Dug Campbell

The Increasing Entanglement of Modern Knowledge

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated” (Confucius)

Most people would agree that the world is becoming more complex. That may be because we delight in making things intricate. But mostly it’s down to the fact that we’re collectively discovering more detail about an ever increasing number of subjects. At the same time, the barriers to the free exchange of this information are being increasingly dismantled.

However, when it comes to thinking about the infrastructure of society, this article stuck in my head recently. It argues that we’ve reached a level of complexity in modern life that means that success (in preventing accidents, identifying bugs, whatever) can only now be achieved by systems that we must first build to collect the necessary inputs, analyse and information and then process the results at speed to ensure that we can avoid the unwanted outcome. Or, to put it another way – we aren’t now individually capable of picking up on things that go wrong. We invariably have to subcontract this essential work out to machines.

When it comes down to relying on a system to direct airplanes to ensure that they don’t collide mid-air, we can be fairly certain that the system will follow instructions to the letter. That’s what computers do. The problem is that once you remove humans from the equation, the safety net (real or imagined) disappears.

In short, people no longer fully understand the technology that surrounds them. American computer scientist Danny Hillis has a great term for this – he calls it “The Entanglement“. Unlike the Enlightenment which was all about the generation of ideas, knowledge is now developing so quickly that we have reached a new stage in which the common reality is that we are incapable of absorbing sufficient quantities of such information in order to be able to take everything into account that we need to.

Put simply, even the things that we rely on today incorporate elements of other things that we have no knowledge of.

Think of chess. We’ve used the game as a proxy for thousands of years to assess intelligence. Yet now it’s indisputable that humans lag far behind supercomputers when it comes to an ability to calculate the vast number of available options during a game. Or mobile phone numbers. How many can you name? Or are we simply outsourcing our knowledge to machines?

It seems quite clear that knowledge “exists at the network level – not in the heads of individual human beings“.

“If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.” (Tom Peters)

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