Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Embarrassment of Complexity

Roger Martin recently diagnosed a kind of complexity that is manufactured by us and largely unaddressed: inter-domain complexity. It comes about as fields of knowledge are segmented into multiple domains, and each domain develops deep algorithmic knowledge and specialized tools that work by ignoring many of the variables actually in play. Martin notes that the difficulty of reintegrating such simplified and divided disciplines is what gives us the feeling, when we look at any large, adaptive system, of being overwhelmed by massive, un-addressable complexity.

If inter-domain complexity exists, the biggest problem it poses stems from our lack of ability to connect the real detail complexity that underlies everything, across domains. While we can never hope to obtain, to quote Murray Gell-Mann (one of the great complexity thinkers of our time), more than “a crude look at the whole,” we can work to improve one of the crucial preconditions to tackle inter-domain complexity. This is our ability for integrative thinking.

So how do we move beyond this embarrassment?

We should begin by recognizing something that has made our embarrassment much more acute in the past decade. We have come to rely much – too much? – on instruments and tools that a dynamic information and communication technology sector, drawing on all the research that preceded and accompanies it, has bestowed on us. Computers and the modeling that can now be done through them have become indispensable for the financial sector and the real economy; for the military; for moving people, goods, and ideas across the globe. They permit us to collect, process, store, and transform the new precious raw material of our age: information.

But there is an indisputable downside to this growing digital reliance: the lower priority placed on training, cultivating, and rewarding independent human judgment – which we must retain if we hope to master the tools we have created instead of being mastered by them.

- More Here

This reminds me of two things:
  • First, one my favorite E.O Wilson's book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge in which he made strong case for integrative thinking over a decade ago. 
  • Second one is Captain Kirk of Star Trek; everyone on the enterprise was a genius except the Captain Kirk. But yet he was the captain because he had this gift of integrative thinking which was much better than the machines and other geniuses on board.

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