Complexity and he 21st century

The definition of complexity is: “the behavior of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions.”

Regardless of how much more or less you refine this definition the fact is you end up with the same thing: a sense that the sheer act of analysis produces so many variables that it quickly overwhelms us with competing sets of data we have no way of processing.

The reason complexity defeats us lies in the way our own central operating system is set up. We have been shaped by evolution to look at the world and make sense of what we see. This sensemaking requires us to quickly identify central patterns and generalize concepts which then enable us to better understand how the world works.

We find it inherently difficult to grasp how localized events can affect the generalized outcomes of systems that should, logically, run on centralized rules. Chaos is hard to compute because it’s hard to understand. The world, we feel, is not supposed to be relative.

Yet, increasingly, we come up against the boundaries of our perception and the limits of our judgement. We are wrong-footed by cascading failures because we fail to understand the importance of relatively small, local events that act as catalysts that accelerate the rate of change within nested systems.

As a result the metrics we employ to measure our success are often skewed.

The 21st century suddenly appears unpredictable. The unpredictable scares us. Fear locks down our higher executive functions. We are then reduced to reactions that ultimately work against our own interests. Breaking out of this cycle means coming to grips with the fact that we live in a world where our evolutionary neurobiology can work against us. At the same time it is a world we created; which means we are capable of navigating it and surviving if we can just understand how.

Every new century brings with it a whole lot of fresh challenges. To be clear these are not new and they don’t come without warning. They are, always, the accumulation of past mistakes, past practices, past actions that must now exact their due. Each new century experiences a jolt to its system that makes it different from the one before it because it has to adjust.

Maybe, that adjustment in the past has been more sedate. But we have been on a course of accelerating change for a thousand years. Everything is now a system. We no longer have the luxury of waiting to see. We no longer can feel that things are secure while we tinker with what is going on in our world.

If we prove incapable of adapting to this present moment and its demands we, essentially, will prove incapable of adapting to what is expected of us in the future. There is much to think about in all this. Much change to affect. Much self-reflection to be had.

I know, you know that we all know the importance of coffee in this reading. And something sweet, perhaps. Your choice. I am being a lot less prescriptive these days. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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