Chaos theory, game theory and complexity theory

A light evening’s reading for you.

I’m still recovering from what has ended up being an exceedingly nasty bout of influenza (headache still comes and goes, but body ache is gone; I’m still coughing and I still tire very easily). However, in between periods of sleep, housework, drafting articles, assessing study guides, and gathering news of the still-trapped Beaconsfield miners, Sophie Delezio and the death of journalist, Richard Carleton (more on these in another post), I’ve been trying to articulate the differences between these three distinct but important theories.

Why am I writing this post? Because I’ve been considering how these theories can be invoked to support my arguments for the political nature of open source collaborative initiatives. Whilst all three theories are apparent in literature available in this field, I’m not entirely sure that they have been properly applied. I don’t exactly refute previous uses, I just want to be sure that they are being used appropriately. And perhaps more to the point, if I’m going to use these theories I want to ensure my sense of their use is appropriate. Thus I begin with a few definitions and consider these theories in context.

Chaos theory is probably the biggest misnomer in history, because chaos theory isn’t about utter disorder at all. Instead, it defines the behaviour of systems that are non-linear and dynamic, but which also have entities/actions occurring therein which can intersect with each other over time and space. Differences in entity/action movement within such a system will be dependent on their sensitivity to initial conditions (occasionally called the “Butterfly effect”).

Game theory is a strategy based mathematical theory, where two players in a system make decisions about a strategic situation, based on their interaction with each other. The objective of both players is to maximise their returns, thus cost and benefits to a strategic situation can only be properly calculated based on the decisions made by players.

Complexity theory can refer to systems theory (study of large systems including schools of thought, biological systems and engineering) as well as considerations of genetic and artificial life processes. Essentially, complexity theory considers what is generally predictable behaviour in a system, what is aberrant behaviour and how engagements between entities/actions in a system can result in either predictable outputs or aberrant results.

So when it comes to open source projects, how might these theories be used?

Chaos theory could be used to demonstrate differing behaviours of players in the system as they move about and engage with an open source project. Whilst players can and will engage differently, depending on their initial exposure to the people and objectives of an open source project, they will inevitably react in an at least partially predictable pattern, intersecting with other players and content (code, applications, functions) in a manner that will launch them into another wave of activity.

Game theory can be used to describe the gains accrued by active open source community members in sharing knowledge and applications strategically. Because open source projects implicitly involve interaction, game theory is a logical mechanism to describe the act of interaction. Further, the process of negotiating shared knowledge for maximum personal benefit (not necessarily financial benefit) actually increases the attractiveness of the exchange scenario for players, thus invoking the pattern of system trajectory repetition described in chaos theory.

Still with me?

Okay Complexity theory could be used to describe what is generally consistent system behaviour and provide a conceptual framework for what could amount to system mutation – for instance, where an open source project or initiative adapts to commercial, environmental, or personal/human interaction imperatives. Effectively, complex systems theory could identify where chaos theory “ends” and a new set of system parameters “begins” (and chaos theory starts all over again).

So does this make sense? Or is the ‘flu still badly affecting my judgement? All comments greatly appreciated.

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