Tony Smith

Tony Smith
Fig 1. Tony Smith

Tony organizes the Emergence meetings in Melbourne.


Got interested in complex systems in the 1980s following the likes of Santa Fe Institute, WESS, Principia Cybernetica and Wolfram. Attended first Australian Complex Systems Conference in Canberra in 1992. Check my new page for more.

How have you used complexity concepts at work?

I wish! I’ve spent 25 years trying to meld them in, but beyond the general understandings I cannot demonstrate direct application. However I continue to do unfunded research and hang out at MASCOS, the NKS Forum and ConwayLife when I can.


Exploring Possibilities

Those two words form the far from simple answer to some fundamental questions.

Observation and experiment at various levels has led me to realise that Life, the Universe, and Everything is ultimately just exploring possibilities.

Asked what I am doing the answer is the same, as it is when asked what you and I should be doing.

The consequent question is How? not Why? Any answer to the latter can be no better than “because that is what we/they do.” To get good answers to How? you really need to pay attention, that every day more scarce currency.

Firstly you need to take very seriously the take home message from the models reported in Stu Kauffman’s The Origins of Order. These show that when you are in unexplored territory the winners are those who jump far and land on a productive spot, but when you are already on your way up your mountain the best strategy is to move incrementally, following the local gradient at each step. The implications of this can be developed at way too much length for here, but clearly include the notion that if you want to keep exploring possibilities, it helps if you can usually find your way back to somewhere close to where you have been before, some home base conditions even more than location.

Secondly, and one of the purposes of this site, it might be useful to take into account some of the initially unfamiliar implications of the results I have been getting from experiments with toy systems, a habit which goes back long before I started playing with Ed Fredkin’s replicating cellular automata in 1983 and which is clearly getting worse with age, in part provoked by Stephen Wolfram and more recently facilitated by the wonderful work of the Golly gang. Foremost is the observation in ever more intriguing guises of the creative synergy between (even deterministic) chaos and emergent order. Chaos and order are not opposed. You need both.



Tony Smith
Fig 2. Tony Smith


Around 1986 I had reason and opportunity to discard all previous assumptions and start a fresh look at the question of how the world really works. That search quickly led me to what at that point of time it was fashionable to call complex systems, a field I have come to learn has had as many names as it has directions of entry over at least my life time (post WW2). More recently I have been happiest with emergence as the umbrella label for N N Taleb’s black swans and Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, in part because emergence allows proper celebration of Darwin’s endless forms most beautiful across all the great domains that feed our curiosity.

The essence of emergence is that it is not strictly predictive but rather a way of dealing with the many surprises that are both consistent with natural laws and the outcome of some previously untested combination/history. You study emergence through analysis which may lead to a degree of statistical predictability over time, but which, like plate tectonics, biological evolution and much of astronomy is primarily a tool for making sense of observed patterns after the fact. Such analysis is neither strictly science nor anti-science. To it science is a toolset, in much the same way that math is a toolset to science.

Since the early 1990s when Liddy Nevile showed me a 1986 paper by Marcia Salner, I’ve been particularly motivated by the question of how we might get a critical mass of younger people to take onboard the generality of emergence short of waiting for them to accumulate a lifetime’s experience or suffer the two crises of confidence that Salner identified as necessary to progress from the naive belief that right and wrong are knowable, via relativism, to a general systemic understanding; neither of which route comes with guarantees.

Participation in ISCE’s 3rd International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy in Stellenbosch in early 2007 and my subsequent analysis of the workshop papers for presentation at Complex ’07 on the Gold Coast highlighted the great double focus of the field, a separation within a coming together that is equally pervasive within Melbourne Emergence Meetup Group. That separation can be most easily described as between the natural and social worlds, with very few of us truly seeing the consistent whole.

During the May 2011 meeting of the Melbourne Emergence Meetup Group we will be considering a proposal to form the Kororoit Institute Proponents and Supporters Association to provide a more formal platform to pursue opportunities that have developed through the Meetup Group, Bill Hall’s TOMOK and, particularly, our Putting Community Knowledge in Place program discussed below.

Putting Community Knowledge in Place

This was the theme of a Special Session some colleagues and I put together for the Melbourne 2010 Knowledge Cities World Summit in November. It remains a working description of a program we are fleshing out with origins in the Melbourne Emergence Meetup Group and Bill Hall’s TOMOK. (There were and are several other people actively involved.)

For me this grows out of the struggle of the Moonee Ponds Creek Co-ordination Committee to have community knowledge efficiently brought into a prolonged strategic planning process. It also draws on involvements in the problems of the City of Brimbank inherited from my late mother’s St Albans History Society and an extensive network on local interest organisations those connections lead to.

Right now, I’d like nothing more than to be able to make practical use of my unique combination of knowledge of Mount Defiance from hiking the trails across the summit to diving the bommies below the recent rockfalls and lookout to help facilitate the local member and transport minister get an outcome for the next 75 years of this issue which was never in The Plan, despite being a long obvious risk to our greatest tourist asset.

More broadly, the aim is to glue together human and technical systems to encourage the collection, curating, utilisation and recognition of information currently only residing “in the heads and bottom drawers of non-traditional owners” so we can get better supported planning and implementation outcomes.

The complementary benefit of our participation was to sharpen awareness of the conditions for successful establishment of knowledge precincts, the core mission of the Summit, an objective which allowed its judges to choose Melbourne as the world’s leading knowledge city, albeit without competition from North America. The insight of Summit co-chair Klaus Kunzmann, who I first heard at GAMUT preconference, broadens the lessons from our continuing misadventures with Docklands Science Park.


Information technologies

Properly trained in Systems Analysis and Design at the beginning of my career, together with enough assemblers and other old languages that I have retained a solid understanding of how things work underneath and consequent appreciation of how many miracles underpin our too easily accepted and seductive modern information technologies. Nowadays I’m only fluent with Perl and MySQL, though when needed I can muddle my way through other cornerstones of the interweb.

After a career that led me into contract programming early, in late 1981 I was contracted to design the server-side system for Australia’s first online information service and quickly became captive to the cyberspace dream, marrying that to the Macintosh user interface and from mid-1984 getting serious about trying to develop a graphical Public Information Communications and Access (PICA) system. Though we were still eight years too early because of the immaturity of essential infrastructure, we soon learnt that we were some way behind the first to start in that direction.

After the detour which had me convening the first meeting of independent PostScript developers in early 1987 in San Francisco and contributing the final chapter to Roth ed’s Real World PostScript, in the early 1990s I enrolled for an MSc science-technology-society program offered by the University of Melbourne’s department of History and Philosophy of Science, in part to ensure I gained the earliest possible access to the internet. And so I became the IT voice on an ever changing consultancy team providing education technology policy advice.

Having twice sworn off ever learning another programming language and having received no encouragement to persist any longer with my long pursued goal of processing cricket results online, in 1997 I acecpted an invitation to move to Sydney which gave me the space to pursue connections with those who already were online, get roped into forum maintenance and eventually develop my own TransForum software in Perl which turned out to be the best possible language for an ageing programmer who appreicated the inconsistencies inherent in real world data collection.

Returning to Melbourne, from 2000 I have applied Perl, MySQL and other cornerstone technologies to backend systems for inhouse and client-facing websites, and Perl in particular to my own research into discrete systems.

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