Black Box

We are entering the New Dark Ages. The ‘darkness’ of our age is the dark hue of ‘black’ in the ‘black box’ that most technology has become in our lives.

The author of the ‘Bad Science’ Ben Goldacre describes the situation perfectly…

“Science coverage is further crippled, of course, by the fact that the subject can be quite difficult to understand. This in itself can seem like an insult to intelligent people, like journalists, who fancy themselves as able to understand most things, but there has also been an acceleration in complexity in recent times. Fifty years ago you could sketch out a full explanation of how an AM radio worked on the back of a napkin, using basic school-level knowledge of science, and build a crystal set in a classroom which was essentially the same as the one in your car. When your parents were young they could fix their own car, and understand the science behind most everyday technology they encountered, but this is no longer the case. Even a geek would struggle to give an explanation of how a mobile phone works, because technology has become more difficult to understand and explain, and everyday gadgets have taken on a ‘black box’ complexity well as intellectually undermining.”

A long time ago, the world and universe was the mysterious entity governed by unseen and barely fathomed spirits and deities. After centuries of slowly unravelling these mysteries, now these revealed truths are getting buried again by the weight of their own abundance. Now the common objects of our lives – phones, computers, cars – are just as mysterious as the rivers, trees and clouds of a bygone age.

  • Too Much Information – Drinking from the fire hose of information tends more to drown than to slake. The Boston Globe highlighted this issue in a piece called “How Facts Backfire”…“This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.”
  • Too Much Complexity – But it is not just an information glut…it is a complexity glut. The best piece I have read on this trend is one of my intellectual heroes, Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame). His post on his ‘Adams Complexity Threshold’struck right at the core of the conundrum. The real question is whether all of human society has crossed this hypothesized threshold…“The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works… Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn’t know why. The financial meltdown, health care, defence spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East – you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity. Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.”
  • Too Much Choice – Barry Schwartz explores this problem in detail in his TED lecture ‘The paradox of choice’where he colourfully highlights real world examples of excessive choice leading to less benefit rather than more.“[Choice] produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.” While Schwartz is referring to things like 127 types of salad dressings in his store, the assertion applies equally to ‘choices of versions of the truth’.

More and more knowledge in the whole, leads to less and less understanding in the individual. Until we embrace this paradoxical failure, we will be increasingly subject to its costs…part 2 next entry.

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