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Complex Living Tensegrities

Chris Lucas

"The Greek geometers could not therefore define the planar extensibility that lay outside and beyond the line of known content. Since the surface outside of the line went to infinity, you could not include it in your computation. The Greeks' concept of the geometrical, bound-area of their triangle - or their circle - lay demonstrably on only one bound-area side of the line. As a consequence of such fundamental schooling, world society became historically biased about everything. Continually facing survival strategy choices, society assumed that it must always choose between two or more political or religious 'sides'. Thus developed the seeming nobility of loyalties. Society has been educated to look for logic and reliability only on one side of a line, hoping that the side chosen, on one hand or the other of indeterminately large lines, may be on the inside of the line. This logic is at the head of our reflexively conditioned biases. We are continually being pressed to validate one side of the line or the other.

You can 'draw a line' only on the surface of some system. All systems divide Universe into insideness and outsideness. Systems are finite. Validity favors neither one side of the line nor the other. Every time we draw a line operationally upon a system, it returns upon itself. The line always divides a whole system's unit area surface into two areas, each equally valid as unit areas. Operational geometry invalidates all bias."

R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics , 1997, 811.03/04

Introduction - getting our biases sorted

Two plus two equals four is true in the world of the kindergarten, as well as in common sense and in wide tracts of science and mathematics. In this linear world the output always equals the sum of the inputs, there is never anything lost, nor can you gain more than you put in - this is the world of the 'zero sum', i.e. the two sides of any equation must balance. Yet this is not the only world, an alternative nonlinear world exists and this world features highly in the study of complex systems, and (we must say) within all the real systems of our living reality. In other words, the mathematical 'maps' used so widely in our educational systems simply do not bear much relation to the 'territory' that they purport to describe.

Today, we do not expect the zero-sum results predicted by linear thinking, but enter instead into a non-zero-sum mode, where what we get out is so often less (negative-sum) or more (positive-sum) than what we put in. It is this feature of the world that allows change, for better or for worst, and it is how we treat these nonlinear aspects of our universe that determines which of these options will prevail. This viewpoint recognises that our world is dynamic, not static (as implied by most mathematical treatments), it evolves, it lives or dies in complex ways - depending largely upon the type of interactions undergone by the composite elements in conjunction with their environment (the missing other side of the line). This essay will investigate these possibilities and look at how we may better understand the complex dynamics of humans, societies and ecologies by relating it to the tensegrity ideas of Buckminster Fuller.

Tensegrity - just another word for attractor balance

"An astoundingly wide variety of natural systems, including carbon atoms, water molecules, proteins, viruses, cells, tissues and even humans and other living creatures, are constructed using a common form of architecture known as tensegrity. The term refers to a system that stabilizes itself mechanically because of the way in which tensional and compressive forces are distributed and balanced within the structure."

Donald Ingber, The Architecture of Life , 1998

Tensegrity, short for 'tension integrity', relates to how structures behave, whether these are man-made, natural or social. It concerns such issues as why bridges don't collapse, why an isolated cell is spherical and why humans can remain in existence (despite the every present forces of entropy). Tensegrity Structure In many natural systems or structures, we see clearly the presence of opposing elements, but we almost never see one or the other of these elements in 'control' as it were. In other words, in every scenario, we see a balance between opposing forces, which Buckminster Fuller called 'compression' and 'tension' ('things' or 'objects' versus 'relations' or 'processes'), a semi-stable mix of order and chaos that results in a dynamic that can resist perturbation, that can self-stabilize under the influence of external disturbances. Hence disturbances or attempted deviations are absorbed, because a tensegrity structure distributes and dilutes stresses - it is an attractor basin that returns to the reference point for many perturbations. Given that such a structure has a stable point to which it will always return once the stress is removed, then we can liken this to a cybernetic reference point, where feedback loops are distributed in such a way as to maintain its stability. These attractors are of course also to be found in biological, human and social systems, so we can expect to see the same forms of tensegrity dynamics in these systems too. But what could possibly maintain such a dynamic, especially in our social world ?

To understand this, both in human and in lesser associations, we need to understand the benefits of cooperation, whether these occur by choice or by chance. Taking our behaviour as humans, we can ask ourselves, why do we 'hate' our fellows and conversely why do we 'love' different fellows ? The answer seems fairly simple, because those that we hate hurt our individual fitness (in whatever way), and those that we love enhance it (again in whatever way). Thus we will move away from the 'haters' and towards the 'lovers', but of course we are all multidimensional and individual, so whereas we may love some aspects of a 'friend', we may hate some other aspects, and vice-versa for 'enemies'. Inevitably, we balance all these dimensions, we establish an internal 'golden mean' that gets the very best from life that we are able to achieve (in our view) - but only at this particular point in our current personal evolution and in our limited context. To put it in structural terms, competition is an compression element, it acts to keep people apart, to resist their 'opponent's actions and to try to force their own to prevail. Cooperation in turn is a tension element, it act to draw people together, to bind them into a common cause, to make their fates identical. Thus if we are to have a world both diverse (where the individuals are different) and peaceful (where tolerance prevails) then we must have a balance between these two elements, 'compression' and 'tension'. As far as they are 'out-of-balance' then our world will be unfit and subject (like maladaptive organisms) to extinction - a dynamic that results from the fragility of over-specialisation. And we do see this today, just as buildings are obsessively constructed using only compression elements, so our societies are build upon adversarial principles, the cooperation or 'synergy' is as lacking there as tension proves to be in most buildings - making both unstable and subject to sudden collapse under strong perturbation.

Haskell's Periodic Coordinate System - win, draw or lose

Edward Haskell (an early synergic scientist) developed the co-Action table, a matrix of 9 possible interactions between pairs of people (denoted here by the combinations of +, 0 and - corresponding to 'win', 'draw' and 'lose'), which he expanded to what he called "The Periodic Coordinate System" depicting Synergy, Neutrality and Adversity in a single model which covers all levels of reality and groupings. Haskell's Periodic Coordinate system To Haskell the Omega point represented the ideal state of perfect harmony and oneness that could result in a Universe filled with synergic relationships (which would correspond to the Buddhist concept of universal liberation). The Alpha point represented the end of life and the heat death of the Universe (which corresponds to science's view of our eventual destiny once the energy runs out).

As we can see, two directions of evolution are possible, positively (syntropy, which we can call +ve sum) or negatively (entropy, which we can call -ve sum). The first corresponds to increasing order (a fitness surplus), the second to increasing chaos (a fitness deficit), so the dividing line (what Haskell called the axis of atropy) will correspond to what in complexity science we call the 'edge-of-chaos'. In Haskell's scheme this is the axis of neutrality (which we can call zero sum). But note that in complexity science we find that the 'edge-of-chaos' is a fractal boundary and contains structure at all scales. This structure is forever dynamically changing, with movements both positive (structures forming) and negative (structures dissolving), thus what we see from afar as 'neutrality' is the net result of an unstable balance between these two dynamics. This balance operates along a continuum, from no movement in either direction (dead or static systems) to vast but balanced movement in both directions (as Newton put it "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction"). The neutral state is therefore a balanced state or a tensegrity, where compressions (divergent actions - moves away from existing order) and tensions (convergent needs - moves towards a new order) cancel each other out.

Complex Interacting Systems (CIS) - putting back environment

"Adaptation, in biological usage, is the process whereby an organism fits itself to its environment. Roughly, experience guides changes in the organism's structure so that as time passes the organism makes better use of its environment for its own ends."

John H. Holland, Hidden Order, 1995, pg. 9

Complex systems comprise many elements or 'agents' in interaction, situated within a wider environment. Usually (in line with our inside-only myopia) we refer only to one class of such systems, the 'Complex Adapting System' or CAS, a system which tries to maintain itself intact despite environmental changes, i.e. it exists far-from-equilibrium - always fighting entropy and parasitizing environment resources (the 'movements' are towards system). Yet four different types of complex interacting system are found to be possible, depending upon their relationships to their environment, which correspond to Haskell's four quadrants. Here we separate the two axes of synergy/dysergy and order/chaos, since we can have order without cooperation (totalitarianism) and chaos without conflict (free market); as well as order with cooperation (self-organization) and chaos with conflict (war). Dynamically, trajectories or flows between all these modes occur constantly. The CAS version changes its state dependent upon its context, its environmental situation, and it does so in such a way as to retain its fitness within such a context, it adapts positively in the way that we assume occurs during 'natural selection'. Complex Interacting Systems But another response to environmental changes is possible, a negative one, and so we discover the complement of the CAS, the 'Complex Maladapting System' or CMS. Here the opposite conflict with the environment is established, such that dysergic losses to the system occur, i.e. the environment overcomes the system (as would, say, a predator - the 'movements' are towards environment), and we see such types of behaviour throughout today's less-than-sane world, in forms of alienation and institutionalised bullying; as well as in the traditional evolutionary scenario of species extinction.

Two further, more extreme, examples of CIS can also be defined. In the first, the 'Complex Evolving System' or CES, we have a system that develops itself, it grows constantly into a more complex and intricate form (the 'movements' increase over time). This relates to the self-development or self-actualization of human beings (the search for 'enlightenment') and to the development of communities by self-help and mutual assistance. Here the intent is to benefit both system and environment by maximising synergy and syntropy in a symbiotic balanced way (corresponding to the peak of Haskell's synergy lobe). Again we can define a complement, which is the 'Complex Degenerating System' or CDS. Here the system and environment are engaged in a mutual destructiveness, such that nothing can ultimately survive, i.e. the whole disintegrates under the twin forces of entropy and dysergy (the 'movements' decrease over time). Socially this corresponds to countries engaged in 'wars of attrition' where total destruction is the aim of both sides, and also to 'suicide bombers' (although only one side acts here, the effect is the same !).

Human Tensegrities - its not all in the head

"The dictionary defines rapport as: 'The state of persons who are in full and perfect agreement. A relation of harmony, accord, conformity, affinity, concord, and unity - especially in an intimate and harmonious relationship.' In synergetics, rapport is used essentially in this sense, with certain precise qualifications.

Rapport is determined by the degree of synergy, empathy, and communication that exists. This is symbolized by the Synergy-Empathy-Communication Triangle (SEC Triangle)."

N. Arthur Coulter, Human Synergetics, 1976

SEC Triangle Rapport thus takes into account the three main aspects of being human, our intellect (signified by synergic analysis), our emotions (signified by empathetic feelings) and our bodily senses (signified by exchanges of signs or information). Leaving out any of these leads to an unbalanced person, a bias towards one corner or another of the triangle, but the same effect occurs if we fail to keep them separate (merging their distinctiveness). This is a failure to maintain optimum tensegrity and to build upon our full capabilities, which should include our needs, moralities (sense of harmony) and dynamical evolution. In complexity science, just as for strength in tensegrity, it is found that maximum fitness results from a position of balance, a mix of stability and opportunity, togetherness and difference, such that we can employ all our faculties in an attempt to better our condition. This corresponds to the middle area of our triangle - the point of stability coupled with maximum advantage.

It is easy to recognise tensegrity in our body structures, our bones and tendons are obvious compression and tension elements, but recognising such forms of structure in mind and brain seems more difficult. Yet our neurons are connected in both excitatory and inhibitory ways, the former acts to synchronize groups of neurons (they all fire at the same time), the latter to de-synchronise them (creating discord or boundaries - a 'winner takes all'). We are perhaps more used to the former mode, whereby our 'mind' behaves as a single whole, yet we can also see that there are many occasions where we seem to be in 'two minds", and more pathologically we have 'multiple personality disorder' where our 'minds' compete for control. Additionally we have many different categories, and these establish both similarities and differences - again a mix of tension and compression, a tensegrity. Attractors here often need a mix of both elements, since all of one type tends to slew the system to an extreme, either a static state (point attractor) or disorder (an ergodic attractor), neither of which proves to be very fitness enhancing for us as a 'whole'.

Social Tensegrities - understanding people dynamics

"They cannot understand why their strictures, advice or demands do not result in effective change. They expect either to achieve a measure of success in their own terms or to be flung off the premises. But an ultrastable system (like a social institution)... has no need to react in either of these ways. It specialises in equilibrial readjustment, which is to the observer a secret form of change requiring no actual alteration in the macrosystemic characteristics that he is trying to do something about."

Stafford Beer, International Cybernetic Congress, 1969, Chairman's Address

But what success is such a demanding 'boss' expecting ? Is it just his as individual ? Hopefully not, we live in a social setting, thus our advantage or otherwise depends upon how our behaviour and choices fits in with our social milieu. In tensegrity terms, our social and cultural values create a 'norm', a point in a multidimensional state space that acts as a cybernetic reference point (or attractor) in determining how we are regarded when we 'act' in such a society. We are rewarded, penalised, or more often ignored in terms of how our social incentives relate to our behaviours. But note that our current incentives, in other words our 'design of society' is a faulty construct ! We ignore, in almost every institution and 'law', the wider effects of such controls - those 'outer effects', the knock-on effects of every social decision upon the wider world (which includes other societies, other individuals, and other inhabitants of our planet). Within today's unsustainable world, and the many negativities that we see around us, we can say that "we designed the environment that is killing us" ! Our global problems exist as a direct result of establishing a 'balance point', a self-sustaining tensegrity, that ultimately leads to our species destruction.

How could tensegrity ideas help us escape this 'fatal attraction' ? What is missing is effective tension elements, those links joining us together, despite our different views. And this joining must be to our advantage, otherwise it simply doesn't work, it cannot be imposed as yet another external force, a 'top-down' demand, i.e. another 'compression' element, since that would simply be resisted by the status-quo. Synergy here gives us a key, since this tells us that each individual benefits from such associations and would lose out if isolated. Thus it is essential that we have the correct incentive structures built into our social behaviours, we must be sure to reward cooperation and penalise adversity. This sounds simple and obvious, but sadly most of today's incentives have been twisted over time to reward the exact opposite - in line with the faulty dogma that isolated individuality (e.g. 'rights') and 'competition' is all, and can never be 'democratically' opposed...

Ecological Tensegrities - sustaining our living planet

"One of the modern tools of high intellectual advantage is the development of what is called general systems theory. Employing it we begin to think of the largest and most comprehensive systems, and try to do so scientifically. We start by inventorying all the important, known variables that are operative in the problem. But if we donít really know how big "big" is, we may not start big enough, and are thus likely to leave unknown, but critical, variables outside the system which will continue to plague us. Interaction of the unknown variables inside and outside the arbitrarily chosen limits of the system are probably going to generate misleading or outrightly wrong answers. If we are to be effective, we are going to have to think in both the biggest and most minutely-incisive ways permitted by intellect and by the information thus far won through experience."

R. Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, 1969, 5

In looking at ecological systems, one thing becomes clear, they recycle 100%. This fact is missing from 'advanced' human societies. Sure we pontificate about recycling - but never really understand what it means. It means that only a balance involving 100% recycling is sustainable. Period. The aim of 100% recycling is the cybernetic reference point for the whole ecological system. If something is 'wasted' then a creature or plant or bacteria will evolve to reuse this resource. Do we not partly see this in human society too ? In 'shanty towns' what the 'rich' (in what social sense are such controllers of group resources called 'rich' we may ask ?) choose to discard is made useful again; what 'the blind' do not see a use for, the needy employ (and often at far less cost than is wasted by the 'superior' rich to do the same job), and often they do it better (more durably, more efficiently) by using their 'initiative', i.e. their humanity - so often suppressed (at great cost even) by the bully-boy types !

Integrating human consumption with the biological variety requires us to take a whole Earth perspective. It is no longer possible in our global world for obsolete 'nations' to adopt a fortress mentality (whether supposed 'superpowers' or not), nor to try to pretend that they can ignore not only everyone else, but also their own negative effects upon all the other peoples and all the natural aspects of our planet. The ecological tensegrity here, our 'general system', therefore relates to Gaia as a whole (plus the Moon for the tidal flows, and the Sun for the energy flows). As humans mesh more and more with the planet, we must integrate our actions with nature, not act as though we are 'better' than animals (our sub-animal behaviour often proves this to be very wrong !). We must establish a balance, protecting whatever elements are necessary to preserve our 'life support system', and since we currently know and care so little about this, it seems then that a 'preventative' rather than 'remedial' stance is essential, quite the opposite to current corporate and political inactivity based upon lack of scientific 'proof' - a concept that is actually completely non-existent and mythical, so allowing interminable inaction by exploitative vested interests ! The only way to prove 'without doubt', to the short-sighted, that we are killing ourselves, is after the event...

Holarchic Tensegrity - joining up the dots

"In seeking to use tensegrities, it may prove that it is more appropriate to treat them as extremely powerful conceptual 'interrelators' for whatever projection onto them can be adequately sustained and comprehended within the collectivity concerned... It is useful, for example, to reflect on the elegance with which tensegrities can interrelate complex patterns of differences (separators) and similarities (connectors) at a time when society is torn between the simplistic extremes of personal or collective violence on the one hand, and sexual/ecstatic merger or planetary integration/union on the other. Could it be that tensegrities indicate a way of articulating and interrelating differences such that the latters' separative properties (normally destructive) provide the necessary basis for the construction of a new collective space ?"

Anthony Judge, Implementing Principles by Balancing Configurations of Functions , 1979

If we have tensegrity related balances within physics, within biology, within psychology, within sociology and within ecology, then what should we conclude ? The resultant of such a mesh of actions and reactions is a multi-level unstable dynamic which, nethertheless, tries to maximise 'utility' or fitness at every scale and we should do the same. Unlike the single-dimensional systems outlined by Buckminster Fuller, which consisted of uniform manifestations of compression (e.g. struts) and uniform manifestations of tension (e.g. wires), we can see that 'nature' is far more versatile. Redundancy precludes any single 'critical' component, i.e. one that which, if destroyed (e.g. cutting the 'wire'), would bring down the entire edifice like a pack of cards. Instead, at 'edge-of-chaos', multiple paths through the system exist. Multiple options exist, multiple optima exist, there is (in other words) a natural tendency to distribute forces throughout the system, changing the reference point slightly (that equilibrial readjustment), such that the tensegrity is maintained - regardless of 'perturbation' location or strength (within limits !). How we achieve such a balance depends upon which 'law' operates to set the 'norm' to which the system now adapts. Only in humans societies are we able to define such a 'law' or norm, and traditionally we make a complete mess of it, establishing 'norms' that are personally, socially and environmentally self-destructive.

How we treat the whole, whether our bias focuses on humans, animals, ecology or elsewhere, is dependent upon our beliefs. If we believe that we can do anything we like then (of course) we will do just that. If we believe that there are no consequences to be faced, then we will continues indefinitely in such beliefs. But both constructs are faulty, non-systemic (inside-only) beliefs. We have known this for many decades, even for many millennia. Many of the effects of these faulty constructs are to be seen around us, in a world that is progressively becoming more divided, more fragile, less democratic, less diverse and in every way contrary to the claims of those 'in control' (and that ain't 'government' !). It is time we stopped wearing the rose-coloured glasses, stopped believing everything we are told by media moguls (who care little about real issues), stopped accepting the dogma that specialist 'experts' know best, stopped devolving our responsibility for our own world to others, stopped being insular and short-sighted. If we do not change our behaviours, then we will fall off the cliff - and our planet with us - and maybe before most of us alive today die of 'old age' ! It is time to join up the dots and see the wider picture.

Coping With Complexity - tensegrity as priority

"The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness
than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings."

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

In 'trivia world' the burning issues of the day seem to revolve around which 'celeb' is the most newsworthy, but such obsessive ego tripping is living in a fantasy world. The ego, as the Buddha told us (and modern philosophy and science concurs), doesn't exist - it is a static delusion. Our individuality is an ongoing social construct, a result of our mental biases and echoes our distorted priorities. What is important is what the media ignores, i.e. what our actions in hyping 'individuality' are doing to ourselves, the rest of the people and our environment - and it is not a pretty picture. Science with its blinkered specialisms is partly responsible, but this only echoes the philosophical error behind all Western beliefs, the idea that we can ignore the 'outer limits', that the Earth's tensegrity can be divorced from our actions, that humans exist in a different world to other lifeforms.

To restore any tensegrity structure to its former shape we can act in two ways, firstly we can remove the load or stresses, Ortegrity Network unfortunately as the stress here is humanity itself then this would mean the extinction of most of us. Secondly we can strengthen (tighten) the tension elements (or add the missing ones) and since this is our only remaining option then this becomes our 'world priority'. But how do we do this ? Since it is easier to gain bonding with small groups then a multi-level social organization or 'Ortegrity' seems useful. Here one member of each group 'represents' the group consensus at the next level, and a member of that group represents the higher consensus into a yet wider grouping, ultimately encompassing all of humanity. Here we avoid the ludicrous idea (endemic to our supposed democracies) of a single politician 'representing' the diverse views of a million or more people. Tensegrity is a system of 'checks' and 'balances' and that is just what democracy was supposed to provide ! Tension is a local phenomenon, linking local compression members, and is thus a form of self-organization, a 'patch' procedure whereby local 'cells' link-up, in many ways, to define a world tensegrity - a mode of working that we know, from complexity science studies, optimizes overall fitness.

Conclusion - balance or die

"Imagination reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the individual, with the representative; the sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order; judgement ever awake and steady self-possession, with enthusiasm and feeling profound or vehement; and while it blends and harmonizes the natural and the artificial, still subordinates art to nature; the manner to the matter; and our admiration of the poet to our sympathy with the poetry."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817, ch. 14

Being imaginative is the art of progress, of evolution, of solving our problems. Yet this need for creativity is often suppressed today. People, the only real resource for growing 'wealth' on a finite planet, are bullied into conformity with outdated ideas of money, politics, science and control, all forms of 'compression', of opposition, of destructiveness. Breaking free of these many specialist and one-dimensional shackles is a very necessary step if we are to save our planet and ourselves. As Buckminster Fuller well knew, there is more than enough resources on this Earth to cater for all our needs, if we choose to use them synergistically, in other words if we add a balancing 'tension' to the blinkered 'compression' that so dominates our world. Before man, the Earth was a stable tensegrity, our collective stupidity and arrogance has distorted the status-quo, it is like puncturing a balloon (another tensegrity) - at first the leaking gas may not seem significant, but very soon the stresses so caused will cause the whole structure to disintegrate. Should we just sit back and wait for that to happen to us ?

All of the disciplines we have studied here (tensegrity, synergetics, complexity science) tell us exactly the same thing (as do all wisdom traditions and even Aristotle). Disturbing the balance irretrievably causes system failure, often sudden system failure. All aspects of our world are types of tensegrities, and many are now seen to be under stress. Whilst a tensegrity is very resilient, it can only spring back to its attractor point if the stress is relieved. If, instead, it is escalated then there will come a point at which collapse will occur. Climate change is seen to be at least one measure of the stresses we (possibly) have caused to our environment, and it matters not a jot whether such 'temperatures' existed in the past, since we didn't exist then in our present technologically dependent form ! Our 'civilization' (if such collective stupidity can really be called that) may well be incompatible with the dynamics we or nature have now set into motion. If it is, then the Earth will happily get along without us - it did before...

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