Complexity

Merriam-Webster defines complexity as “the quality or state of being complex” and complex as “a whole made up of complicated or interrelated parts.” It is only after pursuing this all the way to the definition of complicated (“consisting of parts intricately combined”) that a reasonable idea of the term can be formulated. The word is relative, as evidenced by its evasive definition, and it naturally tends to become even more so when applied to understandings of societal interaction. At its most basic level, however, complexity is quantified in terms of the interrelation of parts. An increase in complexity, then, can be brought about in a number of different ways: namely, by increasing either the quantity and/or diversity of parts within a unit of space or time.

Our lives are growing more complex. Between the approaching ubiquity of the digital screens that occupy so much of our days and the explosion of advertising in recent decades, the average individual in modern society can hardly escape sensory bombardment. Castells describes the media as “the almost constant background presence, the fabric of our lives,” citing that “in the US the average person is exposed to 1,600 advertising messages per day” (362). Our level of access to information has also mushroomed. Topics that once required extensive research, proper connections, and perhaps even physical travel now merely require an internet connection and a bit of discernment. A quick Google search of “digital technology” procures over two billion results in a fraction of a second. At the same time, our physical connection to information has increased. According to one survey, “Around 1900, the average distance travelled per person per day was roughly one kilometre. In the 1950s, mobility grew fast and increased to an average of more than ten kilometres a day. At the end of the last century, in the population as a whole it amounted to 35 kilometres per individual” (Kliučininkas 13). Such growth brings us in contact with a multitude of new people, places, and experiences, simultaneously increasing the amount of resources needed to satisfy such distances.

Our attempts to ameliorate the complexity in our lives, however, merely tend to further complicate the situation: we tend to perpetuate our own loop of inputs and responses. This is not a recent phenomenon; it is rather an apparent side-effect of the “movement toward the expansion of the human mind” (Castells 38). The invention of the printing press (and the subsequent birth of mass communication) was a response to a growing demand for information and literacy. The machine served as far more than a simple solution, however, ushering in an age in which the thirst for new knowledge seemed unquenchable. When air conditioning and elevators found their way into buildings in the middle of the 20th century, the resulting densification and physical expansion created a host of new issues involving everything from construction techniques to occupant safety. As information about food production becomes available to us, the resulting demand for new and more complicated diets typically results in a host of new and more complex food products. The most evident example of this loop, however, has appeared in recent decades. The blazingly fast processing speed achieved by recent developments in computer technology has seen the advent of “big data” (and the subsequent need for bigger categorizations of bytes: the “yottabyte” was only added to the International System of Units in 1991), a term that references amounts of data so vast as to be essentially unmanageable using typical database tools. As we start to gain the ability to process such data, however, we redefine our understanding of “unmanageable” and “inconceivable.” The results of such data processing and the subsequent appearance of computerized “wisdom” spur the development of faster processors even higher.

WKID pyramid

Despite this, the move towards increasing complexity is not leading us “up” the Wisdom-Knowledge-Information-Data pyramid developed in the 1980’s. Our lives are becoming populated with stupendous amounts of information, merely expanding the base of the pyramid. What was once filtered, processed, and handled by multiple parties before becoming publicized is now distributed instantly, unfiltered, and live. Transparency and instantaneous access are hallmarks of our society, demanded in everything from app development to government. The removal of such filters on the front end results in a massive flow of information in the system: We are entrusted with the decision-making process ourselves. Ultimately, however, we always seek to normalize this flow into recognizable “knowledge.” Following statistics about the amount of media we are exposed to each day, Castells notes that, contrary to the common assumption, “the barrage of advertising messages received through the media seems to have limited effect” (362). We are, in fact, coping with the increasing amount of information (and thus the growing amount of time needed to process such information back up the pyramid). In order to do so, however, we must necessarily rely on increased processing speed. Every jump in information quantity, be it linear or exponential, correlates to a necessary jump in processing speed. We may be impacted by the same amount of information now as we were throughout antiquity, but that is only because we have become faster and more efficient at filtering out a majority of the noise.

Computers do not draw any distinction between “Wisdom” and “Data,” other than what is pre-programmed by humans (even then, such a distinction is not actual “learning” but merely rote memorization, or pattern recognition). Digital technology is inherently entrenched in data. “Better” technology is not technology that can discern between different data value, but rather technology that can process more data faster. The digital age offers us the tools to process exponentially increasing amounts of information in our lives, but in order to deal with that data, it simultaneously demands that we recognize an inherent baseline value for it. Castells writes about this in terms of the homogenization of communication, stating that “All messages of all kinds become enclosed in the medium because the medium has become so comprehensive, so diversified, so malleable that it absorbs in the same multimedia text the whole of human experience, past, present, and future” (404). Put more simply, our once hierarchical understanding of information has suffered from “the digital flattening of expression into a global mush” (Lanier 47). Where before a certain limited set of options was enough to choose from, we now have the ability (and thus, mistakenly perceived, the need) to select from all available possibilities. Our progress towards more complexity demands more speed, reducing our inherent techniques of intuitive judgment and subjective evaluation into a series of streamlined, expedited, objective processes.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1996. Print.

Kliučininkas, Linas. Towards Sustainable Urban Transportation: Environmental Dimension. Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 2012. Print.

Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.

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