From Paintings to Simulations: How Can We Control Complex Systems

"Once we understand how things work, we have a chance to interact with them. Not with memorization or rote or politics, but with practical effort." - Seth Godin

Creating a successful painting is very difficult. It requires a vivid mental final image, a thorough knowledge of the actions you will take, and a bullish execution of them.

Even more difficult is to do 2 successful paintings, and then 3, and then 4 and so on.. until it becomes a practice. Until the process has become a mental one, a toolkit - a way of observing then abstracting what you see into shapes of colour that you apply in a specific way...

Each painting is its own challenge and the learning process is never finished - but by having a clear understanding of your practice, the process of applying oil paint with a hog-bristle brush to create an impression, you are prepared for any situation.

You have built a framework to problem solve. Built from the sweat of experience.

This experience earned is essentially an understanding, which leads to control, which then leads to expression. If you do not work to clarify your process then you will not be gaining an understanding and it will remain random and unreliable.

Simulations are another complex system, similar to paintings in this way. And so, much like paintings, surely they can be used in a way that expresses, that tells a story. Surely we can make a mental framework for them too?

But we can only do that when simulations and the digital tools we create them with are understood and observable - just like in painting (,or music, or sports). When we understand, we can control, we can experiment and express. There is a difference between the scribbling of a child, and that of Miró .

"For me, to gain freedom is to gain simplicity. So, in the end, a line, a color is all that’s needed to create a painting" - Joan Miró

We need technology we can scribble in. Complex systems we can understand simply. Tools that illuminate, not obfuscate.

You don't have to be a chemist to understand how oil paints work - you just have to be curious. And willing to fail.

So how can we make our tools give us this multidimensional yet simple understanding of complex systems?

Bret Victor speculates about this:

Let the computer handle the rote and the data, let the human do the expressing and solving.

Let us actively think about what we create.

Let us try to understand our practices.

And move from chance to control.