In August 2007, I spent a couple of days in Santander, Spain. While the housing and financial crisis was about to burst, a group of experts met at the Menendez Pelayo International University to debate about the complexity of the present world. I had the opportunity to give a lecture on complexity in the information and communication technologies and then participate in a panel session to discuss the prospects for the energy, air travel, software, and information technology markets.
More interesting than the panel itself, was the dinner we had afterwards. Under the clear sky of a pleasant night on Santander’s Paseo de Pereda, we had a truly smart and fun talk about the far- reaching implications of our current technological developments. Climate change and virtual reality stood out prominent among the topics we touched upon. Over coffee, one of us, a delegate from a well known think tank, interrupted all us and said. Let me tell you what I actually think about our future. It is really very simple: “Todo se va al carajo” (everything is going down the drain). He said it in Spanish with a lovely American-English accent! We all cheered. Todo al carajo!!
One year later, those words seem prophetic. The spectacular financial system meltdown clearly shows that the risks we face today are greater than ever.
The result of our success in previous historical stages has been an exponential growth in the number of people on Earth and the accumulation of an astounding baggage of wealth and knowledge. We humans may look like a powerful army ready to conquer new summits on the evolution ladder. But the price we pay as individuals for the apparent collective success of our civilization is also very high. We are more dependent than ever on things we do not control ourselves: the artificial world built upon sophisticated machinery and the global community.
There is a widening gap between the average person´s intelligence and the intrinsic complexity of the environments in which we are immersed and the tools that we handle. The wheel, the plough, the movable type, or the telescope even if disruptive in their moment, were not really difficult to understand. Moreover, once seen and understood they were relatively easy to replicate by the people who used them, with the means and capabilities of their own time.
Compare them to our present genetically modified crops, biotechnology treatments, our sophisticated energy, communications and transport networks, or the chips and software embedded in our computers or mobile phones, not to speak of our financial system. The people exposed to these tools and technologies, even if highly qualified are barely able to understand all the layers of knowledge buried under every single piece of machinery, and they would be absolutely incapable of replicating the whole technology with the knowledge and means they are capable of using.
The bare truth is that most people understand very little. Yet we are constantly urged to act upon matters we don’t understand well enough. We are constantly making decisions under the pressure of unavoidable deadlines or unforeseen events, of which last year we have seen quite a few good examples. The more complex the environment grows, the larger the intelligence gap becomes and the more random the contribution of every individual. Does it increase the resilience or the vulnerabilities of our social system and our civilization?
This is the kind of question that I asked myself when I am not in the middle of the turmoil, trying to keep my head above the water, and keeping a hold on reality, just like everyone around me. Don’t expect to find the answers to these big questions here, just the questions seen in the light of a naïve overgrown schoolboy scared by the possibility of the “todo-al-carajo” scenario.
Featured Image: Ruben de Luis, “Cuadro al Óleo del Paseo de Pereda en Santander”