Too often we try to simplify a problem to solve it. But we, and millions of effective problem solving organisms in nature, have been solving problems in a very complex world for billions of years.
We do, indeed, use various subconscious processes to simplify this complex world we live in, but paradoxically, it’s the complexity of the world that trains us to do it. In my book on the changing nature of science, Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World (2012, Island Press), I show how natural scientists make sense of complex ecosystems through intensive field training in the wild outdoors.
Much more than academic science training, I find that my most skilled students are those who grew up spending abundant time outdoors, studying nature.
Yet even though in that book I decry the rise of video games—because they distract children from the far more valuable activity of running around discovering stuff in nature—I can definitely see the value of video games in a new program developed by the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT (and reported on in the October 6, 2012 issue of NewScientist) to help cyber security professionals identify mal-ware and other invaders to a computer system. The basic function of the program is to immerse the user in a realistic video game simulation where the environment is a complex visualisation of the systems’ structure.
Just as humans who are immersed in nature can quickly find patterns and predators and other noteworthy objects within their complex environment, a human IT manager can much more easily make sense of a visual representation of the system they manage, and accordingly, much more easily detect the “predators” in their system.
One of the systems designers, Jeremy Kepner, claims in NewScientist that security analysts can deal with far more data in a visual 3D environment, than as lists of status reports on their screens. My ecologist friend Eric Berlow has also shown this in the complex world of military strategy. As I wrote about in Learning from the Octopus, Eric uses a 5 minute TED talk to completely demystify an enormously complicated U.S. Department of defence chart of strategy for the war in Afghanistan. By blowing up that chart into a three dimensional network of the same kind Eric uses to track Sierra Nevada lake food webs, he can easily find patterns and thus show that the really important things the U.S. needed to do in Afghanistan were far less numerous than all the things they had charted out.
Immersing oneself in complexity to deal with complexity isn’t at all surprising from an ecologist’s viewpoint—we always do our best thinking in the impossibly complex world of nature.
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