December 16, 2017

Herbert Simon and Gilbert Simondon, Part II

In the first post in this series, I gave an overview of Simon and Simondon's ideas. Now I examine a particular point of divergence more carefully: adaptation vs. concretization. Simon and Simondon both share an interest in the nature of designed things and their organization of functionality. However, Simon and Simondon diverge in how they interpret the most important aspect to explain.

Simon is interested in adaptation. Given an system of interest, there is a organization of parts and components. Regularities in the observed behavior of the system correspond to particular configurations of the system that are well-suited to achieve goals in an environment of interest. This is adaptation in action. Of course, as Simon notes, the environment may change dynamically as a result of particular adaptive choices. This is best noted here:

A paradoxical, but perhaps realistic, view of design goals is that their function is to motivate activity which in turn will generate new goals. ...Each step of implementation created a new situation; and the new situation provided a starting point for fresh design activity. Making complex designs that are implemented over a long period of time and continually modified in the course of implementation has much in common with painting in oil. In oil painting every new spot of pigment laid on the canvas creates some kind of pattern that provides a source of new ideas to the painter. The painting process is a process of cyclical interaction between painter and canvas in which current goals lead to new applications of paint, while the gradually changing pattern suggests new goals.

One can, of course, observe something of a tension in Simon's account of the artifact as an interface between its inner organization and the outer organization of the environment and his description of the process of design. Simon does not really distinguish between situations in which we understood the nature of adaptation to be bounded and situations in which the nature of adaptation is expandable. A good example of this can be found in Simon's work on the chess computer EPAM, a machine capable of both classical conditioning as well as recursively learning more and more complex patterns of chess. EPAM's rationality is not necessarily bounded but expandable. We understand EPAM and the programs it later inspired not necessarily in terms of its ability to select alternatives over time but its ability to discover more and more elaborate configurations through its process of learning. This is not a purely semantic difference. There are some situations in which structures exhibit flexibility – e.g, their basic organization and structure does not change but their observed behavior varies on a continuum over time. This is where Simon is frankly most at home. But things like EPAM suggest a glimmering of a different idea of rationality described here by Armand Hatchuel.

A first characteristic of such rationality is our ability to manipulate (individually and collectively) infinitely expandable concepts. A capacity that is a necessary condition for any Design process and that we consider as a potential paradigm for economics of innovation and organization theory (Hatchuel 2001). In classic combinatorial problems, like in chess playing, there is no real design project, and we have no other choice than to adopt models of bounded rationality. However, creativity is still possible when the space of strategies seems infinitely expandable to the players. This probably means that very innovative players think like designers. In a fascinating paper on chess skill...Simon tried to capture chess skill. In this paper Simon recognizes the existence of "a perceptual structure" which captures long term memory and practice, and also allows the recognition and generation of innovative patterns. In our terms, this means that such perceptual structures are not lists of previous games, but expandable concepts about games. These concepts can be innovatively expanded by highly skilled and trained players.

Just because Simon's treatment of adaptation is incomplete and has internal tensions does not necesarily render it invalid. But it also shows the space for Simondon to complement the Simon theory. In the next post, I will examine Simondon's theory of concretization as an alternative to Simon's idea of adaptation.

Tags: concept