Let’s turn now to some of the distinctive features of ecosocial systems, beyond simply the fact that their dynamics depends in part on semiotically-mediated couplings among human activities and between these and other ecosystem processes.

 Our aim here is to move toward the principles needed for an analysis of complex human social systems, such as educational institutions, while bearing in mind that the system must be defined as including all the participants in the processes that form its autocatalytic loops (artifacts, tools, signs, texts, other species, abiotic constituents, etc.).

 ·                    Social-technical networks do not have a compact spatial topology (heterotopy)

 When we begin to analyze modern ecosocial systems in terms of activities, processes, and (human and nonhuman) participants, we quickly notice one major difference from most other hierarchically organized dynamical systems that are familiar from physics, chemistry and biology. In the familiar systems, nearby regions of space-time tend to interact more strongly and frequently than distant ones. We imagine such systems to have a naturally compact topology, in which as we proceed out through concentric spheres around any point, interaction and mutual influence lessens. This is why spatial-extensional parameters are usually a good index of scale with respect to energy flows and timescales as well as size of structures on a given level of organization.

Cells are bigger than membranes and contain them; membranes are bigger than large biomolecules and both contain and surround them. Organisms have the same relationship with cells. Ecosystems can be analyzed at smaller and smaller scales, but once again the larger scale organizations that constrain more local patches tend to spatially surround or contain them.

 There are however two other sorts of topological relationships between organizational levels which are possible. Instead of the concentric-spheres topology, we may have a laminar one, in which proximity in two spatial dimensions does imply greater interaction, and where the relevant higher-level organization is spread through a two-dimensional layer (as in the layers of pond ecosystems, or rainforest canopy systems), but where the third dimension (depth, height) in fact separates layers that are relatively more autonomous from one another and are only integrated at some still higher level of organization. Two processes taking place nearby in space,  but in different layers, are not interdependent in proportion to spatial proximity in the same way proximity within a layer does matter.

 This case does not seem to be particularly salient in human ecosocial systems, though one can imagine vertical communities with services replicated floor by floor, and easier access around a floor than between floors (such a fictional community is described in the imaginary future world of Chung-kuo by Wingrove 1990). More relevant by far is the other topological possibility: that proximity only in a one dimensional subsystem matters to interaction, while events and processes otherwise nearby in space matter far less if at all.

 We find this in natural ecosystems in cases such as river basins, or ocean current communities, where points along a river system may be more relevant to each other (especially say upstream points to downstream ones) than are otherwise nearby points in a different watershed. Only distance within the network, e.g. for shipping good by river, matters to, here, economic interaction. Other towns in the hills, not accessible to ships, may be quite outside the trading network, even though they are closer as the crow flies than are distant ports that are on the network.

 This network topology is replicated again and again in human ecosocial systems. Railroad networks and road networks promoted interaction between communities that were on the network at the expense of other communities (or potential sites of natural resources) that were off the network. Telephone networks promoted similar communities, and now the Internet gives us yet another salient example.

 At the same time that network topologies reduce the relevance of some proximities, they also bind together through interaction and interdependence sites that are, from the viewpoint of a compact spatial topology, at a distance from one another. Events far removed in space may suddenly become locally relevant, without their affecting a higher scale of organization or all its subsystems. This is a very familiar phenomenon in modern society, as we know. For future reference I will give it a name: heterotopy. The explanation is not far to seek.

 Interactional topology is not merely constructed by the affordances of the material infrastructure. What makes it more generally important is the formation of network communities: people who interact more with one another, and with other resources in the network, than they do with others that may well be spatially much closer. I interact with professional colleagues, by net, phone, and mail, as well as by travel, at great distances, far more than I interact with most of the people who live within two blocks of my home. I interact within a social network, or more generally a social-technical (to include the artifacts and infrastructures) network. Social institutions like universities, corporations, or professional associations can be described by such networks, and so can levels of organization at smaller overall extensional scales, such as laboratories (with their members, suppliers, distant colleagues), as well as larger organizational scales, such as the  networks of networks that link one institution to another, both locally and non-locally.

 What does this ubiquitous phenomenon of network topologies do to our simple model of co-scaling between size, mass-energy, and time or rate scales? It potentially breaks the usual link between level of organization and local distance scales. All the indices of dynamical scale potentially vary to some degree independently. How do we now define the separability and hierarchy of levels of organization for general ecosocial systems?


·                    Scale separation is more reliably based on rate differences than on spatial scales

 What is important about scale separation is that different organizational levels are insulated from one another in the ways described above for the 3-level model, even if spatial parameters are not reliable indices of scale. By a somewhat complex argument that I will not make here, it is possible to show that what is really critical to separability between levels is timescales (rate scales for constitutive processes). The adiabatic principle of timescale separability means that regardless of network topology or heterotopy, fastnets and slownets (those where typical interactions within the network are relatively faster or slower) remain cleanly separable, and slownets can be built out of fastnets and constrain their interactions. Intermediate emergent subnets arising from this process will have intermediate time and rate scales. This argument of course assumes a relative (within an order of magnitude) homogeneity in rates among the constituent processes of a network. This approximation provides a base against which to reckon more complicated situations.


·                    Human activities have characteristic time and rate scales; pacing

 The units of analysis in the present model are always processes, or in the typical case of interest, human activities. It is in fact, and fortunately for the model, the case that in general human activities, at every organizational scale from reflex movements to elementary muscular actions, to complex performances, to group activities has some typical timescale, rate, or pacing. We are usually quite aware when someone or some group is doing some familiar activity significantly faster or slower than is usual. Or when some subsequent event in a typical sequence occurs much sooner, or only much later, than is normal.


·                    Activities can be analyzed in terms of timescales across triples of levels

 With this focus on timescales, we can return to the 3-level model of dynamical organization and propose the basic principle that when any focal level of human activity is analyzed, we should seek to determine how it is composed out of actions at a faster typical timescale, and how it both contributes to and is constrained by processes that typically occur on the next longer timescale. This means that the modes of integration among processes/practices on adjacent scales are the first order of concern in any analysis. We must also remember that while processes are the primary unit of analysis, that these processes give rise to enduring structures or material units at the next higher scale, and that these structures in turn participate in the interactional processes at that scale. (See Table 2 for a notional hierarchy of timescales centered on the characteristic timescale for minimally meaningful human actions. The mid-range examples are drawn from an analysis of educational systems and classroom interactions; Lemke 1990.)


TABLE: Timescales for Human Activity

   Note: o(time) means times on the order of magnitude of ...

Chemical synthesis



Neurotransmitter synthesis

Membrane process



Ligand binding

Neural firings



Neuron process

Neuronal patterns



Multi-neuron process

Vocal articulation



Edge of awareness


1-10 seconds


Word, holophrase, short monologue; in context


2- 102

Seconds to minutes

Dialogue; interpersonal relations ; developing situation



o(15 minutes)

Thematic, functional unit; speech genre, educative


103 – 104


Curriculum genre

Lesson sequence


o(2.75 hours)

Macro curriculum genre

School day



[“seamless day”]



11.5 days

Thematic, functional unit

Unit sequence




Semester/ Yr Curriculum


4 Months

Organizational level; unit in next scale

Multi-year Curriculum


o(3.2 years)

Organizational level; limit of institutional planning

Lifespan Educational Development


o(32 years)

Biographical timescale;

Identity change

Educational system change


o(320 years)

Historical timescale;

New institutions

Worldsystem change


3200 years

New cultures, languages; limit of historical records

Ecosystem, climate change


32,000 years




320,000 years

Last ice age

Evolutionary change


3.2 million years

Scale of human evolution



32 million years




317 million years


Planetary change


3.2 billion years

Origin of life, of planet

Universal change


32 billion years

Cosmological processes


·                    Material-semiotic artifacts mediate information transfer between processes on radically different timescales (external heterochrony)

 Would that things were even this simple! Just as human sociotechnical networks tend to produce heterotopy through their network rather than compact topologies in space, they also tend to show evidence of heterochrony – that events more remote in time may be more relevant to a present here-and-now than are events more recent in time. Just as communication and transport networks ‘fold space’ so that interdependence and relevance to interaction and coupling is network-dependent rather than 3-space proximity

dependent, so also there are semiotic-cultural phenomena, materially mediated, that ‘fold time’ so that information which travels inside the networks may link times that are far apart by our usual unilinear chronology.


A colorful example. In feudal Japan, members of the samurai warrior class had the right, even the duty, of avenging slights to their and their clan’s honor by beheading, on the spot, an offending commoner. Ready-to-hand in such a situation is the storied and sacred family sword, passed down father to son for centuries, lovingly polished and razor sharp. But the samurai reaches instead for a much less ready to hand, common and ordinary battlesword, not nearly so well-balanced or well-kept, to decapitate the offender. A years-long historical process of cumulating meaning and value envelops the heirloom sword, but this longterm process intersects with and determines action in a very short-term event. The material object itself, the sword, functions in these processes, both longterm and shortterm, not simply through its material affordances – the heirloom sword will do just as well or better to cut off a head and is already in hand – but also through the meanings and value it bears. The samurai acts in the situation, not just in relation to present events and material relations, but also in relation to his interpretation of the appropriateness of using the sword and his own education in the traditions of his family and culture – a process on a timescale intermediate between that of the sword’s history and the present event.

 Everywhere in human culture we find this type of heterochrony:  longer-term processes and shorter-term events linked by a material object that functions in both cases semiotically as well as materially. The material characteristics of the object also function as signs for an interpreting system of meanings that belong to processes on a very different timescale than that of the event in which the interpreting process is taking place (Lemke 1995, 2000a). Leigh Star (e.g. Star & Griesemer 1989) has identified such phenomena for sociotechnical networks as ones in which ‘boundary objects’ circulate through the network, playing different roles in different situations. Typical in these cases are records (e.g. census forms, zoology fieldnotes, ships’ logs) that are created in many short-term events, but then collated in some ‘center of calculation’ (Latour 1987) to create a summary table or a map (which in turn circulates still further in the network), linking these times and places and events both as a material object and as a sign or text. Considered as a whole, the circulation in the network, the completion of a functional cycle of activities (collecting data, summarizing and publishing data) constitutes a longer timescale process, and one that takes place within a more extensive network than does each constituent event.

 The words of a book or diary written long ago, or of a record accumulated over generations, influence events here and now. The human body itself is ‘written upon’ to the extent that it also carries, in its neurological, muscular, immunological ‘habits’ persistent (or regenerating) ‘marks’ that can have semiotic, interpreted meanings that go beyond physiological functionality alone, our collected memories that tie together longer timescale processes and shorter timescale events through the participation of our body in them. Architectural plans, preserved and revised over generations, guide the building of a great cathedral, integrating events on shorter and longer timescales. An annotation made long ago can be critical to an action taking place now.


·                    The developmental trajectories of subsystems at any scale are superpositions of coupled processes across a range of rate scales (mixed-age mosaics; internal heterochrony)

 In addition to the general phenomenon of ‘external heterochrony’ which I’ve just described, there is another consequence of cross-scale integration, this time for the subunit itself. Ecosystems are patchy. They show their histories; local fires and other incidents may have destroyed or regressed a local region with respect to the larger-scale successional stage of the system. The cleared patch begins to recapitulate the ecological succession, in interaction with propagules from nearby unaffected locales. In this way one comes to find that ecosystems are ‘mixed-age mosaics’ in which different patches may be, on various spatial scales, at different points in ecological succession. There are many other local factors that add diversity to patches (differing soil conditions, shading, irrigation, etc.).

 A developing individual in an ecosocial community interacts with an age-diverse population (of people, but also of buildings, texts, etc.) all along its developmental trajectory. To interact successfully its repertory of meaningful semiotic practices must enable it to at least interpret, if not also produce, behaviors that are typical of a wide age-range of interaction partners. Moreover, as itself internally a complex multi-scale dynamical system, the individual’s development is proceeding simultaneously on multiple timescales, some aspects of system organization and behavior developing more rapidly, others more slowly, but all to at least some degree integrated and interdependent (at least on adjacent organizational and timescale levels).

 If we were to try to describe the developmental ‘stage’ of an individual, then, in terms of the most typical or frequent behaviors for individuals in the community at any particular age, then we would find that individuals too are, internally, mixed-age mosaics. Not just in the sense that some of our cells or organs are younger and others older, relative to their natural lifetimes, but also in the sense that our total semiotic-behavioral repertory would include (for interpretation and/or production) practices that were characteristic of the age diversity of the community within which we are developing. At youngest ages, there would be a fairly sharp peak, falling off rapidly in terms of the probability of display or interpretive use of some element of the repertory from an older age. But as we mature, the distribution should broaden, accumulating the repertory of our younger selves (still available but less often used), showing a range of frequently used practices that have been acquired over more recent months or years, and also extending more and more into some approximation of the typical behaviors of those chronologically older than ourselves, but with whom we have come to interact often and now for a long time, so that we become better able to interpret and model those behaviors. At all ages we show extremes of ‘precocious’ (or prematurely ‘old’) behaviors and understandings as well as ‘regressive’ behaviors typical of younger days. Insofar as these behaviors are also integrated by semiotic relations, they will tend to be transformed with time so that the infantile behaviors of middle-age are only in some respects like the corresponding behaviors of our infancy.

 What is important in this notion of internal heterochrony is that a unit at a lower level of organization, operating on shorter typical timescales, comes, over the course of a long developmental trajectory, to internalize the diversity of the larger scale level of organization in which it is participating. I believe that this is certainly true for human social development. It is an interesting hypothesis to extend it to other scale levels of social-institutional organization as well.


·                    These trajectories tend toward internalization in the subsystem of the distribution of variety at the largest scale to which the trajectory couples.

 If so, then just as mature individuals embody the age- and other dimensions of diversity of their community (to the extent they have actually lived around all parts of it), so potentially do mature social institutions, or sociotechnical networks, embody much of the diversity of the larger scale systems within which they develop.


·                    Changes in semiotic practices, by altering the coupling matrices among social practices/ material processes, can lead to the emergence of new intermediate scale organizational patterns (institutions) and to unpredictable and relatively sudden reorganization of processes on lower scales; (higher scales remain buffered)

 We come finally to what this model has to say about the principles of more radical, as opposed to ‘developmental’ social change. Developmental change may not be gradual, but it is ‘true to type’. Similar systems in the same larger-scale environment will tend to develop over time along similar paths, even though each will also accumulate unique individuations. But we know that this is not the only kind of change of which complex dynamical systems are capable.

 More radical and discontinuous change can occur when some parameter passes a critical threshold and the system jumps from one attractor to another. This is a quintessentially dynamical mode of change, but it does not much depend on either semiosis or integration of the system across multiple scales, though both of these may play some role in the details of what happens in a particular system.

 The basic hypothesis about combining semiotic and dynamical principles, from which I began, held that couplings between dynamical processes that were constitutive of the system, and so of its attractors, could themselves be semiotically mediated, so that processes might be coupled or not, as well as coupled to specific degrees, in relation to the systems of meanings and values in a community. It should then be typical of ecosocial communities and their institutions that there are numerous possible couplings which simply do not occur, or occur only too rarely to have a sustainable and systematic effect on the dynamics of the system at higher levels of integration. These selective disconnections, or ‘disjunctions’ (Lemke 1995) represent critical vulnerabilities of the system to potential radical change. New couplings on a sufficient scale (numbers of instances, relative to possible number), and continued for long enough times (comparable to the timescale of organization, or development, of the level where radical change is expected) have the potential to alter system dynamics in such a way that new attractors come into being (or become accessible, depending on your philosophical bent).

 It is clearly more likely that radical systemic change will occur where some essential features of the existing system depend critically on the disjunction. Distinguishing between accidental and essential disjunctions may depend on a prior analysis of system dynamics. The effects of creating couplings where before there were critical disjunctions, will however, tend to be unpredictable, even in simulation models. Genuine novelty in a complex multiscale system is, as noted above, generally underdetermined in its forms and its down-scale effects. The specific new attractors that emerge may well depend on unique details (historical accidents and system state) at the time of the change. 

It is perhaps hazardous to guess at examples of critical disjunctions in our own society, or in a particular institution such as education. I will hazard one guess: the high degree of age-segregation in our society as a whole, and especially during early development and education, looks very much like a candidate critical disjunction. We substantially reduce the interactions between children and adults to just a few sites (home, school) and just a few adults (parents, teachers); we radically exclude children and young adults of school age from most activities and interactions in the rest of society. Moreover, within schools, we radically segregate students by age, minimizing cross-age interactions, particularly in learning. Nevertheless we know that normal learning and developmental processes, outside schools and before modern schooling introduced age-segregation (only in the 19th century), involve considerable mixed-age activity across a wide variety of community settings. If, as hypothesized above, internal heterochrony in development is the product of interaction in an age-diverse community, then it seems highly likely that we are significantly retarding social and intellectual development by school-based age-segregation in learning and by our general social age-segregation with respect to other institutions. More fundamentally, we may be unwittingly maintaining many other social structures (e.g. the age-distribution of material resources and social power) by these practices.

 Regardless of the plausibility of this particular candidate, I hope that the overall model presented here for integrating semiotic and dynamic considerations in the analysis of social-ecological systems will provoke discussion and perhaps progress in this important field.


NOTE: Further discussion of educational and developmental processes in the context of ecosocial systems theory can be found in a manuscript under revision for the journal Mind, Culture, and Activity.