Friday, December 19, 2014

Information is a Fragile Representation of Anti-Fragile Knowledge, Mediated by Science

In my proceedings about fragile and antifragile IT systems, I describe a hard border between two realms whose configuration requires fundamentally different strategies to operate in. Their intersection has been loosely based on the Cynefin model. I argue that this boundary is part of a bigger picture that is at the roots of all science and knowledge generation: turning the unknown into the known.

Doing science means turning the unknown into the known. The strategies dealing with both environments require a switch between two paradigmas. However, known and unknown share a common border at which they mutually perturb each other and cause adaptation in their configurations.

When dealing with the known, for example, scientific findings (facts) or models (structures and procedures), two basic operations can be carried out. One, facts can logically be combined to produce new models to either predict the behavior of given sytems in specific contexts; or modeled procedures can be applied to real world objects. Models are structural or functional schematics based upon those facts. Two, one can try to falsify them. It is the job of science to constantly recombine and challenge prior findings and models, to try to elaborate on them or get them to collapse. Some of them prove to be incredibly robust or rich in fruits, others will sooner or later fall down from the wear and tear of contradictory evidence or lack of use. As such, information, i.e. scientific findings and models, qualify as fragile systems. Facts, and combinations thereof, reside in the objective realm of third person. Scientist or practicioners, as a community, are looking upon facts from a third person perspective. Although every individual scientist only possesses the ability to look in first person, from the cultural consensus on these facts a third person perspective is created in every consenting mind.

When dealing with the unknown, things are profoundly different. Trying to turn the unknown into the known, scientists need to enter a relationship with the unknown phenomenon when doing research, becoming part of the knowledge. The unknown can only be examined in first person. By constantly nudging and tickling the subject within the structural coupling of an experiment, knowledge can evolve. When describing the long term, recurring, stable observations of the structural coupling between scientist and phenomenon, i.e. emerging knowledge, as a semantic relationship, this process creates information. This information is tested in a cultural context between researchers, whether a third person consensus may be constructed on it. (Maturana, & Varela, pp. 173-211) The information thus transits into the realm of the known. Or, to be more precise: it never existed in the unknown realm in the first place. Information, combinations thereof, and consensus on both are confined to the realm of the known; they are the essence that the realm of the known is constructed upon. Thus, scientific investigation qualifies as an anti-fragile procedure. (Taleb, 2012, pp. 31-32)

Doing science thus can be described as structurally coupling the realm of the unknown with the realm of the known, where the quality of the coupling can be found in an ordered, semantic description of knowledge on the unknown in terms of what is now perceived as known. Information thus is a fragile construction on anti-fragile knowledge. George Spencer-Brown's cross represents the construction of this information as a symbol. (Spencer-Brown, 2010, p. 1-2)


Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1998). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston: Shambhala.

Spencer-Brown, G. (2010). Laws of form. Luebeck, DE: Bohmeier.

Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.