For centuries, humans have been creating ever-more complicated systems, from the machines we live with to the informational systems and laws that keep our global civilisation stitched together. Technology continues its fantastic pace of accelerating complexity — offering efficiencies and benefits that previous generations could not have imagined — but with this increasing sophistication and interconnectedness come complicated and messy effects that we can’t always anticipate. It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable. We now live in a world filled with incomprehensible glitches and bugs. When we find a bug in a video game, it’s intriguing, but when we are surprised by the very infrastructure of our society, that should give us pause.
It used to be taken for granted that there would be knowledge that no human could possibly attain. In his book The Guide for the Perplexed, the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides opined that ‘man’s intellect indubitably has a limit at which it stops’ and even enumerated several concepts he thought we would never grasp, including ‘the number of the stars of heaven’ and ‘whether that number is even or odd’. But then the Scientific Revolution happened, and with it, a triumphalism of understanding. Hundreds of years later, we now know the exact number of objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye — it’s 9,110 (an even number).
But ever since the Enlightenment, we have moved steadily toward the ‘Entanglement’, a term coined by the American computer scientist Danny Hillis. The Entanglement is the trend towards more interconnected and less comprehensible technological surroundings. Hillis argues that our machines, while subject to rational rules, are now too complicated to understand. Whether it’s the entirety of the internet or other large pieces of our infrastructure, understanding the whole — keeping it in your head — is no longer even close to possible.
One of the earliest signs of technology complicating human life was the advent of the railroads, which necessitated the development of standardised time zones in the United States, to co-ordinate the dozens of new trains that were criss-crossing the continent. And things have gotten orders of magnitude more complex since then in the realm of transportation. Automobiles have gone from mechanical contraptions of limited complexity to computational engines on wheels. Indeed, it’s estimated that the US has more than 300,000 intersections with traffic signals in its road system. And it’s not just the systems and networks these machines inhabit. During the past 200 years, the number of individual parts in our complicated machines — from airplanes to calculators — has increased exponentially.And here are some amazing facts from the article:
The encroachment of technological complication through increased computerisation has affected every aspect of our lives, from kitchen appliances to workout equipment. We are now living with the unintended consequences: a world we have created for ourselves that is too complicated for our humble human brains to handle. The nightmare scenario is not Skynet — a self-aware network declaring war on humanity — but messy systems so convoluted that nearly any glitch you can think of can happen. And they actually happen far more often than we would like.
- According to some estimates, the source code for the Windows operating system increased by an order of magnitude over the course of a decade, making it impossible for a single person to understand all the different parts at once.
- It’s true that the so-called Millennium Bug passed without serious complications, but the startling fact was that we couldn’t be sure what would happen on 1 January 2000 because the systems involved were too complex.
- TCAS [Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System] alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules...this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore. When a TCAS is developed, humans are pushed to the sidelines and, instead, simulation is used. If the system responds as expected after a number of test cases, it receives the engineer’s seal of approval and goes into use.
- [...] there is a complete ‘machine ecology beyond human response time’ in the financial world, where stocks are traded in an eyeblink, and mini-crashes and spikes can occur on the order of a second or less.
- .The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety...We even see the interplay between legal complexity and computational complexity in the problematic rollout of a website for Obamacare.