For centuries, humans have been creating ever-more complicated systems, from the machines we live with to the informational systems and laws that keep our global civilisation stitched together. Technology continues its fantastic pace of accelerating complexity — offering efficiencies and benefits that previous generations could not have imagined — but with this increasing sophistication and interconnectedness come complicated and messy effects that we can’t always anticipate. It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable. We now live in a world filled with incomprehensible glitches and bugs. When we find a bug in a video game, it’s intriguing, but when we are surprised by the very infrastructure of our society, that should give us pause.
As someone who works in information technology, I always find it surprising when people suddenly realize that systems have become too complicated for any one person to understand. The reality is that any complex computer system is like that, and that it has been a reality for decades.
Anyone who ever had to write relatively simple programs in school has dealt with having to debug them and then, when they appeared to work, having had the uneasy feeling of not knowing exactly how.
Arbesman mentions the railroad as the first complex system that humans couldn’t understand. I have to disagree. Before railroads, we had market economies, whose existence we weren’t even conscious of for thousands of years until Adam Smith. Before economies, we had complex farming ecologies that no really understood.
The fact is, once we settled down and ended our hunter gatherer days, humans have been living with ever more complex systems that we didn’t fully understand. Certainly the systems these days have become far more sophisticated and complex, but that’s a matter of degree rather than a new phenomenon.
And, of course, we’re helped in dealing with dealing with our ever more complex systems by our ever more complex sophisticated tools, many of which are themselves more complicated than any one person can understand, a fact that I’m sure many people will also find disturbing.
It might help to ponder what the alternative is, to return to a simple life, where everything can be understood, and where life is nasty, short, and brutish. Living with complicated systems has its drawbacks, but they have to be weighed against the many advantages of such systems.
- Is Technology Making The World Too Complex? (disinfo.com)
- SFI President Jerry Sabloff on 30 years of complexity science (santafe.edu)
- Systems and Complexity. (balloondistractionsblog.wordpress.com)
- From Dots and Dashes To Bits and Qubits! A Startling History of Information Technology (newscanada-plus.com)