Note — Dec 06, 2020

The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand

First in a new series by Tim Maughan on “how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiralling out of control.” The series is sure to be fascinating, enlightening, and a bit frightening. This one lays down the goals, provides some vertiginous numbers to give readers an idea of the scope and scale of some of those systems, and finishes by nicely framing the gap between our understanding of these systems and the importance they have in our lives, as well as how that affects our evaluation of politicians, and how some of them fill that vacuum with chaos and conspiracies.

Note: Maughan writes that “the reality with these networks is much closer to the concept of distributed intelligence or distributed knowledge,” which nicely connects to the Hyperland article lower down.

What’s worrying is that while none of these were catastrophic failures, and the networks eventually recovered, in some cases it took years of expert analysis and debate to work out what actually went wrong, exactly because of how complex these systems are to understand. […]

Ceding control to vast unaccountable networks not only risks those networks going off the rails, it also threatens democracy itself. If we are struggling to understand or influence anything more than very small parts of them, this is also increasingly true for politicians and world leaders. […]

To paraphrase the filmmaker Adam Curtis, instead of electing visionary leaders, we are in fact just voting for middle managers in a complex, global system that nobody fully controls. […]

These are political players who have seen how complicated things have become and can sense the gap in public comprehension but want to fill it with chaos and conspiracies rather than explanations.