The fragile nature of complexity

In the last decades we have relied heavily on manufacturers to come up with practical solution to what we need. What we need today has not changed a bit from what we needed fifty years ago. We still need food and safety, the feeling of belonging and usefulness, and we still need to be accepted, recognized and esteemed. Instead, the thing that has changed is the complexity and the form of the means we use to satisfy our needs.

But this increase in complexity has had an interesting effect: it also caused an increase in the number of (let’s call it) items or links involved in satisfying a need, thus increasing the interdependency of these items. Take communication for instance. In the old days what you needed to do to be able to talk directly to your aunt who lived 30 km away was a carriage, some luggage and two spare days. Nowadays you can just make a phone call or a Skype call and there she is, talking to you live. But the number of items and dependencies involved has increased exponentially: for a Skype call you need a laptop or a smart phone, an internet connection, and the same items are needed by your aunt. Then there are the numerous software items involved, a Skype user ID which has to be made through the Skype website, the Skype server itself located somewhere in the world, and many other links that we cannot see but are somehow involved in the process of satisfying your need.

This whole long process involving tens of variables is actually possible because many of the links are automated. But a lot of knowledge and many people are still needed to program the automated processes. In any case, the result is that we depend on our peers and our collective knowledge more than we realize. If one link fails, all fail. And the more links there are in the process, aiding to its complexity, decreasing its entropy, the more vulnerable its end-users are.

We might want to remember that the next time we sign up for the latest gadget.

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