Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Future is Complexity

The economic blogosphere has spend months discussing Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation, in which Cowen argues that we have seen decades of worldwide economic stagnation because we have harvested all the low-hanging technological fruit. I think he is right, precisely because almost all of our technological advances have been in the simplest of sciences: physics. Take all of our technological advances -- the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the telephone, various sound recording devices, film and now digital image reproduction, refrigerators, electric ovens, dishwashers, microwaves, computers, the internet, printers, air planes, trains, space transportation, etc. -- and one can see that they are all exercises in physics. It seems that most of the theoretical advances in physics have been made, even if we are still in search for a Grand Unified Theory. Serial computing is about as good as it can get, and speeds will soon reach the upper limit of the speed of light (recent discoveries of neutrinos going faster notwithstanding). We seem to have reached the upper part of an S-curve.

At least in the simple sciences. And physics -- and most chemistry -- are simple sciences. I would even argue that the few places in which we have made advances in biotechnology reflect the advances of the simple sciences. Few genes have a 1:1 effect. But we have taken advantage of those.

In the meantime, there have been many advances in complexity, though most of them have been under the radar. Though starting off as a complex science, most economics has been dominated in the 20th century by simple ideas from math and physics, but there has been Austrian economics making complexity arguments for over a century now, with mainstream economics beginning to take complexity seriously and, thus, moving ever closer to Austrian economics. Sociology has been mostly dominated by the reductionist views of Marxist/predictive theory, but culture studies is beginning to move things in the right direction, toward concepts of spontaneous order (see Habermas' work as an example of this). Even the humanities went through reductionist periods before emerging into more complex notions. Certainly biology has been dominated by ideas of complexity from Darwin on. But with the introduction of complexity theory, self-organization, and emergence, we are seeing a new paradigm in biology emerging -- a Newer Synthesis, so to speak.

Indeed, complexity is the new paradigm being established. With it, we will see the emergence in new technologies -- complexity technologies -- we have never seen and perhaps cannot begin to predict. Indeed, unpredictability is central to complexity. We have to become far more comfortable with unpredictability if we are going to have complex technologies. Of course, we are only now becoming comfortable with complexity as a science or as a way of understanding the world itself. One can hope complexity will come to dominate soon -- one can hope that part of what is happening with this recession is a change in paradigm, moving us toward a new way of conceiving the world and of creating new things. Only then will we be ready for a real revolution in biotechnology. More than that, we will be ready to create complex computers that are less precise, but more able to be creative. True A.I. is in the complexity paradigm, not the simple one.

The good news is that there is one technology that is the bridge to this future: the internet. It is built on the simple science of the past, but the outcome was a complex, self-organizing network (in no small part because that is the result of human interactions, and humans are the most important element in the internet). A result is that we are beginning to look at society and technology in different ways. It is time to jettison our old ways of thinking. They served us well for a while, giving us all the technology we enjoy today (but also the reductionist social experiments of socialism, fascism, and communism, with the widespread destruction of individuals and societies that necessarily come from attempting to simplify complex networks) -- but if we are going to move forward, if we are going to have the kinds of advances we had over the last century and a half, if we are in fact going to move well beyond such simple advances and into technologies that will make us wealthier than we could ever imagine, then we will have to move into the complexity paradigm, and soon. Those who do so will be the first great founders, the great scientists and technologists, the great billionaires of their time -- making people like Carnegie and Vanderbilt look like unimaginative paupers.

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