“Those old people, that generation that came before us, they were so silly. They came up with all these convoluted explanations for how the world works, but it was really so simple. But, they couldn’t see it because they were so locked into an archaic way of thinking.” I took a full-year course in the history of science when I was in college. After sifting through all of the course work, the homework, the research, I did well enough in the class. It changed my perspective on the world, partly because I understood better how we got to this technological age; but equally important was the understanding that hindsight makes previous struggles seem trivial, and that complex systems are frequently replaced by something simpler and more fundamental. So, how complex does your world seem, lately?
Humans like and expect simplicity. The Sun moves around the Earth; it must because we can see it move. Oops. The Earth moves around the Sun, but we don’t know how. Everything in the heavens moves in perfect circles because heaven is in the heavens therefore the heavens can’t be imperfect so the path of the Earth around the Sun should be a circle, except that the idea didn’t accurately match the observations. Ah, but add circular orbits to circular orbits and epicycles can almost but not quite predict the planets’ motions. Then someone had the radical idea that maybe it wasn’t circles, maybe it was ellipses – and suddenly the simpler idea worked better than anything that came before. So, now we knew what the paths looked like but couldn’t explain it. Hello, Isaac Newton and folkloric apple. Gravity explains a lot, but nothing explained gravity. Hello, Albert Einstein who discovered that gravity wasn’t a force; it was bent space-time, which sounds complex but is far simpler for those who have to deal with astronomy and orbital mechanics. Now, complexities are building in physics, again; and I suspect someone will make a simple insight that clarifies mysteries, again.
Similar complexities exist in genetics and tectonics. In genetics, the origin of life and species went from a great mystery to understanding active versus recessive traits, to survival of the fittest, to discovering genes, to appreciating the effect of mutations acting over many generations. The Earth is eternal, expect it shakes and blows up occasionally, and South America and Africa fit like puzzle pieces, and eventually someone realized that the planet is mostly molten and we’re riding round on rafts of rock. Simpler. A bit spooky maybe, but simpler – and more useful.
Taxes don’t have to be this complex. Navigating social services like healthcare and unemployment and child care should be easier. Trying to get something done usually involves bureaucracies and delays and costs. Layers of legislation with great and good intentions have kept the word ‘byzantine’ alive.
Complexity creates arcane occupations and belief systems that perpetuate those who know how to navigate them. It is easy to create a long list of reasons to keep doing what’s been done, leave the initiated in charge, and don’t expect change.
For me, the response to the pandemic appears to be passing from complexity to simplicity. Early in the pandemic there was great confusion: masks or no, distancing or no or how much, wipe down groceries or no, exercise or not, is it just the old folks or all, etc. We still don’t have all the answers, but the responses are simplifying. I think one of the extra reasons to look forward to a vaccine is simply because it will simplify life. Effectiveness is secondary to enabling a return to an apparent ‘normal.’
I am expecting that part of the new normal is going to be a simplification in existing complex systems. What role does college play, what are students paying for, and what benefit should they expect considering the recent costs? A commute to a job seems like a simple thing, but isn’t it simpler for many to skip the commute and work from home? Urbanization was highly acclaimed, until recently with #RuralDistancing. Now that density seems to add complexity. People hunting the simpler life are usually describing moving from, not to, urban areas.
In the midst of complexity, at least within the sciences, processes are inefficient and imprecise. The results don’t always justify the effort. To me, that seems to describe our current economy and society. Correcting current injustices shouldn’t be this complicated. We the People. The Golden Rule (the original one, not the cynical one.) Even in personal finance. I’ve been told one of the things people like about my book, Dream. Invest. Live. , is how I take a seemingly complicated system and describe it simply. Tens of thousands of words, most of which can be reduced to “Spend less than you make. Invest the rest.” So much for complexity.
The world is in a series of overlapping messy situations. Mathematically it is probably a non-linear, chaotic, multi-variable system lacking sufficient controls, driven by unobservable forcing functions that are unaware of their influence working beside actors who think they’re in charge even though they really aren’t. No computer can simulate or control such a system. Neither can we pesky humans.
I’m not expecting some global revelation that will come out of our collective catharsis – though that would be welcome. I am expecting that an upset as significant as this pandemic and the reactions to injustices will result in change. If all we do is layer new systems on old ones, we may be able to cope; but this is an opportunity to fundamentally change much more than whether we shake hands or not.
For me, this is the time to watch for trends that are redefining our way of life, and to prepare to adapt and adjust rather than retreat. I don’t know what that will be, but I suspect it includes less commuting, more delivery services, more self-directing education, broader internet access, and less urbanization. My hopes are for better healthcare, less injustice, and a reduction in wealth and income disparity.
I can’t say that I’m glad we’re going through this. Some are only pointing at silver linings, even if they are only hints of slivers of silver. Over 800,000 people have died, including 180,000 people in the US. There are silver linings, but I can’t ignore a cloud that’s that dark. Some of the possible changes could’ve saved tens of thousands of lives, but that’s that perfect hindsight, again. We humans, however, are frequently only convinced to change by reacting to crises instead of proactively avoiding them. Crises demonstrate needs versus wants, necessities versus luxuries, what is truly essential versus what can be ignored.
Now is the time to watch for those changes, and maybe take a part in making some of them happen.
Oh yeah, and vote, and wash those hands, and wear a mask (really, compared to what I had to wear in the steel mill, these cloth things are barely even a nuisance.) Sounds simple enough.