“The wild idea,” according to author and Harvard Medical School Professor, John Ratey, “is to embrace complexity.” Dr. Ratey’s strange statement is part of a trend.

In March of 2014 the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan think tank chartered by Congress in honor of President Woodrow Wilson as a “forum for tacking global issues”, challenged writers to offer improved language, metaphors and models to describve the “complexity of the interconnected systems we increasingly depend on.” The challenge was timely. The use of systems language, the lingua franca of the Space Age, is a problem for academics trying to connect with students and most readers.

The Wilson Center challenge is rapidly being met. The transition from the systems lingua franca of to plain speech is underway. In this context, the experience of medieval scholars is worth considering. As the Wilson Center recognized, the complexity toolkit lives in an isolated geek-speak outback. These tech wizards have never mixed well with the nontech Muggles, that is, those who fail to wear pocket protectors and suffer from an inability to write passable computer code.

Systems language, like Medieval Latin, emerged in a culture feeding on government grants and producing computational, that is, computer-based, tools. The computational toolkit produced flights to the moon, amazing weather simulations, smartphones and driverless cars, net-centric warfare and a host of other culture-changing innovations.

Universal Systems language was developed in the Apollo Era by software designer Margaret Hamilton (photo below) to help engineers and mathematicians avoid miscommunication and it worked for that purpose. But, like any lingua franca, it cut off its users from the street. Worse, use of the vernacular spread. As the 20th century waned, systems language surfaced any time someone wanted to benefit from sounding scientific. Biology, social work, history and, especially public administration, adapted to a protective systems coloration. Cultures appeared in the shadows of civil society, communicating within silos inhabited by adepts speaking their own special tongue. Like the Latin used in Professor Snape’s Hogwarts potions class, the use of systems language imparted gravitas, but isolated users.

For Medieval scholars, the use of Latin was a two edged sword. It helped them talk to colleagues. But, it also isolated them. William of Occam (1285-1347) (image right), from Surrey, England, spoke his mother tongue in his childhood home, but needed Latin for work. The use of a lingua franca was helpful, but isolating.

As late as 1687, Isaac Newton offered his signature essay on planetary motion, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in Latin. It was up to popularizers to translate and explain his ideas to ordinary people. Newton’s popularizers included François Voltaire for French and John Locke for English fans of the new and strange. The same pattern of translation brought a late Twentieth Century public to computational breakthroughs. For example, Michael Waldrop’s 1992 Complexity: The Emerging Science At The Edge Of Order And Chaos, brought mysteries couched in systems language to a those wanting a taste of this odd-sounding new thing.

In the long run, medieval academics found just translating their ideas from Latin to street language wasn’t enough. As time wore on, they began to offer new ideas directly in their native languages.   Italian author, Dante Alighieri, published his Inferno, an allegory mixing politics with visions of heaven and hell, in Italian. Geoffery Chaucer offered his racy road story in English. Dante argued that Latin wasn’t sufficiently tied to the objects he was writing about, that vernacular was more useful and reached more people, and that he had an overpowering love for his native tongue.

Prof. Ratey’s “wild idea” helps us understand why Dante got it right.

Beginning in the mid Twentieth Century, several generations of academics and military planners nurtured computer-based methods get at the Gordian knot of group behavior. Newton-era investigators could only speculate on what led to the madness of crowds that led to stock market collapse and the nuts and bolts of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. [See Shehan, Jonathan, and Wahrman, Dror, Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century, U. of Chicago Press, 2015.] New methods for getting at these issues matured under the heading complexity into a powerful toolkit.

In his 2014 book Go Wild: Eat Fat, Run, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well Being, Dr. Ratey’s use of vernacular began with his comparison of tame and wild things with the simple and complex. It seemed to work.

His is not the only recent example the use of vernacular for “complexity” discussions.  Others include

  • Suzanne Simard’s work with forest restoration, including her TED talk, “How trees talk to each other,”
  • Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011),
  • Austrian Academy of Sciences Senior Research Associate. Johannes Prieser-Kapeller’s “Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project ‘Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and the Near East’ (COMMED)”,
  • Masaryk University’s Generative Historiography of Religion Project (GEHIR), and
  • Oxford professor, Chris Wickham’s Medieval Europe (2016.)

The 2017 American Historical Association Annual Meeting in Denver witnessed a robust increase in presentations featuring mapping and network themes. This fit the idea of the complexity toolkit becoming just another part of the historian’s everyday experience.

One thought on “Wild History: From the Lingua Franca of “Complex Systems” to Vernacular”

  1. “Complexity theory” and all the rest seem fancy ways to say “Cooperation.” People get all twisted in language. These academics are still making a quite simple concept into something fuzzy with nomenclature and technicalities, in my opinion. Here’s the bottom line: Humans can do amazing things when combining their talents for a common goal. The greater access to communication and tools for collaboration afforded by technology makes this more possible than ever before. If ego would take a back seat, and we could consistently direct our efforts in cooperation, think of what a world this could be!

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