Is Technology Making The World Too Complex?

Pic: Theon (CC)

Pic: Theon (CC)

Can Moore’s law abet neutralization of Buckminster Fuller’s ephemeralization? Will Georges Anderla’s statistical model (coined the information explosion by Robert Anton Wilson) equalize the complexity?

via Aeon

Human ingenuity has created a world that the mind cannot master. Have we finally reached our limits?

Despite the vastness of the sky, airplanes occasionally crash into each other. To avoid these catastrophes, the Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) was developed. TCAS alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules. In fact, this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore. When a TCAS is developed, humans are pushed to the sidelines and, instead, simulation is used. If the system responds as expected after a number of test cases, it receives the engineer’s seal of approval and goes into use.

While the problem of avoiding collisions is itself a complex question, the system we’ve built to handle this problem has essentially become too complicated for us to understand, and even experts sometimes react with surprise to its behaviour. This escalating complexity points to a larger phenomenon in modern life. When the systems designed to save our lives are hard to grasp, we have reached a technological threshold that bears examining.

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.

One of the earliest signs of technology complicating human life was the advent of the railroads, which necessitated the development of standardised time zones in the United States, to co-ordinate the dozens of new trains that were criss-crossing the continent. And things have gotten orders of magnitude more complex since then in the realm of transportation. 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.  And it’s not just the systems and networks these machines inhabit. During the past 200 years, the number of individual parts in our complicated machines — from airplanes to calculators — has increased exponentially.


  • Liam_McGonagle

    1st half of the technological curve: inventing sh*t to make human work more productive.

    2nd half of the technological curve: inventing sh*t to replace humans.

    Why are we doing this again? When we set off on this path, was it really our intention that most of us would be dead before we reached the end? Can the putatative (and ‘puta’ is the operational word) survivors really expect to feel great about themselves knowing that they killed their travelling companions? Will they themselves feel secure and comfortable in the company of their own kind?

    • Calypso_1

      Who needs comfort when you can have extinct species erotica?

  • Calypso_1

    Is evolution making the world too complex?

  • BuzzCoastin

    the world became too complex with the experience of language
    humanity’s first software technology
    the effects of which
    humanity remains blissfully unaware

  • kowalityjesus

    “We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and
    technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with
    it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of
    ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.” – Sagan

    I think a good example in popular culture is the most recent “Star Trek” movie which, for all its drama, ignores nearly every scientific aspect of the “science fiction” narrative. That continues to be the most disappointing aspect of typical fantasy stories to me, drama that supercedes realism.