Posts Tagged “complexity”

I have discovered that I am a worrier.

Everyone worries I suppose….about paying rent each month, about their job, their kids, about lots of things.  That is normal.

I don’t worry so much about the day-to-day, but as if to point out that the brain (or at least my brain) is hard-wired to worry…..I invent worry about things I cannot control and most people would never even give a thought to.  These items consume much of my brain cycles and I write about them often (Democracy, Money, Work (in the abstract), Morals, Intelligence, etc.).  If only I could focus my brain on something more constructive instead of thinking about things I will never even influence, much less control.

I would like to introduce a concept and then develop a thought.

The Law of Conservation of Complexity (<– I made up the name):

The Law of Conservation of Complexity proposes:  When outcomes remain constant, Complexity is neither created nor destroyed; responsibility for it simply shifts.

Here is an example:

Computers have gotten easier to use over the years.  Remember command line, text interfaces?

Instead of making us remember tons of arcane text commands for doing simple things like copying, pasting, and/or renaming files, the software companies created a Graphical User Interface to allow us to do the same thing in simpler way.  The outcome is the same, copying/pasting, etc….but the complexity has moved behind the GUI interface.

Complexity actually increased.  Software engineers created a complicated graphics layer to allow us to interact more easily.  This layer didn’t exist before and creates lots of extra work for software folks.

In general, if something becomes less complex for you, it becomes more complex for someone else.  That is the law of conservation of complexity.

What this means is that complexity is always ramping UP….not down.  When something is “simplified”, generally it hasn’t been….the complicated work has simply shifted away from the people who are calling it “simplified” and toward another group that must maintain the “simplicity” with a bunch of complex processes and skilled labor.

If no one maintains the shifted complexity, you just get broken stuff as the people who think it has been simplified don’t realize that it was only simplified for them and don’t allocate sufficient resources to maintaining the newly shifted complexity.

The idea I’d like to develop is:

Civilization is limited by our ability to manage complexity….and complexity tends to crash, not unwind.

I’d wager people believe Civilization is a fairly stable thing.  The logic might run something like “There is just too much involved for it all to fail.  If some country falls apart or technology is lost,  it is replaced and relearned by others.  Civilization is robust.”

This is the global network theory, and is somewhat true on a limited scale.  Civilization is definitely built upon the remains of other civilizations and if one country fails, another replaces it.

HOWEVER, the analogy is less like a city or pyramid and more like a house of cards.

Civilization is a house of cards.

If you’ve ever built a very large house of cards (using multiple decks), you can occasionally have little sections collapse and rebuild fine; you can have it spread if you keep it near the floor….but as you build higher and the complexity of the structures rise, it becomes more difficult to rebuild collapsed sections.  Additionally it gets heavier,  more prone to larger issues, and it will eventually begin to collapse under its own weight no matter what you do.

If you get to this point, it is not possible to rewind your house of cards, to make it less complex.  The harder you try the more you will knock it down.

Things are really complex already; more than any one person can manage. Let’s take a concrete example:

The iPhone.  (I’m picking technology examples because technology is among the most complex things humans produce.)

No ONE person can make an iPhone.  No two people can.  In fact, no hundred people can.  You need cell networks to exist; you need miniature cameras; you need an army of expert software programmers, you need mp3s to exist; you need scratch proof touchscreen glass to exist; you need people with computers and iTunes and enough money to buy such devices; you need phones to exist; you need compression algorithms and IP protocols to send/receive data; you need sophisticated battery technology to power the device; you need cheap, available electricity to charge it; you need GPS satellites in space…… need a shitload of stuff to exist to make an iPhone.

There are limits to the complexity humans can manage.

Now imagine a device 100 times as complex as the iPhone. How would it get made?  There are coordination costs of any large endeavor; eventually nothing gets done if the addition of extra complexity is eaten up by the lack of ability to manage it.

So when you reach this point, where each additional “unit” of complexity no longer adds to the end product, but subtracts from it….then what happens? Can you rewind?

Like a juggler, you can add extra balls and keep them all going and things are moving faster and they are more complicated…but then when you add that last ball, it doesn’t slow down….you drop all the balls and you have to start over.

How robust is Civilization?

I think not so much.  Though we have currently had a good row of 3000 years or so, that is paltry compared to the sum of mankind’s existence (modern humans have been around in fits and starts for about 100,000 years).  Events do happen that cause things to unravel, and unlike our linear conception of ramp up, then ramp down….in nature it is often an exponential rise, then a very steep drop off.  Complexity tends to crash, not fizzle.

Where does that leave us?  In the same spot we were before.  I know it exists and we (though probably not me) will bump up against the complexity limit someday…but we will not be able to do much about it.  I simply tend to think about things that I have no control over.


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