Sunday, July 22, 2012

We Cannot Manipulate Complex Systems Like We Can Simple Systems

The more complex something is, the harder it is to manipulate without creating unintended consequences.

We are very good at manipulating those areas of nature we study through the sciences of physics and chemistry -- the least complex sciences. Almost all of our technology was created through manipulating physical and/or chemical properties. We have done a little in biotechnology, but even here what we have done are the simplest kinds of gene manipulations, where a single gene has a single effect. This covers an unimaginably small fraction of biological possibilities.

We humans are able to understand -- and, thus, manipulate -- any level of reality less complex than ourselves. Biological manipulation is extremely complex, and therefore extremely difficult, but possible. But systems/processes of equal or greater complexity than ourselves cannot be manipulated with our knowledge of the outcomes. Our (inter)actions create social networks like the various spontaneous orders of the gift, market, divine, and political economies. They emerge from our (inter)actions, but that does not mean we can manipulate them at will and get the exact results we want, as we can do with simple physical and chemical systems. Simpler systems are easiler to manipulate, and the simpler, the easier. But when we are dealing with systems more complex than ourselves, including systems we are necessarily a part of, manipulation becomes increasingly difficult. The result is ever-more unintended consequences spreading through the system, wreaking havok in uninaginable ways.

It is important to have a real understanding of the nature of complexity, and the level of complexity for whatever it is you want to understand and/or manipulate. Know what you can know and what you cannot know. To think you can know things you cannot is hubris. To think you can know what the real consequences of your interventions, regulations, barriers, etc. will be is to claim to know what you cannot know. Just because we sent a man to the moon, that does not mean we can consciously create a solution for world poverty. The two abilities are utterly unrelated. Ironically, the more we try to directly intervene, the worse we often make it for people. Those who understand complex processes understand why this is.
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