to the material conditions of their cottages. In real life, both organisms and people change their environment as well as adapting to it.” (7)

So what does this mean for alternative system design? Current system design is typified until very recently by technology which necessitated for the user to adapt to it. We are seeing changes here though, from the emergence of personal user interfaces to the development of internet search engines designed to learn from your search approach to name just two mundane examples. In other words technology adapting to the user. And with the rise of Open Source software you are seeing the potential to create software systems to suit your corporate needs a lot cheaper than many proprietary systems (8).

The alternative system I am proposing in sketch form in this paper follows on from these developments in IT systems, where the user comes before the technology, and basic CRM business sense, where the customer comes before the product. While these developments largely exist within current thinking, they also provide a bridge to an alternative system which instead of putting system first and users second, involves design which has system and users as unified. After all the world as we know it does not exist apart from people who inhabit it. It’s a matter of working on the whole, and not the parts, of working the relationship between the simple and the complex, the users and the system.

This is nothing new, all I am doing here is simplifying complexity theory for the user: “If the parts of a complex system or the various aspects of a complex situation, all defined in advance, are studied carefully by experts on those parts or aspects and the results of their work are pooled, an adequate description of the whole system or situation does not usually emerge. The reason, of course, is that these parts or aspects are typically entangled with one another. We have to supplement the partial studies with a transdisciplinary “crude look at the whole,” and practitioners of plectics often do just that.” (9)As an operational system I believe my alternative system has advantages over current one. It is able to appreciate and respond to unpredictability without necessitates a complicated reaction – rather a response based on a complexity model, which equips people with mindsets to deal with it more flexibly and creatively because they can more clearly understand their relationship to the whole – objectives, process, outputs and outcomes are more efficiently produced.

I have focused this discussion paper on the need for organisation change, specifically as a result of the Al Qaeda threat. Wouldn’t US citizens like their intelligence community to be more fluid, self-organised and less bureaucratic?  But where’s the customer need right? And I admit that there is no need unless you understand that you are not fighting fire with fire, you are using in effect using the weapons and systems of ‘complication’ to fight complexity. For the fact is terrorism has to organise according to more complex/simple lines to ‘get round’ the sophisticated security systems of the West. And you know it: “Al Qaeda prefers simple, reliable plans and would not allow the success of a large-scale attack ‘to be dependent on some sophisticated, tricky cyber thing to work.’ “(10)

Quite simply my argument is that terrorists know how to exploit the fundamental flaws in current systems which split system from user, part from whole. Neither will they have forgotten that it was an Islamic scholar al-Khowarizmi  around 825AD, who is thought to have first introduced, the concept of algebra the Islamic meaning of which is “the art of bringing together unknowns to match a known quantity”.

(1) Stephen Guastello, ‘Managing Emergent Phenomena: Nonlinear dynamics in work organizations’, 2001.
(2) David Halberstam, ‘War In a Time of Peace’, 2001.
(3) Stephen Wolfram, ‘A New Kind of Science’, 2002.
(4) $1m figure quoted in ‘Bin Laden Along Afghan-Pakistan Border — Spy Chief’, 12 July 2002,
(5) Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance, in an email to the author, 1999.
(6) “It is reasonable to expect that life, if it exists elsewhere, will still be characterized by extreme adaptability and invasiveness. In an unstable and unpredictable universe,” he concludes, “these qualities are needed if life is to survive, either on a planet or anywhere else.” Freeman Dyson, quoted in ‘Freeman Dyson Offers Up New Extraterrestrial Search Ideas’ by A.J.S. Rayl. See
(7) ‘A Way of life for Agnostics,’ James Lovelock, Gaia Circular, Summer 1999.
(8) Stuart G. Hall, ‘Real Life Linux – Credit where credit’s due’, Linux User, October 2000.
(9) Murray Gell-man, ‘Let’s Call it Plectics’, Complexity Journal, Vol. 1/ No. 5 (1995/96).
(10) Assistant Secretary of Defense John Stenbit quoted in ‘Qaeda cyberterror called real peril’, by Barton Gellman, of the Washington Post, June 28 2002.