Progress and complexity (Philosophy of Complexity I)

I have heard it said, and have argued myself, that complexity is increasing in our societies, and that evolution leads to increasing complexity. I have also known that this is an imprecise statement that needs some examination – or a lot of examination – in order to understand exactly how it can be corroborated or supported.

The first, obvious, problem is how we measure complexity. There are numerous mathematical proposals, such as algorithmic metrics (how long would the shortest program be that described system A and if that program length expands over time then A is becoming more complex), but they require quite some modeling: how do you reduce society or evolution to a piece of software? Suddenly you run into other interesting problems, such as if society and evolution are indeed algorithmic?

The second problem is to understand if this increase in complexity is constant and linear or if it is non-linear. It seems as if it could be argued that human society plateaued for thousands of years after having organized around cities, leaving our nomadic state – but is this true? And if it is true, what makes a society suddenly break free from such plateaus? This seems to be a question of punctuated equilibria?

So, let’s invert and ask what we would like to say – what our intuition tells us – and then try to examine if we can find ways of falsifying it. Here are a few things that I think I believe:

(I) Human society becomes more complex as it progresses economically, socially and technologically.

(II) Evolution leads to increasing complexity.

(III) Technology is the way we manage complexity, and technological progress internalizes complexity in new devices and systems, leaving the sum total increases intact – and not stopping the increase continuing – but redistributing it across different systems.

These guesses are just that, guesses, but they deserve examination and exploration, so that is what we will spend time looking at in this series of blog posts. The nature of any such investigation is that it meanders, and finds itself stalled or locked into certain patterns — we will learn from where this happens.

This seems important.