Unavoidably Overcomplicated

technology_vs__mother_nature_by_purplestar321This month, a couple of new books elaborate on the nature of technology and our (in)capability to control it.

Samuel Arbesman, a complexity scientist, thinks that our technologies have become hopelessly overcomplicated. For centuries, humans have been creating ever-more complicated systems, and today’s technological complexity might have reached a tipping point:

We already see hints of the endpoint toward which we seem to be hurtling: a world where nearly self-contained technological ecosystems operate outside of human knowledge and understanding.

Computer hardware and software is much more complex that anything that came before it. Quoting Jean-Baptiste Quéru:

Today’s computers are so complex that they can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. In turn the computers used for the design and manufacture are so complex that they themselves can only be designed and manufactured with slightly less complex computers. You’d have to go through many such loops to get back to a level that could possibly be re-built from scratch.

How do we respond to all of this technological impenetrability? Arbesman stresses the importance of understanding the complexity behind current technology. When something is so complicated that its behaviour feels magical, we end up resorting to the terminology and solemnity of religion. We cannot simply give up.

Despite all the overcomplication of the systems we vitally depend on, I’m ultimately hopeful that humanity can handle what we have built.

Perhaps, we should adopt a similar attitude to the one we have towards weather:

While we can’t actually control the weather or understand it in all of its nonlinear details, we can predict it reasonably well, adapt to it, and even prepare for it

We need to get better at ‘playing’ simulations of the technological world more generally.

This position would be aligned with Kevin Kelly’s view. He thinks that technological evolution is somewhat inevitable: A dozen “inevitable” trends will drive the next thirty years of digital progress.

I call these metatrends “inevitable” because they are rooted in the nature of technology rather than in the nature of society.

Kelly has been writing for years about the deep connection between technology and life. For Kelly, the “technium” is the evolving organism that our collective machinery comprises, a very complex organism that wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself. We cannot control it. There is a bias in the nature of technology that tilts it in certain directions and not others.

One first impulse when we confront extreme technology surging forward in this digital sphere may be to push back. To stop it, to prohibit it, deny it… To no avail. Banning the inevitable usually backfires.

These forces are trajectories, not destinies…

So complex. Curiously, both books have truly simple titles!


Featured Image: Technology Vs. Mother nature

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