Complexity and Vulnerability: Bridging the Ingenuity Gap
10 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2010
Date Written: April 2002
The accelerated pace of change in human affairs today has meant a steep increase in the (quantitative) flow of information that an individual agent must process in some fashion and a quantum leap in the (qualitative) sophistication of the processing that is required. It has been argued that the demands on processing capacities already exceed what is possible the processing gap is growing. In short, humanity is complicating things faster for itself than it is developing the capacity to cope with the consequences (i.e., there is an “ingenuity gap”). This essay considers whether there are grounds for optimism that these concerns can be addressed. It is argued that the shared assumption of governing elites that things can be in some sense “managed” in the traditional sense may not be valid. It has been shown that there are undecidable problems (which constitute a barrier to rational choice) and problems that demand impossibly high computational resources (which constitute a bound on rational choice). Various features of the real world setting that contribute to this result are considered. Most importantly, it is argued that the arithmetic of exponential growth of knowledge in a context of biological constraints for absorption/retention of knowledge by individual human beings means that the proportion of what there is to know that any one actually knows declines asymptotically and approaches a state of near-perfect ignorance – or “imperfect ignorance”. The compression and filtering of information within institutions leaves them little better off. The features of human society that may allow it to nonetheless cope (e.g., distributed decision-making and the development of non-analytic solution methods) are discussed. However, rising complexity inevitably means rising vulnerability for the individual (whether a person, a corporation or a nation state). Several principles are suggested that might serve to mitigate this increased risk: first, recognize that specialization and efficiency are two-edged swords (the specialized of one era are the extinct of the next); second, respect anomalies as indicative of fundamental problems with reigning orthodox views; and third paradoxically, embrace complexity – recognize that complex systems have "sweet spots" that hover between chaos and rigidity, between control and out of control.
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