Why We Hate Complexity

Natural and social systems are complex — that is, not entirely knowable, unpredictable, resistant to cause-and-effect analysis, in a word, mysterious. For our first three million years on Earth we humans, like every other species on the planet, accepted that mystery. We adapted rather than trying to change our environment. We evolved by learning to accommodate ourselves to our environment. Those unable to accommodate perished.

But with the invention of civilization, we stopped accommodating change and started imposing it on our environment so we wouldn’t have to change. Burn wood (and when it runs out, oil, and when that runs out, ah…oops) and you can change an intolerably cold climate into a comfortable one. No need to grow thick fur when you have technology that allows you to appropriate the fur of other animals.

The problem is, our brains are severely limited in what they are capable of understanding. The need for a more sophisticated brain is only as old as civilization — ten to thirty millennia. Not nearly enough time for biological evolution to occur. Our cultural evolution is therefore constrained by our biological evolution — our outmoded, rudimentary brains. We’ve tried to develop artificial intelligence to evolve faster, but we can only imagine intelligence of the kinds we see every day, so AI is really just a copy of our own inadequate intelligence.

Once we invented civilization, and started to need to change our environment a lot, we needed to invent science. Science is nothing more than models of the real world, some of them quite interesting, a few of them useful. None of the models is perfect, but most of them function well enough to have a superficial understanding of how things work, and therefore provide us with a means to change or exploit how things work, to material advantage.

Even scientists loathe the imperfections in their models. They desperately want to believe that there was a single event that created the universe, that the universe is infinite, that there is some fundamental particle that is not made up of anything even more fundamental, and mostly that there is a single unifying theory of everything. They would have us believe that it is just a matter of time before we find these things, prove them with certainty. But whenever we seem to get close, a new discovery reveals that the quark/gluon model doesn’t quite explain everything, that relativity and quantum theory and even string theory have some annoying inconsistencies and flaws in them, and so the search goes on. The mystery is destined to outlast us.

One of the principles that stresses scientists, mathematicians, philosophers and theologists the most is the concept of infinity. Scientific models do a dreadful job of handling and representing infinity. Even our languages struggle with the concept.

The reason for this is that, to survive very well in a healthy ecosystem, there is no need to worry about infinity. The fact that everything is more complex than what we perceive, that a butterfly wing in Chile can be the tipping point that produces a tsunami in Indonesia, the fact that infinity is everywhere and everywhen and everywhat, doesn’t prevent us from doing very well in the small, apparently and functionally finite speck of time and place in which we ‘live’.

It is only when our human systems get larger (beyond the tribal level), or when we attempt to change or understand things outside our speck of time and place (like dealing with global poverty or global warming) that we fail, utterly and abjectly. We fail because our brains aren’t up to the task of understanding complexity. And why should they be? Until thirty millennia ago, a mere flash in time, we had no need for such brain-power.

So today we are changing things, using simple and complicated technologies, that give rise to intractable, ‘wicked’, complex problems, far beyond our capacity to comprehend let alone control. Managing complexity has always been nature’s job, and always will. By the time we develop the mental power to manage what we are now doing, we will have rendered most of life on the planet extinct, including our own horribly technology-dependent and interdependent species.

This loathing for complexity is evident everywhere:

  • Religions have always attempted to reduce the complex to the simple. Some deity in human form created the universe in a few days, and he has all the answers. Just read this book — it makes it easy for you. Everything you don’t understand has a simple explanation — it’s his will. The simpler (more ‘fundamental’) the religion, the greater number and more fanatical its adherents.
  • Our political systems try to reduce every choice of political action to a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We like it that way. The media pander to this oversimplification by reducing everything to sound bites and by simply not covering complex issues at all. “No need to worry your pretty little head about that.” Big brother, or god, or the global corporate superstar CEO, or some other Authority will look after it.
  • We love centralization because conceptually it seems simpler and therefore more efficient. We want one government, one culture, one economic system, one uniform educational system, one variety of corn for the whole planet. Alas, in complex systems, efficiency is enormously vulnerable to all the unforeseen and unknown forces — an infinite number of them. It is inevitably unsustainable. That’s why nature is effective, not efficient — that’s what works when you ‘simply’ can’t predict what will happen.
  • We love technologies that are simple, intuitive — the telephone, the television, the gun. We hate technologies that are complicated — such as every tool produced by corporate IT departments, and every tool that we have to be taught how to use.
  • Most people love being told what to do and how to do it. It has taken me a lifetime to appreciate this, because it runs counter to everything I believe. But it’s true, and the reason is that it’s easy. Most people don’t really like to think. They’d rather just do.
  • We love solutions. That’s what most businesses and politicians sell. A problem without a simple, neat answer vexes us. A game has to have a winner. A crime has to be solved, and the criminal must be punished, even if we have to keep him alive in order to exact it. A story has to have a resolution, one that ties things up simply and happily.
  • We hate admitting we don’t know. We don’t know what to do about Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur. About global poverty and global warming. About crime and terrorism. About how to create a health system, an educational system, a social security system, that actually works. We’ll accept any answer as preferable to ‘we don’t know’, even if it’s proferred by an ideological psychopath. Or an economist.
  • We set up simple things and then refuse to accept that they don’t work in a complex world. The Corporation is deliberately designed to be acquisitive, ruthless, amoral. But when this produces rampant corporate crime and corporate disdain for social and environmental responsibility, we refuse to acknowledge that the model just doesn’t do the job, that it’s utterly dysfunctional. We wait for someone to come up with another simplistic model.

In my recent visit to the US this abhorrence of complexity really hit home. I saw everywhere a cult of leadership, a longing for authority and decisiveness. Most Americans seem to be aching for some super-human to take all the complex and difficult problems of the world and make them simple, and then fix them, quickly and painlessly. They believe this is possible, and that failure to do so is somehow an admission of the failure of the whole American belief system — the “we can do anything if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard” belief system. It appears unthinkable, unimaginable, unforgivable to admit that we don’t have any answers for these problems. There must be a simple answer, they seem to be saying. Just try something, anything, until you hit on it. Even false bravado is better than humility.

I listened to some flacks on a sports network talk about the US’s 3-0 loss to the Czechs in the World Cup. They were offended by the loss, but more offended at the businesslike way the underdog Americans played. One commentator said that at the end of the game they should have “taken out” a couple of the Czech players, even if that involved a red card. “At least then we could say they played like men,” he said. The US losing in a sport they are inexperienced in was to them simply a problem that required an immediate answer, and anything was better than doing nothing. The commentators went on to say: “Now they’re psyched, and when they’re psyched, they can do anything they’ve made up their minds to do.” They were therefore “50-50” to beat Italy in their next game, they predicted, and hence advance to the next round.

These guys were living in absolute denial of reality. Everything was simple — American ingenuity and heart could and would accomplish anything. It reminded me of all those ridiculous Hollywood movies where Americans stop mile-wide invulnerable aliens, intercept comets, and restart the spin of the Earth’s core.

It’s perhaps unfair to pick on Americans, but that’s where, to me, this obsession with illusory simple solutions seems most obvious and ubiquitous. I saw security people everywhere, but they all struck me as completely clueless. They were being vigilant and diligent and going through the procedures that someone told them to go through, but they clearly provided no substantial security at all. It was just the appearance, the illusion of security that they provided, in their emblem-covered uniforms. Just do something, anything to make us feel more secure. Even if it’s completely ineffective, expensive and dysfunctional. Just do something. Pretend you have the solution.

Why? Why do we hate complexity, and refuse to acknowledge that there are no silver-bullet answers and that there is nothing we can do that will ‘solve’ most problems, just things that will help us cope with them, adapt to them, maybe mitigate their effect?

I think the reason is that the acknowledgement of complexity, of a system’s being beyond our understanding and analysis

  • reduces our sense of power and control
  • increases our sense of helplessness and insecurity, and
  • reduces our confidence in the predictability of the future.

Complexity is therefore an affront to our “we can do anything if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard” belief system. It is one thing to acknowledge that we, individually, are not in control of our own destiny, It is another thing again, and far more frightening, to acknowledge that no one is in control. It is difficult for us to take dangerous actions, like quitting our jobs or invading another country, when we have to admit we can’t predict the outcome, that there are just too many unforeseeable variables. Better not to admit it, then, and blame the ultimate failures not on our failure to predict but on “faulty intelligence” or poor implementation of what was certainly a fine plan, even in retrospect.

And if the news of the day is going to make us feel more helpless and insecure, please don’t tell us. We don’t want to know.

We want everything to be simple, and we want to go on believing that if we set our minds and hearts to it and work hard, we can accomplishanything, with absolute certainty. Don’t you dare tell us anything different.

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6 Responses to Why We Hate Complexity

  1. Joe says:

    Of course, you could simply paralyze yourself with endless ranting about how complex everything is. I bet you believe that if all us dumb, un-complex, action-oriented hicks from the US went away, the earth would rejoice in complex thinking and instantaneously solve all the world’s problems. The bad guys that really want to dominate the earth would throw away their guns and machetes and the Canadians along with the rest of the world would all be dancing around maypoles.

  2. Andrea Gammino-Heaton says:

    Thank you. Although I have been hearing about “blogs” for many years, I never took the time to investigate them, until tonight. I had thought blogs might be yet another outlet for egocentric fanatics ranting about the injustices committed against them, or perhaps new age confessionals. How delightful and wonderful that my first experience was one of such thoughtfulness and so well written! Not that there wasn’t a touch of ranting, but it was rather well done. I find myself particularly drawn to the duality of your examples and explanations. Where you see an almost craven need for solutions and answers, I see the drive that drew us out of the trees into caves and then into communities of cooperating social animals. You speak of the illusion of security, but I believe this to be a basic need; a need most humans search and strive for, from the time they are born until they die. Consider, if you will, from where this desire might originate, could it be a by-product of spending our first nine months living only inches from our mothers’ hearts? Does this “need” deserve such disdainful treatment? Does it truly matter if 99% of our time and energy is spent floundering in a sea of ineffectual “doings” and “seeminglys”? Did your parents never take the time to simplify the complex for you? Is not the want of a simple explanation the foundation of every scientific inquiry? For no matter how complex we make the question, the goal is to make understanding possible. I used to tell my students Heaven knows WHY. Science explains HOW. It is all just a part of being human. Why spend time raging against the machine we are all so tied to? Of course we all want to be told what to do. DUH! as my sons say to me. Why think or solve when someone else will pay you to do what they need done? Do you truly believe that our world would fall apart without technology? Well, yes, some current ways of doing things, (mostly banking – I think) would fall apart. But come on, be realistic, we are less than 60 years into this tech thing. There are still entire countries struggling to get through their industrial age. I think humans are resilient enough to cope with a tech meltdown.I am tickled by your view of the US and our culture. If you are looking to sports commentators for your societal sample, might I suggest you broaden your sample size and toss in a few non-TV types before you begin to cast aspersions on Americans. Hell man, even we know the difference between movies and reality. And by the by, sports commentators fall into the “talking head” category, which most of us (U.S.) take with a pound of salt, sort of like the British press: good entertainment but not terribly reliable.What is so horribly offensive about having “heart” and a “can do attitude”? Why is thinking that “solutions are possible” such an insult to your tender sensibilities?Have you no room for hope in your world view? I applaud your blog. No matter how limited your view, how biased your position. It was well written. But the next time you are state side, perhaps you should spend a little less time in observing “security people” and TV and a bit more actually talking with Americans. Some of us are actually sort of interesting. (Our friend Joe being a wonderful example of why the rest of the world sees us as you do.) Again, thank you for a lovely read.

  3. Peter Bodo says:

    Well I was not addressed by the critics of cultural orientation being a Hungarian, but besides many thing I agree in your post I’d like to defend this time the US and give another explanation. (Anyway rarely happens that a Hungarian alone defends the world’s biggest superpower :) )I think US people do have a specific orientation towards problems. In fact since the earliest times of US history those people have decided to head America, who had the courage to risk everything in their life and try their fortune, had the belief that day can change the world for the betters. They were the risk-takers the proactive (from Mayflower to Asian, Latin American, Eastern European immigrates).They were not the lonely philosphers staying most of the time in their homes in Europe, but those who believed in ideas and acted to realise them. If your a bound with the view of complexity around you, you might not be able to improve anything (and I am not talking about improving the ecosystem, which might be a too big tas, but improving human systems, which is completely created by us).They have achieved a lot earlier for human rights and the belief they are right and have good models for the worldás complexity made them able to act and be the best (not in soccer though :) ).I think heuristics are an evolutionary advantage for humankind and had led to the success of our species. Of course we in Europe like more to doubt our thoughts than to act upon the first idea. We lack humbleness in American culture of thinking. And especially we feel offended when they start to act globally affecting our own lives and believing they are right without asking us.BUt I don’t think the origin of the problem is th US. OF course their success have contributed greatly to globalisation – which is a cultural uniformisation. However, it is not so much the simplify-an-act attitiude, which is globalising, rather the individulaistic cultural orientation, which was already widespread in the Western World before.I think the problem is that humankind started to acted on global level, and while it is uniformising by the forces of globalisation the trends are showing to the same direction. Humankind is acting as a single, global organism, while it does not planning or thinking at this level. We need to grow up to the fact that we are at a next evolutionary step – we are now a global organism. However, if an organism is able to act but not able to think and plan yet, we call it childhood with all the nice and bad things – curiousity, aggression, egocentrism, etc. We need to establish structures for setting global values and goals (and then tools) but not in the elitist way like UN or WTO, because it is not global (in a sense that it does not represent really everyone), and because it starts with the tools and not with the values and goals.We need a real participatory global debate on values for humankind to grow up, to be able to act responsibly.BTW, it’s a pity that the individualistic type of culture has spread all over the world, there are many other alternatives, which handle much better a number of issues.

  4. Niran Sabanathan says:

    Looking at some of these comments I think there has been a fundemental lack of understanding of the existence of complexity and an emotional response to an apparent attack on the US. Complexity exists — no amout of wishing and heart is going to change this. There are some answers that science does not know, this may change in the future,but who cares, at this moment and at this time, science does not know, and religion (note not spirituality) pretends to know. There are interactions and coplexities that the human mind and computer simulations canot fathom. Take for example the effects of global warming and polar ice melting. We have models and predicitions about sea level rising etc… but how will this truly affect rainfall patterns, what areas of the earth will become deserts, what areas will be cooler and hotter – lots of complex stuff and we humans will have no idea how this fits together until everything comes apart. But in hubris and ignorance we plod along as a species heading for something catastrophic but without a moments reflection. The only difference between us and bacteria multiplying in test tube is that the bacteria don’t know they are going to run out of space and resoures. But given our faith in God, science and darn it pure hard work something will change – like Rapanui (Easter Isalnd), Sumatra, Egypt, Rome and all those other civilizations who had a willful ignorance of complexity and the truth and a strong belief in something other than reality. The US has been getting the brunt of this attack because they are the most recent example – invading a country that had nothing to do with 911, based of faked reports of WMD, with false promises of democracy, to depose a leader that was a former ally (even after the massacres of the Kurds) and who the CIA helped install, in the belief that the Iraqis would welcome them with open arms simling as museums got looted and then staring around puzzled as terrorism builds in response to bombing, tourture and just sheer wanton killing (if you want to argue just look at the UN violations in the destruction of Fallujha). Control of oil just wasn’t as easy as walking in and setting up a puppet governemnt and steamrolling the country into debt. Unfortunately, the US was not alone in the failure to understand complexity and human nature – history – the crusades, imperialism, even the simple failure of fish stocks – people just strongly believing in God, Faith, Religion, or Science but simply ignoring the Truth. The true path to knoledge is first to admit ignorance. There is nothing wrong with trying to find the answers, and it is human nature to do so. But keep in mind that the “truth” that we know may have nothing to do with reality.

  5. Martin-Eric says:

    Funny, I always looked at it the other way around:Complex as being full of ramifications, but having a self-evident balance of its own.Complicated as being made incomprehensible, since resulting from the addition of needlessly confusing ramifications to what would otherwise be self-evident.You mileage may vary.

  6. Paris says:

    1. No religion could take me. 2. Choices are so limited in elections I did not bother to register on vote lists. 3. I hate centralisation, anything bigger that a group of people who know each other CAN’t be democraty, this has been known since old greek philosophers’s time! 4. I prefer complex technologies, there are much more fun, cause there’s allways something new to be learnt, just like a big game! 5. I hate being told what to do, I’m supposed to know better what fits my own taste, which is as unique as my genes. 6. Damn I love solution, I think there aren’t problems without solutions. Anything without solution is metaphysics, and it’s a waste of time. Some tihngs can’t be solved, move on, grow up, any adult must know how to live with it. 7. No, I think that any wise proud adult should have the guts to tell I don’t know. Moreover there are many things we can not know, because of our brainy limitations. I call it metaphysics to torture our mind with it, and really it’s vain and usuless, so we shall move on. 8. Time never stops, world never end but mutate anywhen, so we shall copy the sunset, and never set things longer than for a night. Haven’t you heard grandma say “sleep over it”? so let your brain dream ways to adapt to another new and different day.=> of course I don’t fit your civilised human points, I ain’t lothing complex, I enjoy it, as a kid smiling and playing with all these new thingies he sees everyday. Each sunrise bears promise for new wonders and games, that’s how I thrive.

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