On July 8, 2015, as I was in the midst of working on this book, United Airlines suffered a computer problem and grounded its planes. That same day, the New York Stock Exchange halted trading when its system stopped working properly. The Wall Street Journal’s website went down. People went out of their minds. No one knew what was going on. Twitter was bedlam as people speculated about cyberattacks from such sources as China and Anonymous.
But these events do not seem to have been the result of a coordinated cyberattack. The culprit appears more likely to have been a lot of buggy software that no one fully grasped. As one security expert stated in response to that day’s events, “These are incredibly complicated systems. There are lots and lots of failure modes that are not thoroughly understood.” This is an understated way of saying that we simply have no idea of the huge number of ways that these incredibly complex technologies can go wrong.
Our technologies—from websites and trading systems to urban infrastructure, scientific models, and even the supply chains and logistics that power large businesses—have become hopelessly interconnected and overcomplicated, such that in many cases even those who build and maintain them on a daily basis can’t fully understand them any longer.
In his book The Ingenuity Gap, professor Thomas Homer-Dixon describes a visit he made in 1977 to the particle accelerator in Strasbourg, France. When he asked one of the scientists affiliated with the facility if there was someone who understood the complexity of the entire machine, he was told that “no one understands this machine completely.” Homer-Dixon recalls feeling discomfort at this answer, and so should we.
Today’s technological complexity has reached a tipping point. The arrival of the computer has introduced a certain amount of radical novelty to our situation, to use the term of the computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra. Computer hardware and software is much more complex than anything that came before it, with millions of lines of computer code in a single program and microchips that are engineered down to a microscopic scale. As computing has become embedded in everything from our automobiles and our telephones to our financial markets, technological complexity has eclipsed our ability to comprehend it.
We are of two minds about all this complexity. On the one hand, we built these incredibly complicated systems, and that’s something to be proud of. They might not work as expected all the time, but they are phenomenally intricate edifices. On the other hand, almost everything we do in the technological realm seems to lead us away from elegance and understandability, and toward impenetrable complexity and unexpectedness. We already see hints of the endpoint toward which we are hurtling: a world where nearly self-contained technological ecosystems operate outside of human knowledge and understanding.
This book argues that there are certain trends and forces that overcomplicate our technologies and make them incomprehensible, no matter what we do. These forces mean that we will have more and more days like July 8, 2015, when the systems we think of as reliable come crashing down in inexplicable glitches.
As a complexity scientist, I spend a lot of time being preoccupied with the rapidly increasing complexity of our world. I’ve noticed that when faced with such massive complexity, we tend to respond at one of two extremes: either with fear in the face of the unknown, or with a reverential and unquestioning approach to technology.
Fear is a natural response, given how often we are confronted with articles on such topics as the threat of killer machines, the dawn of superintelligent computers with powers far beyond our ken, or the question of whether we can program self-driving cars to avoid hitting jaywalkers.
Even if we aren’t afraid of our technological systems, many of us still maintain an attitude of distaste toward technology. We see this in our responses to the inscrutable recommendations of an Amazon or a Netflix. Many of us even rail at the choices an application makes when it tells us the “best” route from one location to another.
On the other hand, some of us veer to the opposite extreme: an undue veneration of our technology. When something is so complicated that its behavior feels magical, we end up resorting to the terminology and solemnity of religion. When we delight at Google’s brain and its anticipation of our needs and queries, when we delicately caress the newest Apple gadget, or when we visit a massive data center and it stirs something in the heart similar to stepping into a cathedral, we are tending toward this reverence.
However, neither of these responses—whether from experts or laypeople—is good or productive. One leaves us with a crippling fear and the other with a worshipful awe of systems that are far from meriting unquestioning wonder. Both prevent us from confronting our technological systems as they actually are. Next time, the results of our failure to understand might not be as trivial as a frustrated Wall Street Journal reader being unable to access an article at the time of her choosing. The glitches could be in the power grid, in banking systems, or even in our medical technologies, and they will not go away on their own. We ignore them at our peril.
Technology, while omnipresent, is not pristine or unfathomable because of its creation by some perfect, infinite mind. It is wonderfully messy and imperfect. My goal is to help each of us navigate a path between the two extremes of fear and awe, laying out an orientation toward our technologies that will allow us to make progress in how we approach them.
This orientation will require us to meet our technologies halfway by cultivating a comfort with these systems despite never completely understanding them. As we will see, this orientation involves, among other things, each of us thinking the way scientists do when examining the massive complexity of biology.
Despite all the overcomplication of the systems we vitally depend on, I’m ultimately hopeful that humanity can handle what we have built.
This book is why.
Adapted from Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Samuel Arbesman, in agreement with Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Samuel Arbesman, 2016.
Samuel Arbesman is Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a science and technology venture capital firm. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Silicon Flatirons Center of Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado and a Research Fellow at the Long Now Foundation. His writing on science, mathematics, and technology has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired. Arbesman’s first book, The Half-life of Facts, examines how knowledge changes over time. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and children.