Why is everything so complicated? (Hint: because it is)


From pretty much day one on Spark, we've talked about being overwhelmed. And specifically, the way many of us feel overwhelmed by new technology. Maybe you feel it too. That sense that everything keeps getting more complex and you just can't get a handle on it or stay on top of everything. 

Well, it turns out everything is getting more complex and you can't get a handle on it. None of us can! Basically, no one knows what's going on.

Samuel Arbesman is a complexity scientist, and the author of the new book, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension. Sam says we feel overwhelmed because we're dealing with increasingly complex systems:

"Delta airlines for example, was brought down by a computer malfunction. As far as we can tell, it was a minor glitch that because of the interconnected and massive complexity of its system, led to this cascade of failure. Over and over we see situations where because of these massive systems, a tiny error or a tiny lack of understanding in how a system was built can actually lead to this cascade."

Cascading failure because of tiny glitches in interconnected systems that no one could anticipate! This doesn't sound good. To understand why we can't understand anything, it helps to get a handle on the difference between complexity, and something that's just complicated. It's actually kind of complicated to describe here, so have a listen to Sam's explanation using buoys on a lake:
To understand why we can't understand anything, Samuel Arbesman explains the difference between complexity, and something that's just complicated. His new book is called Overcomplicated.

So what can we do, Sam? Is there a way to teach ourselves to be better at systems thinking so we can understand complexity better?

"Certainly just being aware of complexity around us, is a very good first step,"  Sam says "I think also systems thinking, in terms of understanding how interconnections can actually yield highly non-linear effects.

"Just seeing the boundaries of how these systems can operate, and their messiness, I think will give people a little bit better comfort with the systems that are already all around us."


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