Our Tangled, Technomanic World

I’ve been reflecting lately on the increasing complexity of our world. This exercise has brought me to identify ways in which complication has been to our detriment, and I’ve therefore begun investigating my own faults in attempting to navigate our tangled, technomanic world. In doing so, I’ve made a useful distinction.

Similar to Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking (in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow), I distinguish between my passive mind and my applied mind. While the operation of the applied mind is conscious, systematic, and orderly, the passive mind functions in a disassociative way, unconsciously. The former is employed when I re-organize the cooking implements in my kitchen, the latter when I am struck by inspiration to write. My applied mind is rigid and categorical; my passive mind is whimsical and free.

Irrespective of the technological moment, necessity calls upon both applied and passive mind. Glancing at history we can identify triumphs for each; in architecture, for example, the creation of marvels such as the Pantheon and the Louvre called upon systems of mathematics and planning in addition to ineffable inspiration and imagination. Every human practice, from art to politics, requires some measure of order and chaos respectively.

Due to technological evolution, humans must routinely re-interpret the appropriate allowances for the applied and passive mind in their individual lives and societies. For instance, in the age of hunter gatherers, intuition played a central role in survival, while the advent of farming introduced a larger role for formal thinking. The applied mind has been gaining ground ever since, with every technological revolution reshaping society to ask more of humans’ ability to abstract from their experiences and rehearse categorical modes of thought.

The rate of this re-interpretation has been accelerating. While pre-industrial societies necessarily took stock of the applied and passive mind every generation or so (to wit, complaints about precocious and disrespectful youngsters are as old as the written word), in the 21st century it would seem we must hand over a larger share to the applied mind multiple times within an individual life.

Or so it would seem. This line of rationale depends upon the assumption that technological innovation increases complexity, and this assumption can be fruitfully interrogating in two ways: 1.) Is there an upper limit to the degree of complexity the human organism can responsibly accommodate? 2.) Must innovation necessarily increase complexity? In other words, is it possible to modify our political and economic structures in a way that incentivizes innovation that simplifies rather than complicates, innovation that removes rather than adds?

1.) For a compelling argument that there is indeed an upper limit to the complexity we can accommodate without inviting disaster, I recommend both Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan and Antifragile. For those who haven’t read these books, in The Black Swan, Taleb identifies the prominent and yet overlooked role unlikely events play in our lives, and in Antifragile he demonstrates how technology further exacerbates the role of such events by blinding us to their possibility and deepening their consequences.

Insofar as technological evolution increases complexity (and in our current understanding, it does) it rarefies relevant knowledge. This would not be worrisome if we didn’t demonstrate the alarming propensity to replace knowledge with technology products, as this transfer of responsibility from consumer to product renders the consumer fragile, and in turn, renders the society fragile as well. Taleb argues in Antifragile that events like the 2008 American housing market crash will only become more common as the acceleration of technological innovation increases. By extension, I argue such events will become more common only if we do not modify our understanding of innovation.

Thus, 2.) No, innovation does not necessarily increase complexity. In our current economy innovation increases complexity simply because it’s tough to make money by removing things from people’s lives, while every day, tireless entrepreneurs and salespeople work to add things.

I have not yet concocted a plausible society-wide solution to this problem, but I’m confident it begins with individuals re-interpreting the roles that applied mind and passive mind play in their lives. I am personally and professionally in the midst of this re-interpretation, and I can attest to the wealth of satisfaction, presence of mind, and security I have enjoyed thus far as a result.

You may be thinking I am about to suggest reducing the role that applied mind plays in your life while increasing the share you give to passive mind. However, I will argue not for a reduction in the application of your logical and systematic capacities, but rather, for their reallocation. The details of this argument will constitute the substance of my blog post next week.

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