Are freedom and complexity incompatible?

William Kurelek The Maze.jpg

One of the most salient facts of the modern world is that what the individual gains in terms of power she simultaneously loses in terms of control and understanding over the mechanisms through which that power is bought. Given enough money in my pocket, I can fly to the ends of the earth while at the same time possessing no control over how I am brought there. Nor do I have anything deeper than a childlike understanding of how this miracle of flight has been brought about.

As individuals we are embedded in systems of finance, media, medicine and law, and much else besides, over which we exercise little control, even where we possess the supposed power to influence. A good deal of this powerlessness is merely a reflection of the fact that we are historical creatures born into a world with a long history before we got here, and, one should hope, that will long outlive our brief stay.

This human made world has a jerry-rigged quality, built over centuries and longer. Like its greatest representative, the city, it has emerged organically and piecemeal overtime on the basis of human responses to one set of problems added to the solution of another set of problems, and so on, until it constitutes something like a jenga tower in which we often are unable to undo past choices without bringing the whole structure down. These makeshift aspect is what computer programmers call a kludge- “an ill-assorted collection of parts assembled to fulfill a particular purpose.”

None of this is particularly original. Whole books have been written on the subject including the science writer Samuel Arbesman’s: Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.

Arbesman lays out how new systems have been added to old ones, and are more often patched than replaced to give us structures no engineer in her right mind would have designed from scratch. The result is a human-made world over which we exercise only limited comprehension and control. As he puts it:

Even if our individual and collective cognitive faculties were up to the task of understanding massive complexity and its emergent behaviour – and they’re not – then there is the question of legacy. Much of what we use today has been designed incrementally and has been operating for a long time. It has been upgraded, patched, repaired and maintained. So, on top of everything else, the insoluble puzzle we have set ourselves is always changing. (90)

In a way the picture Arbesman presents is a pessimistic one, at least when compared to the manic optimism around human power that came before it. It’s a world where the Whiggish view of Enlightenment is supplanted by Danni Hillis’ “Age of Entanglement”. Instead of discovering that everything, including human nature, is the product of simple laws comprehendible to the human mind, the world we’ve built on the back of such laws has escaped our comprehension. To quote Hillis:

As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.

And it’s not just our technological infrastructure that’s outgrown us- Arbesman quotes Philip K. Howard who thinks “Modern law is to dense to be knowable.” (22) The US Constitution is a brief and easily understood document. The US Law Code that has grown out of it “is now more than 22 million words long, with more than 80,00 connections between one section and another.” (34)

As our society becomes more complicated it needs ever more specialized individuals who are rendered incapable of knowing how its systems fit together. Even understanding very specific domains requires the abstracting away of details- otherwise we just don’t have the mental bandwidth to grasp anything at all. The problem with such abstraction, just as with the much more common human practice of storytelling, is that we inevitably gloss over important details, especially details would help connect one set of questions to another. Without knowledge effective action is rendered, if not impossible, at least much less likely.

A further addition to the problems of comprehension and control is that we’ve been moving away from a world where the most sophisticated human systems were merely what Arbesman calles complicated-  rube goldberg-esque constructions following some linear, if convoluted, pattern of behavior to one of systems that he characterizes as complex where a system is knotted together into mutually reinforcing feedback loops.

Arbesman thinks these complex systems have more in common with biological organisms than they do with even the most intricately constructed artifact.   Both complicated and complex systems are the products of accretion. Everything around us is the product of a complex and unique history stretching back 13.7 billion years or beyond, but with life comes a whole new order of complexity. What makes life, technology and culture different from mere matter is their superior memory which builds on itself over time. Such memory, genetic and otherwise, is both a boon and a curse. It gives us a world where many of the fundamental problems of human existence have been solved, which also means a world where our course of action is limited by the path dependency of past solutions.

Why is any of this a problem? Arbesman thinks that our failure to see that we have moved into- a world where human systems are complex rather than just complicated- can result in harmful policy responses (by both governments and corporations), and unreasonable expectations by the public. His solution is for us to educate more generalists who can communicate across specialties and to encourage social scientists and technologists to think more like biologists and less like physicists. As far as the public is concerned, he seems to suggesting that we not only accept that simple solutions will become increasingly rare, but that we will likely never be able to locate the origin of many of the problems generated by these systems (he uses the recent example break failures in Toyota’s) in the first place.

One problem I had with Arbesman’s otherwise intriguing book was that he nowhere addresses the issue of manufactured complexity. Governments and corporations needlessly making policy or products more complex than they need be- whether to exercise control, extract rents, or engender paralysis. It is an increasingly used strategy for creating ignorance, agnotology. A word that goes so ways to describing the current moment.   And sometimes added complexity for a proven technology, like automobiles,  seems to be akin to 1950’s era tail- fins on cars. An expensive feature that adds not one iota of practical benefit, whatever manufactures claim, and often leads to added headaches for the consumer.

Even leaving the issue of manufactured complexity aside Arbesman never looks at the historical thrust of complication and complexity or at their political implications. I think both are revealing and profound, so I’ll have a go at those issues myself.

First the deep history.

The kinds of wonder incomprehension at the things other humans have made would not have made sense to our hunter-gatherer predecessors, or rather, for them, this inscrutability, which gave rise to the oscillating responses of terror and placating worship, was their attitude toward untamed nature not, as is the case for us, the human made world, or so it might seem. As a hunter gatherer I would possess a great deal of autonomy over how I went about pursuing my ends, along with nearly complete understanding of the tools I used for doing so.

For moderns the situation is largely reversed: it is nature that is transparent and non-frightening not in the sense that most of us actually understand it, but that we realize it is “dumb” and largely (at least usually) incapable of deliberately doing us harm, whereas the human-made world is complex to the point of non-transparency. And yet- because we know it has been designed by other creatures capable of intention such as ourselves, we can never escape the dread that it has been so designed in order to serve the interests of those at its source.

What first made nature transparent wasn’t science but the replacement of gods with a single omnipotent GOD who, it was believed, had prescribed clear moral rules for us to follow- or else. Nature was regarded as rational in the sense that its attacks via famine, disease, and even death was understood as punishment for failure to live up to these rules.

Once God was gone from the scene nature’s arrows were robbed of any agency at all. They were just dumb luck and could be avoided or even changed once their mindless trajectory was understood. For us nature has been robbed of its fear because it has been robbed of its agency, not so the human made world, which we not only can’t fully understand, but know that it is has been designed by someone, somewhere, whose purposes are not our own.

Combine the general opacity of modern life with the fact that some (via superior quantities of money) can move without much friction through such systems (not to mention the billions of human beings who lack the resources to move through them at all) and one can see how life in a technological civilization, rather than puffing up the chests of the majority of modern humankind living in them with the recognition of the “godlike” powers they possess in comparison to our ancestors, instead are left feeling trapped in a labyrinthine machine and cursed with a inescapable, if low level, permanent sense of dread.  

Which leads us to the present moment.

The consequence of this history is an unsustainable level of alienation between individuals and the systems they have come to depend upon for existence. This alienation gives rise to a host of political and philosophical poses, which all revolve, in one way or another, around the question of how to respond to our dependence on incomprehensible systems we are unable to influence.

A list of these poses would include, in no particular order:

PROPONENTS of one version or another of dark ecology who propose abandoning technological civilization itself and going back to the “eden” of our pre-industrial, or even, pre-agricultural forebears.

On the other side of the scale from those who live in terror of the machine and its spiritual and environmental consequences are those technophiles who worship it like some ancient sky god full of faith that eventually it will lead us to the promised land.

RANDIAN LIBERTARIANS who see the distortions of THE MACHINE as primarily a creation of the state and the crony capitalists and dependents with which it is aligned. Related to the libertarians, but from the other side of the political spectrum, are anarchists who think the problem is power and therefore purging THE MACHINE of power relations, and decentralizing its functions, would leave us with human- made world that would re-emphasize the first half of that term. Among both the libertarians and the anarchists are found the tribe of the cyber-punks whose joie de vivre comes from out maneuvering the machine and its real and imagined puppet masters.

APOCALYPTIC DREAMING SURVIVALIST who imagine a day when the whole edifice collapses in on itself and we are finally given the chance to start over from scratch and during the rebuilding regain our sense of both autonomy and understanding. Aside them stand another apocalyptic group with a completely different understanding- accelerationist marxists who want us to propel the system’s contradictions forward until, after a painful birth, they believe our world will give way to something wonderful and new.

ANTI-SCIENTIST groups from both the left and the right who, often from lack of comprehension, do not believe that the scientific method or current scientific establishment gives us the closest approximation to truth when it comes to questions of health, nutrition or biology etc.

Related to these are CONSPIRACY THEORISTS who make an over-complicated world understandable, by projecting deliberate agency into every event at the price of giving up reality itself.

The New Atheists as well grow out of the bewildering complexity of science. For as the comprehensive view which the discoveries of the different branches of science when stitched together becomes less and less possible those who believe science can answer all questions come to resemble the adherents of a faith.      

Fundamentalists aim to replace the complexity of the world with the simplicity of a single text. Likewise ETHNO-NATIONALISM rears its ugly head in the search for lost autonomy where some of those cast out of THE  MACHINE seek to revive racist thinking as a means to restore organic ties- even if such ties can be shown to be nothing but modern fictions.

I’ll stop there.    

The strange thing is that the awareness of the crisis for human freedom posed by complexity not only isn’t new, it’s one which we actually tried to solve using one of two solutions proposed way back in the middle of the last century. Funnily enough, we seem to have temporarily forgotten we had the problem on account of thinking we actually had it licked. Our problem solver, or escape artist, in this case was the Austrian economist Charles Schumpeter.     


What Schumpeter called “creative destruction” became for many, during the 1970’s, the  means of regaining autonomy in an inherited technological world, escaping stasis and starting anew. In this reading, the entrepreneur ,through technological or financial innovation, destroyed the old order and started a new one. The entrepreneur was an embodiment and enabler of freedom, not only bringing new forms of living into being, but also creating a moment of freedom for individuals in general as they adjusted to destruction and tried to establish a place in the newly created world. Silicon Valley, especially, would come to embody this Schumpeterian worldview. Computers which had been the penultimate symbol of a bureaucratic order in the 1960s as the students of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley when in protests they wore computer post-cards that mockingly read “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate” became in the 1980s a vector of liberation from THE MACHINE.      

A combination of technology, deregulation and privatization was supposed to liberate us from the accumulated sclerosis of THE MACHINE and open open a space for individual initiative to make its comeback. The problem with this, in part, that Schumpeter’s most vocal proponents had read the man all wrong.

Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, where most of these ideas were drawn from, was more of a lament for a lost world than a strategy for getting out of our fix. Writing in 1942 he was certain the historic role played by the entrepreneur could not continue. The visionary was being replaced by THE MACHINE:

Technological progress is increasingly becoming the business of teams of trained specialists who turn out what is required and make it work in predictable ways. The romance of earlier commercial adventure is rapidly wearing away, because so many more things can be strictly calculated that had of old to be visualized in a flash of genius. (116)

With more than generation in which digital technologies have promised to liberate us from dehumanizing bureaucracy now behind us, we can see that their ultimate outcome  was instead to give rise to a form of ambient bureaucracy much more potent and inescapable than anything seen before. It is a world of inescapable protocols and procedures over which we have little if any control. Where the “rule- by- nobody” has become intimate.

If anything, technology is now being wielded, and creative destruction exercised, by those buttressing THE MACHINE rather than tearing it down. As an example, Amazon through digital retail and clerkless stores, may indeed end up creating a retail ecosystem that is entirely new, but Schumpeter would likely see it as ultimately destructive as it destroys much of the space for small scale businesses to operate and thus undermines the long-term support for capitalist economics itself.

The perfectly bureaucratized giant industrial unit not only ousts the small or medium-sized firm and “expropriates” its owners, but in the end it also ousts the entrepreneur and expropriates the bourgeoisie as a class which in the process stands to lose not only its income but also what is infinitely more important, its function. (134)

It would be one thing if Jeff Bezos were the primary type of entrepreneur thrown up by late-capitalism. It’s quite another to realize that what is much more common is a kind of faux- entrepreneur in the form of CEOs who demand the kinds of remuneration once reserved for true risk takers- the founders of companies- for themselves when they are in fact little but bureaucratic heads or media spokespersons. It’s of the nature of late capitalism to turn someone of Schumpeter’s genius into a mere marketing tool.

Perhaps the whole MACHINE is in the process of unraveling. The neoliberal world order that began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s might be seen as a softer version of the kind of destruction that occurred in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union where a minority of individuals didn’t so much act like entrepreneurs as through connections and corruption secure for themselves a large share of the means of production in a society that was going through an acute period of consolidated deconstruction. Very few would claim that the type of “freedom” experienced in Russia is what we should be heading for, though the definition of freedom, and freedom’s role has become increasingly confused in the countries where it originated.

Freedom in the modern West is largely a surface phenomenon. Of course, this has always, and almost everywhere, been the case. Human beings are social and historical creatures whose fate is to become trapped in the webs their ancestors have weaved. This has been our reality since the rise of agricultural civilization when autonomy was restricted to those at society’s apex with the exception of the ancient Athenians who only expanded rather than universalized freedom’s scope. What makes modernity different is that we are conscious in a way those in the past that these inherited structures were not divinely ordained but the product of human choice. We live in a civilization that makes freedom its highest ideal and which simultaneously makes that ideal almost impossible to obtain.

What a minority of us do possess, and which we have made almost synonymous with freedom, is money. The effect of money is to give those who have it not freedom over the structure of THE MACHINE in which they, like everybody else, are stuck, but choices within the system and especially a kind of anti-viscosity that allows them to flow unimpeded through THE MACHINE. And wealthy individuals don’t just have the ability to move with much these friction through THE MACHINE they have the capability to locate and exploit opportunities within its complex topology- and they now have a vision and reach that is global in scope.  

The poor, and now increasingly the middle class’, lack of money translates into not only lack of choices but casts them into slow lanes whose only escape is through paying some sort of rent. Even absent mimetic explanations such differences between the rich and the poor can’t help but lead the latter into feelings of  ressentiment. Democracy and raging inequality do not make good bedmates.

So if technological and economic revolutions, or all of us becoming entrepreneurs, hasn’t proven an effective  solution to the seeming incompatibility of complexity and freedom, what might? Or better, do any of the poses listed above actually offer up a genuine solution to our problem.

I have to say that DARK ECOLOGY at least gets to the root of the problem, which in some sense is historical accumulation itself. What proponents of dark ecology propose is that we withdraw into simpler systems where not only freedom but our very humanity is preserved. The solution makes sense given that this is how we’ve solved the problems posed by complexity in every other era of our past.

Here’s the author Paul Kingsnorth, founder of the Dark Mountain Project  and one of the most articulate of the dark ecologists:

So I want my children to know what seeds are and how to plant them. I want them to know how to light fires and how to use knives and simple tools. I want them to know how to cook properly and how to ferment drinks. The more of those things you know, the more connected you are to life, the more control you have, and the more choice you have over how to live. I don’t want them growing up in a consumer economy that wants to teach them absolutely nothing about how living is done. Even if all that stuff doesn’t fall apart in their lifetime, which it might well, it’s a powerless way to live. You end up making yourself a slave. You are completely dependent on this destructive world-spanning machine, and you are not fully human. I want them to be fully human. So it’s an insurance policy but it’s also just a way of living. And it’s enjoyable. You can’t live this way from some puritanical notion. You actually have to enjoy it, which we do.

One major problem here is that dark ecology merely exchanges, to paraphrase Hillis, one jungle (a human made one) for another (one made without our input). That is, in “going back to nature” we’ll merely have exchange one world incompatible with human freedom for another that possesses the same exact problem.

But what if the whole idea of a jungle, or a wilderness with human beings in it is a myth? Then the quest to go back to nature isn’t so much an anti-technological one as a technological solution of another sort.This is a point forcefully made by Robert Moor in his recent book On Trails. As he puts it:

Wilderness looks different in the neon lights of technology. In the traditional framework of wilderness preservation, a techscape is merely a despoiled wilderness. But when viewed through the lens of technology, the wilderness can be seen as nothing more than an ultra-minimalist techscape designed to provide an escape from other, more baroque techscapes.”  (261)

And the problem might be even worse than Moor lets on, for those iconic landscapes we most associate with wilderness are now among the most technologically on earth. All in an effort to preserve them like living fossils from the new world humans and our technology have brought into being.

Given that they do not assume a world without human beings, nor should they, dark ecology is just another pose where everything about THE MACHINE becomes both alien and incomprehensible, as if it wasn’t human beings who built it and ultimately control it. It’s a view oddly similar to that Elon Musk has regarding AI. Yet THE MACHINE isn’t some evil metallic monster we can juxtapose to a truer world of living beings, THE MACHINE is us.

Human beings are certainly part of nature but it seem one of our distinctions is that while nature can be wild without us, we can not survive in a world that is truly wild and, of necessity, instantly set out to name, map, and change it. Here again is Moor:

In the beginning, there was chaos, blank fields. Out of them, meaning emerged: first one trail, then another. Then the trails branched and webbed together, until they reached a density and that again resembled (but was not quite) chaos. And so the wheel turned over. Benton MacKaye put it succinctly:  “Mankind,” he wrote, “has cleared the jungle and replaced it with a labyrinth.” In this maze, a higher order of path making emerges- written guides, signposts. Maps- which are them linked together and require yet higher orders of exegetical path making: written guides to the maps, and then guides to the map-guides, guides to the map-guide guides, and so on.   (278)

The quote further above from Kingsworth reveals an additional problem as well, which also suggests another alternative to the incompatibility of freedom and complexity.  He leaves us with the question of where to locate a “natural” form of history in time? Teaching my daughters how to farm or live in the forest would certainly be fun and empowering, but where in terms of technological history should I stop? If it were possible I’d like them to know how to make all kinds of tools, to produce potassium and phosphorus to fertilize their crops, to cultivate yeast for bread, to make soap, and pottery, and work metals. I’d want them to know how to make glass, deliver babies using forceps, and produce penicillin from mold. I’d hope to teach them how to make anesthetics from plants such as poppies to numb the pain of surgery, and how to make machines to free them tedious and backbreaking labor along with how to recover the wonders of electricity.

All these methods, and in fact much more, can be found in Lewis Dartnell’s excellent book The Knowledge and reading it certainly did make me feel empowered. Nothing that human beings do is magic, just the product of generation after generation of human tinkering, and such knowledge of fundamentals and experimentation is probably a better approach to education than Arbesman’s argument that we start to treat human systems in the same way we do biology.     

Yet, just as with Kingsworth seeing his children’s nature oriented education as a sort of “insurance policy”, there’s still a pose at the heart of Dartnell’s book. And that is if modern civilization collapsed a small group of us could actually rebuild it. It confuses civilization with hardware when it is mostly about software- the way in which humans organize the activity of “acting in concert”. Industrial civilization is not just, or even primarily, a matter of knowing how to build all the parts that go into a 747, it’s knowing how to coordinate the thousands of human beings who play a role in the plane’s construction.

Robert Moor, this time in an article not in his book, again captures something like this. American culture idealizes endarchy- radical, individual self-sufficiency- endarky– which Moor contrasts with our much more true to life condition of radical interdependence. Something he calls “exarky”.

The exarkic person, on the other hand, is utopian, the type who believes in improving systems, not rejecting them; who does not shy from asking for directions; who would rather rent or share or borrow a home than own one; who has no qualms uploading his digital memories to something called the Cloud; who welcomes the notion of self-driving cars. Exarks prefer a well-trained police force to a well-oiled firearm. They walk, nimbly, with a kind of holy faith, atop wires others have installed.

Yet it seems impossible to reconcile freedom with Moor’s “Age of Exarchy”, especially when our radical interdependence is actually one of near absolute dependence by the majority on the minority comprised of policy makers, technologists and owners of capital who design and control the various systems upon which we depend. A modern society is not, after all, a village.

The way to resolve this, I believe, involves the second solution, I mentioned earlier, the one we discovered in the 20th century and didn’t try. It’s the quest for humanity within THE MACHINE as embodied by the Port Huron Statement:

We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human being to the status of things–if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to “posterity” cannot justify the mutilations of the present. We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been “competently” manipulated into incompetence–we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing the skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making.

The issue is less one of all of us becoming technologists than making sure the technologists listen to us. The way to restore freedom in the midst of growing complexity is to ensure that citizens have the ability to see inside what are now black boxes and shape these structures in conformity with our values, including our value for future generations of human beings and the rest of life with which we share the earth.

Some form of liquid democracy might take us some way towards restoring freedom and humanity within the boundaries of the administrative state, including offering ways to grant future generations and the rest of life permanent forms of political representation, but it would not address the majority of ways we now encounter THE MACHINE because that is now in the form of private companies.

Here is a proposed solution to that problem: all companies beyond a certain size or who possess a certain share of some essential economic activity would face a choice. They could either be broken into smaller pieces as we have done with monopolies for nearly a century up until the 1980’s or they could enter some quasi-public status in which they are subject to democratic input regarding decisions that affect the public good. Such a system of democratic oversight might even be global in scope and represent a nascent form of global democracy.

Should we fail to find some way to democratize, humanize, and control the negative consequence for the human future and the rest of life of THE MACHINE, should we not succeed in gaining the ability for average citizens to peer inside, change, and shape it, the only alternative, barring some form of technological tyranny or global ecological collapse, may be the prescription of Mario Savio given to the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley only two years after the Students for a Democratic Society released their famous statement. As Savio put it:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

The choice is ours to make.