(Roughly) Daily

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated”*…

One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. Donald Trump is president, QAnon has mainstreamed fringe conspiracy theories, and hundreds of thousands are dead from a pandemic and climate change while many Americans do not believe that the pandemic or climate change are deadly. It’s incomprehensible.

I am here to tell you the the reason that so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.

In other words: No one’s driving. And if we hope to retake the wheel, we’re going to have to understand, intimately, all of the ways we’ve lost control…

The internet might be the system that we interact with in the most direct and intimate ways, but most of us have little comprehension of what lies behind our finger-smudged touchscreens, truly understood by few. Made up of data centers, internet exchanges, huge corporations, tiny startups, investors, social media platforms, datasets, adtech companies, and billions of users and their connected devices, it’s a vast network dedicated to mining, creating, and moving data on scales we can’t comprehend. YouTube users upload more than 500 hours of video every minute — which works out as 82.2 yearsof video uploaded to YouTube every day. As of June 30, 2020, there are over 2.7 billion monthly active Facebook users, with 1.79 billion people on average logging on daily. Each day, 500 million tweets are sent— or 6,000 tweets every second, with a day’s worth of tweets filling a 10-million-page book. Every day, 65 billion messages are sent on WhatsApp. By 2025, it’s estimated that 463 million terabytes of data will be created each day — the equivalent of 212,765,957 DVDs…

What we’ve ended up with is a civilization built on the constant flow of physical goods, capital, and data, and the networks we’ve built to manage those flows in the most efficient ways have become so vast and complex that they’re now beyond the scale of any single (and, arguably, any group or team of) human understanding them. It’s tempting to think of these networks as huge organisms, with tentacles spanning the globe that touch everything and interlink with one another, but I’m not sure the metaphor is apt. An organism suggests some form of centralized intelligence, a nervous system with a brain at its center, processing data through feedback loops and making decisions. But the reality with these networks is much closer to the concept of distributed intelligence or distributed knowledge, where many different agents with limited information beyond their immediate environment interact in ways that lead to decision-making, often without them even knowing that’s what they’re doing…

Ceding control to vast unaccountable networks not only risks those networks going off the rails, it also threatens democracy itself. If we are struggling to understand or influence anything more than very small parts of them, this is also increasingly true for politicians and world leaders. Like the captain of the container ship, politicians and voters have less and less control over how any of these networks run. Instead they find themselves merely managing very small parts of them — they certainly don’t seem to be able to make drastic changes to those networks (which are mainly owned by private corporate industries anyway) even though they have a very direct impact on their nations’ economies, policies, and populations. To paraphrase the filmmaker Adam Curtis, instead of electing visionary leaders, we are in fact just voting for middle managers in a complex, global system that nobody fully controls.

The result of this feels increasingly like a democratic vacuum. We live in an era where voters have record levels of distrust for politicians, partly because they can feel this disconnect — they see from everyday reality that, despite their claims, politicians can’t effect change. Not really. They might not understand why, exactly, but there’s this increasing sense that leaders have lost the ability to make fundamental changes to our economic and social realities. The result is a large body of mainstream voters that wants to burn down the status quo. They want change, but don’t see politicians being able to deliver it. It feels like they’re trapped in a car accelerating at full throttle, but no one is driving.

They may not be able to do much about it, but there are mainstream politicians and elected leaders who see this vacuum for what it is — and see how it provides them with a political opportunity. Figures like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson certainly don’t believe in patching up the failures of this system — if anything, they believe in accelerating the process, deregulating, handing more power to the networks. No, for them this is a political vacuum that can be filled with blame. With finger-pointing and scapegoating. It is an opportunity to make themselves look powerful by pandering to fears, by evoking nationalism, racism, and fascism.

Donald Trump has still not conceded the 2020 election despite Joe Biden’s clear victory, and is leaning in part on the fact that the United States has a complex and sometimes opaque voting system that most of the public doesn’t understand to spread conspiracy theories about glitchy or malfeasant voting machines switching or deleting millions of votes. It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the highest-profile figures on the right — like ex-Trump-adviser Steve Bannon or Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage — have backgrounds in the financial industry. These are political players who have seen how complicated things have become and can sense the gap in public comprehension but want to fill it with chaos and conspiracies rather than explanations…

As Tim Maughan (@TimMaughan) explains, vast systems, from automated supply chains to high-frequency trading, now undergird our daily lives — and we’re losing control of all of them: “The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand” (the first of a series of monthly columns that will “locate ways that we can try to increase our knowledge of the seemingly unknowable, as well as find strategies to counter the powerlessness and anxiety the system produces”).

* Confucius

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As we contemplate complexity, we might send emergent birthday greetings to Per Bak; he was born on this date in 1948. A theoretical physicist, he is credited with developing the concept (and coining the name) of “self-organized criticality,” an explanation of how very complex phenomena (like consciousness) emerge from the interaction of simple components.

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