Lars Qvortrup
The Hypercomplex Society
Lang Publishing 2003


The Hypothesis of Hypercomplexity

What should we call the society that we are entering? Is it the "information society", as stated by Daniel Bell, and echoed by Alvin Toffler and a vast number of government reports? Is it a utopian "global village" in which everybody—if the bandwidth is large enough—are neighbors, as suggested by American high tech gurus Dertouzos and Negroponte? Is it, with a concept from Bill Gates's The Road Ahead, a phase of "frictionless capitalism," or are we foreseeing a global collapse such as claimed by the French architect Paul Virilio? Is it, as argued by German sociologist Ulrich Beck, the "risk society" ? Or should we use the term "network society," as in Manuel Castells's three volumes from I996-The Rise of the Network Society, The Power of Identity, and End of Millennium ?

In this book another name is suggested (cf. Qvortrup 1998):
The "hypercomplex society." The basic thesis of this book is that we are confronting a growing level of complexity, and that social complexity in fact represents the basic problem and challenge of our current society. Consequently, analytical approaches based on, e.g., theories of labor (David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and others) or theories of action and communicative action (Jürgen Habermas and others) should be replaced by an analytical approach based on a theory of complexity. The understanding of the society of the twenty-first century—whether it is called an "information society," a "network society," a "knowledge society," a "learning society"—must then take complexity as its guiding concept. Thus, the differentiation of our current and emerging society is not primarily based on classes determined by the ownership of means of production, but on classes—or, rather, processes of inclusion and exclusion—shaped by the ability to manage complexity. Thus, classes and social inequalities do not disappear, but society is differentiated according to new principles. The basic "civilizing influence" in current society is not capital, which governs the organization of production processes. The basic civilizing influence in society is the continuous development of functionally differentiated subsystems as a way of handling complexity, the evolutionary principle being that external complexity can be managed only by the development of a matching level of internal complexity.

Again, this does not necessarily lead to greater social equality, but to the development of new mechanisms of social inequality, and the creation of a society characterized by a paradox: The only ideological constancy is the constant absence of a guiding social ideology. Finally, the paradigm of the hypercomplex society does not foresee a utopian future based on the principle of a classless society. It does not understand modern society as a social field divided between systems and lifeworld, developing toward a future, utopian state defined by the principles of communicative action, consensus, and unlimited mutual understanding. And, most certainly, it does not accept that the way toward this utopian state, whether it is called communist, communitarist, or simply fully modern, will be through some kind of state-basod dictatorship in which inequalities are dismantled and rationality assumes a dominant position. According to the theory of the hypercomplex society, we are developing toward a society with a large number of functionally differentiated centers, i.e. a polycentric society, in which the stabilizing factor is not a central guiding body or social ideology, but communication-based processes of coordination. Stability is then not the outcome of order and centralization, but of a high level of complexity and decentralization. Here, information and communication technologies are not understood as determining factors, but as socially shaped technologies formed by the need for decentered processes of mutual observation and coordination among social sub-centers.

Thus, the concept of the hypercomplex society is based on a paradigm of complexity, and not on paradigms of work or of communicative action. But "complexity" is not a new concept. On the contrary, complexity and complexity management are concepts rooted in the rationalistic ideas of eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophy. However, the concept of complexity and the ideal of complexity reduction as the outcome of rationality are redefined within this paradigm. Originally, this new approach to the understanding of complexity management was introduced by Herbert A. Simon. With the concept of "bounded rationality" he realized that the ideal of the omnipotent "rational man" belonged to the optimistic belief in progress. It was rooted in a classical European rational philosophy transferred to scientific theories of management in the twentieth century, and it celebrated the modern organization as the triumph of scientifically based order, or—in a totally different context—it celebrated in political theories the socialist state as a societal organization, transforming a chaotic society into a planned paradise, founded upon "dialectical materialism" as the basis of "scientific socialism." It is an illusion that organizations and societies are developing, or should develop, toward a final state in which they are guided by one central instance of unlimited rationality. When organizational and social procedures develop, they do so not in order to reach a final state of total control or stability, but in order to compensate for their bounded rationality. Thus, a "final, utopian state" does not exist per se; it exists instead as a dynamic state of equilibrium in which mechanisms and procedures for mutual observation and communication have developed to neutralize tendencies toward social entropy.

Thus, Simon is one source of inspiration, and the parallel development of complexity theories from Norbert Wiener's original theory of cybernetics to so-called second-order cybernetics represents another. The understanding that social systems are not guided by any external subject, but can be guided or formed only by themselves, is essential to the understanding of hypercomplex society. Actually, the idea of second-order cybernetics represents a bridge between Simon's concept of bounded rationality and the main inspirational source of this book, the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann's analysis of modern society.

For Luhmann, the starting point is complexity theory, and he arrives at an analysis of ways in which complexity can be dealt with. Luhmann has demonstrated how modern society, through social evolution, has developed into a social system with significant capacity for complexity management. If one should summarize his rich analysis of social systems in one—although rather long—sentence, it would be: current society is developing toward a polycentric and thus polycontextural social system, which applies different codes of self-observation related to different positions of observation, in order to manage an increasingly complex environment (Luhmann 1996). Its self-produced environment is complex in the sense of space because we live in a global society. It is complex in the sense of time because we live in a society that changes at an ever-increasing rate.

However, on at least one important point my concept and analysis of the hypercomplex society is different from Luhmann's theory of modern social systems. We cannot, as Luhmann suggests, limit ourselves to observing the current society as a modern society, differentiating only between tradition and modernity, or between "Altzeit" and "Neuzeit." According to my analysis, a new phase has emerged since the twentieth century. It is different from modernity because complexity has been replaced by hypercomplexity, anthropocentrism by polycentrism, unlimited rationality by bounded rationality. Here, my basic source of inspiration is Michel Foucault and his concept of "epistemes," of historical periods characterized by a certain social epistemology, i.e., a system of discourses and knowledge horizons (Foucault I975). While Luhmann talks about modernity's multiplication of societal epistemes, Foucault maintains that a certain historical period is characterized by one specific episteme lTeubner I989, p. 737f). These two views can be combined, if the premise is that the hypercomplex society is characterized by an episteme of polycentrism.

It is however important to emphasize that this concept of a hypercomplex, polycentric society differs from the observation of our current society as a "postmodern" or "postindustrial" society. My aim is not to identify "absences" or "negations" from earlier phases, nor is it the desire to locate potentialities in which anything goes compared with the implicitly claimed limitations and restrictions of modernity. The paradigm that I present in this book focuses on identifying the positive social characteristics of an emerging society. This is not a society that can be characterized primarily by its difference from something well known. It is an emerging social system that can be identified according to its own structures and dynamics. The term I have coined for this emerging social system is the "hypercomplex society."

The Hypercomplex Society

But what is hypercomplexity? A short definition says that hypercomplexity is complexity inscribed in complexity, e.g., second-order complexity. As an example, hypercomplexity is the result of one observer's description of another observer's descriptions of complexity, or it is the result of a complex observer's description of its own complexity (Luhmann 1984, p. 637 and Luhmann 1997, p. 139; see also ibid., pp. 876 and 892).

Based on this concept, in the words of Niklas Luhmann already referred to, the emerging society can be characterized as a polycentric and thus polycontextural social system, which applies different codes of self-observation related to different positions of observation: The economy applies the code of profit and loss; the religious system the code of transcendence and immanence; the scientific system the code of truth; the political system the code of power; and so on (Luhmann 1996). This means that the concept of universal "truth" or consensus is replaced by the need for transjunctional operations, which make it possible to switch codes and to decide which code is appropriate for specific social operation. One precondition for this is that a code must be capable of observing the world (and itself) as the differentiation of other codes li.e., creating a hypercomplex operation).

When a society developing toward hypercomplexity observes itself, it does so by identifying a change in social semantics from anthropocentrism, which was introduced in the Italian Renaissance and reached its peak with the modern philosophy of Kant, based on the transcendental subject as the center of social observation and communication, to a social semantics based on polycentrism, which was implicitly prepared by the phenomenological theory of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) at the beginning of the twentieth century, and developed by among many others the German American mathematician Gotthard Günther (1900-1984), the English logician George Spencer Brown (1923Heinz von Foerster (1911-Niklas Luhmann (1927

Finally, a number of social domains in the current hypercomplex society can be investigated. For instance, business organizations develop a growing number of observational codes (drawing upon the economy, but also upon ethics, ecology, etc. in order to handle their hypercomplex social environment. In addition to economic accounts, they use, e.g., ethical accounts or ecological accounts to match external complexity with observational complexity. Art has moved from a linear perspective (and a normative definition of aesthetics) to a polycentric perspective (and a reflective definition of aesthetics). The so-called public sphere has changed from a "place"—a lifeworld—in society, in which "common sense" (consensus) is expected, into a specific metalevel observation and communication system based on public opinion, which isn't an essential thing but is an observation and communication code based on the distinction between the public and the private. In the public sphere we do not agree, but we observe each other according to special criteria.