A Remark on Global Systems

In the philosophy of science (according to Paul Feyerabend an under-researched form of madness), there is a story of two friends at a party where one says to the other: “Let’s go talk to the lady who is pouring herself a glass of vodka over there!” They approach her and realize it’s a man drinking gin. The morale: we can successfully refer to something by means of erroneous descriptions.

Of course, the description has to contain an element of truth, but to recognize it, one must get more familiar with the object referred to. So let’s start with a very preliminary description of global systems, taken from the invitation to the first open GSS conference. A global system is something like:

  • the energy, water and food supply systems
  • the internet
  • the global financial system
  • the agents, resources and mechanisms involved in climate policy
  • the web of military forces and relations
  • globally spreading diseases
  • the scientific community

In understanding, studying and shaping global systems, computer networks are essential. I was trained to look at computers as Turing machines, and to coupled Turing machines – and therefore at computer networks – as big Turing machines. I am not so sure anymore, for two pretty abstract reasons. First, the work by Dina Goldin and Peter Wegner at Brown university has led me to think about extended Turing machines as devices mediating between unending streams of inputs and outputs (Google has the pdfs). And second, the conversation between Turing and Wittgenstein (documented in C. Diamond, ed., Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics) has led me to look at computer networks as embedded in human conversations in an inextricable way.

Some philosophers have seen human conversations as embedded in an overarching conversation of humankind. While this was a powerful metaphor in the past, the evolution of global systems is increasingly turning it into a reality. Humankind has begun to engage in a global conversation, be it via the channels of science or of mass media, of social networks or of face-to-face encounters mediated by global travel. Global system science is a reflection on this conversation, while being a part of it.

For the moment, all I am trying to do is to refer to global systems with preliminary descriptions, starting with examples rather than with a definition based on some conceptual frame. To see how important global systems have become, just think about the relation between the global financial crisis and the troubles of the Eurozone, or give a look at http://arxiv.org/abs/1107.5728…

Carlo Jaeger

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