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« It's the Area Under the Curve | Main | Happy Spring Equiox »

March 14, 2011


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George, I do not believe that technology is inherently too complex. I think that most complexity arises from the mismatch between theory and operational requirements.

You will appreciate a computer programming analogy. If you have a good grasp of your problem and the proper architecture to address it then it is possible to make very large and complicated programs that are easy to maintain and nearly bug free. However if you do not have good requirements or you have to guess about the architecture, then you find that while it is possible to create something that works "well enough" that the mismatches have to be programmed outside the architectural framework and create huge complexity and rigidity. In this instance bugs can multiply exponentially with size. My uncle told me long ago that all truly good programs are created once based on what you think you need to do and then recreated from scratch once you know what you need.

I think this is true of society as well. Take this documentary by Adam Curtis about light water reactors...the exact ones that are having problems in Japan. The inventor of the technology explicitly states the design was never meant to be scaled up for industrial use and that by doing so they need a huge amount of complexity in order to try to make them "safe" but that it was impossible to ever be sure that any system would work. By contrast, there are nuclear reactor designs that were made to be large scale and are inherently safe due to the basic laws of physics.

The selection of LWR was done for business and political reasons. This comment left on a post of my explains the background.

It is the exact same for the internet which was designed for small scale point to point use. The other examples may have been designed for their purpose in mind but they are the (very annoying) example of needing to have technological solutions that try to paper over a fundamental flaw in our socioeconomic system.

I think that this reaction makes sense. When technology or knowledge is developed that can radically change societal makeup the choices are to change the foundations of society to conform to the new idea or change the idea to try to be an incremental improvement to society. The latter is taken for obvious reasons, the most glaring being profit and power. Over time these mismatches add up and we get the Tainter observation.

However, I strongly believe that if a society had a symbiotic relationship with its technological foundations in which the social laws were self consistent with the scientific ones and adjusted as required, then you would not have the problem of out of control complexity. This is impossible to fully perform in practice, but it is a sufficient basis for a truly alternative ideology that I wish systems/peak oil people would work on bringing into reality themselves.

solar power system

A solar power systems is interspersed between arrays of photovoltaic cells so that it could effectively provide heating to all corners of the building. The insulation pipes and ducts of the heating system can be minimized, and thus, save more on building construction cost while building a built-in alternative electrical power.

[Blogger's note: I've left the comment in but removed the link to the commercial site. No advertisements allowed. This comment verges on being an ad so if the originator repeats attempting to post a link to a commercial site I will mark their IP as a spam source.]

Eric Thurston

Good analysis of the complexity issue. It occurs to me that the agricultural 'revolution' was one of the seminal 'increasing complexity' events in human history. Once we went down that road, the very definition of civilization came to be, in all of its complex glory.

I've been reading up on various nutritional studies and points of view lately. The concept of 'diseases of civilization' hearkens back to this time in that these diseases did not exist to any detectable degree before the ag revolution. You can mark this turning point as the beginning of so many human ills, it's tempting to change the phrase to the 'disease of civilization'.

What a predicament.

Julian Colander

George, presumably in your 'day job' you have played your own small part in increasing the complexity of civilization. Did you realise that was what you were doing at the time, and were you troubled by it (without necessarily knowing why)?

George Mobus


You are right that technology by itself is not inherently 'over' complex. But the problem is that the system of interest isn't just technology but the human society in which it is embedded and exploited. So as you yourself point out, it is our mistakes in our use of technology (as well as its ill-conceived implementation) that are problematic.

If there is any solution to this situation it will likely resemble that taken in biological evolution, which I have tried to explain in my systems science working papers. Essentially biology found ways to support higher degrees of complexity by evolving hierarchical control structures (think the range from prekaryotic cells to multicellular organisms and populations.) Our brains represent the epitome of this evolution -- just not quite enough so!

I suspect that if Homo makes it through the bottleneck that future societies might reflect this same basic pattern and governance will be organized into a more structured system that will be capable of managing the complexity of human society.


I'm watching you!


Thanks. In my sapience work I mark the advent of agriculture as the point at which selection for greater sapience got reduced in favor of logistical and tactical organization thinking skills. The strategic thinking required for true wisdom was thus not further developed except in the occasional rare individual -- those we recognize today as wise.

Jared Diamond wrote about the connection between disease and animal husbandry in Guns, Germs, and Steel.


I certainly have thought about this a lot. No, when I got into the field (at age 30 something) I did not think about it this way. So I merely plowed ahead.

On the other hand, as Mikkel (above) pointed out, technology is not by itself inherently complex in the negative sense. And as I mentioned to him, complexity has been dealt with in biological evolution on many levels. So by itself complexity is not bad or evil. It is our inability to manage it, especially our inability to recognize our own managerial limitations that is the problem. That is what I have come to recognize.

These days, in my day job, I actually teach more about the inherent trade offs in increasing complexity and the law of diminishing returns to my students. I use examples from microcomputer architecture and operating systems designs to show that increasing the functional complexity always carries a cost that may not be obvious to the designer. The history of architecture evolution is full of such examples. But, thanks to Moore's law we've mostly been on an improved performance trajectory. The limits of increasing complexity, such as are exhibited in the number of stages in a modern pipelined CPU do come up from time to time.

Then, of course, there are the complexities of Microsoft products!!!!


Matt Holbert

This discussion reminded me one of my favorite quotations:

“Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour falls from the sky a meteoric shower of facts. They lie unquestioned, uncombined. Wisdom enough to leach us of our ill is daily spun; but there exists no loom to weave it onto fabric." -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

(I think this is likely a favorite of systems thinkers. In doing a quick search for it, I found that it was quoted by Murray Gell-Mann at the end of a talk.) We simply do not have the loom. Universities could be the loom, but their mission these days is to train people to fit into the consumer society. Religion, almost by definition, imposes too many boundaries and religious institutions are also bound to the consumer society in order to generate operating/growth funds. (Anthony Mozilo, Countrywide CEO, was until just recently a trustee of Gonzaga U.) Corporations are too short-term focused to lead the way. It is a worthwhile enterprise, in my opinion, to attempt to envision what a loom/system of this nature (clue?) would look like.

We can't handle complexity because we do not have the loom/system to handle complexity.

Phil Henshaw

Well, one of the other interesting limits to complexity is that in seeking high rates of return, as limits to growth create large hidden liabilities, investors naturally look for investments with hidden liabilities that are hidden from *them*, like the global effects of demand persistently exceeding supply for food and fuel resources.

George Mobus


We don't have a unified loom, its true. But I would argue that systems science could provide such a loom. What then would be missing is the intellectual and sapient horsepower to use it.


Interesting point.


Erin Mooney

This should be required reading -- like all the other ones you post! It reminds me of the Wendel Berry article "Faustian Economics" available on Harper's web site. Why are we so afraid of limits? Is it because it reminds us of death?

George Mobus


Great question. Our brains are very conflicted re: death. We have just enough foresight to know of our own demise. It isn't clear that other animals have this same kind of understanding of mortality. Old elephants and chimpanzees apparently do know when they are about to die; they disappear into the jungle to succumb. We humans, OTOH, cling to every minute we can get, as a rule.

AFA complexity limits, we have simply never really known any because we always found new sources of energy to keep growing on. Thus we are spoiled and expectations are that a new technology or energy source will allow us to go on as if there were no limits.

Logic and science seem not to count for much, do they.


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