Sunday, November 20, 2011


Complexity is an odd beast. As it grows it encompasses more and more stuff, eating it up like a ravenous dinosaur. And it’s all these little tidbits -- things that vary -- that combine to become the real underlying problem. If you don’t understand these ‘variables’ then you can’t truly tame the complexity; bend it towards your goals.

But our species has always had a problem in dealing with too many things at once. We can take only a few select issues into account; we can’t fathom the whole picture. We do not see the beast for what it has become and as such we simply focus on a leg, or a tail, or some other part in seclusion from the whole. We narrow down our vision, while convincing ourselves that we can see the whole thing. But we can’t.

When you seek to change a complex multi-variable system -- particularly one that is massive, ugly and hugely chaotic -- simply fiddling with a small piece of it will always generate unpredictable results. That’s OK if you’re expecting it, but only if you are expecting it. If however, you’re convinced that you ‘get it’ when clearly you can’t, then that delusion blinds you to the results. And that blindness most often makes the problems worse, not better. There are -- not surprisingly -- many more ways to make bad changes in this world then there are good ways. So a change without understanding is likely a change for the worse. If it isn’t obviously bad right away, then it might just be more fuel for the complexity beast to devour. To grow and get worse.

For some rather short-sighted reason, we’ve become collectively convinced that action, any action, is better than the status quo. But action without thought, without a real understanding of the the complexities involves, is action that is most likely to feed the problem, not solve it. But now we have a great many “leaders” bent on acting. And as a consequence we have a rapidly growing beast to deal with. One that gets worse every year. One that gets larger every year. One that includes more and more variables every year. And one that nobody really understands anymore, or can manage.

So it is not action that we need. It is not change that we need. It is simply a way to get the beast back under control and to simplify our circumstances back to a point where we can act again. Where we can make changes that aren’t stupid, careless and risky.

We need to stop taking wild guesses, stop narrowing our gaze and start accepting that we’re in a mess. A huge mess. A mess that nobody knows how to fix, that no one wants to fix, and that is going to be painful to fix.

A mad rush forward of ideas and action is a mad rush over the cliff. It’s what we’ve been doing so far, and I honestly suspect it’s what we’ll be doing right up until the moment we are in flight. Our species after all is a wee bit smarter than some of the others, but collectively were not very bright.


  1. What I find frustrating is that most people don't understand, or seek to understand, better outlooks that would make the problem easier to see, such as science and engineering. What I see more often than not is stabbing in the dark, using ideology as their guide. This doesn't address the complexity, and tends to make the problem worse. Or, if it gets better, it's only by fortunate happenstance, and the idea that the action solved it can only be attributed via. correlation, which is a very weak rationale.

    A big problem in education, at least in the U.S., is that science and engineering are viewed as vocations, not as tools for thought. This POV is what's communicated to students, and so the outlooks tend to not get applied to societal issues.

  2. Agreed. People are so focused on acting now that they are willing to accept a gross over-simplification of the problem, thus dropping out a lot of the relevant variables.

    I wish I could say that I wasn't ever guilty of this myself, but I've definitely been there. I just try really really hard to look at the whole picture again -- after the change -- and objectively evaluate whether or not things really got better. But it's hard for most people to be objective, particularly when their ego is invested in the changes. People always want to believe that they are way smarter than they actually are...


  3. "People always want to believe that they are way smarter than they actually are..."

    I was actually thinking this as I read your post Paul.

    1. Nice :-)

      I also like to think that I am handsome and rich. A good delusion makes the day go a little smoother.


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