Scale Free Thinking

Most of what I write (here and elsewhere) is rather concrete, drawing from real world examples, own experience, pushing some hands-on ideas. That’s because most of my learning is people-to-people learning, through hearing stories, making experiences and linking unusual things to each other.

However, every once in a while  I read something that is more on the abstract side that really triggers my interest and sets me thinking. Like Eyal Sivan’s blog post on Scale Free Thinking.  He gives a comprehensive overview over the different schools of thought and fields that are all connected by an understanding of the world as a place where you can always zoom in and zoom out to see the same patterns repeated: A branch has the same structure as a tree, you can see an individual ant or an ant colony as an acting singular entity. And, as the mathematician Mandelbrot wrote: The cost of Britain is of infinite length: The shorter your measuring stick, the longer the coastline gets.

Eyal Sivan writes:

“In the 20th century, such great thinkers as Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Marshall McLuhan and many others too numerous to mention have all embraced scale-free thinking. They didn’t just imagine that we are all connected, which is possibly one of the earliest of ideas. They specifically believed that the same kinds of relationships exist at every scale. Telsa once said your body is connected to your finger in the same way as you are connected to your friend. Humanity can equally be perceived as a batch of genes, a collection of individuals, a set of groups, or as a single entity. We exist at all these scales, all at once.”

As I wrote in an earlier post, when dealing with social realities and exploring social networks, I often encountered the Matryoshka Effect of one entity embedded into the other and I wasn’t sure whether the actor I should look at is the individual person, the organizational unit or the organization as a whole.

Eyal Sivan points out that bureaucratic systems are by definition not truly scale-free, because they have a top. He goes on:

“Scale-free systems must evolve from the bottom-up. From an initial set of conditions and using some simple rules, they feed back on themselves over and over and over again, spiraling outwards and upwards. The natural world is built in layers and we are built in layers, and we organize ourselves in layers.”

So, while the scale free thinking approach has not completely solved my problem (as most of the networks I look at are a hybrid of bottom-up and top-down development, formal and informal links) it has given me something to chew on and might help me to argue that it is alright (and even necessary) to look at different scales at the same time.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the quotes, Eva. I’m very glad you enjoyed my post (and thanks for making it through the whole thing).

    Please note that I am not advocating a purely bottom-up approach. I too believe that a mix of top-down and bottom-up yields the best results (for people, rather than say ants). That said, I think systems should start with a bottom-up approach, and temper the chaos with some top-down control, all the while making sure the system remains scale-free, because scale-free means you always have room to grow. I always liked the gardener analogy (even though I have no green thumb myself).

    Btw, very cool social network mapping tool. I’m a big board game geek, so it immediately caught my eye.

  2. Dear Eyal,
    I think maybe this are two separate (but interlinked) discussions: How SHOULD a system be organized? and: How do you analyze an existing system? So if you have a system that is organized top-down (let’s say a government agency), how far can scale free thinking help you to understand what is going on in this system? I don’t know. I just have the feeling that there is something in it even for understanding systems that are not truly scale free but are a set of units on different scales.

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