In this brilliant blog post at Aeon Magazine, the author explores the hypothesis that the technology that we have built is making the World too complex. As he puts it, “human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master.” We have embedded complex systems – through science, information systems, and engineering excellence – so deeply in our daily lives that we have effectively given away our ability to fully comprehend how they hang together. By relying on the powers of abstraction and automation, we have sacrificed the opportunity to tell cause from effect. As a result, the world is filled with incomprehensible perils and bugs, which are caused by the increased complexity and sophistication. In trying to simplify and make our lives more convenient and secure, we have – not deliberately – increased the underlying “wickedness” of the socio-technical systems in which we participate. The author gives some brilliant examples of how increased systems complexity, as a side-effect of our continued pursuit for meaning, perceptive control, and security, is making reality ever more incomprehensible:
- Automotive industry: “Automobiles have gone from mechanical contraptions of limited complexity to computational engines on wheels. Indeed, it’s estimated that the US has more than 300,000 intersections with traffic signals in its road system.”
- High-frequency trading (HFT): “Machines are interacting with each other in rich ways, essentially as algorithms trading among themselves, with humans on the sidelines.”
- Legal systems and regulatory “drift”: “Even our legal systems have grown irreconcilably messy. The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety.”
Has our pursuit for technological superiority indirectly caused us to inhabit an evergrowing rhizome of instability, which we cannot escape?
I highly recommend reading this article — it is a nice introduction to the realm of systems thinking and complexity at scale.