Energy and complexity (Philosophy of Complexity II)

A brief note today, about something to look into more.

Could the energy consumption of a civilization be a measure of its complexity? If so, we could easily say that our civilization is becoming more and more complex – since we are consuming more energy all the time. There is something intriguing about this measure – it relates the complexity of a phenomenon to the amount of heat it produces, and so the entropy it drives.

It seems an obvious metric, but it also seems to suggests that there is nothing structural about complexity – by this metric, the sun is more complex than we are. But then, again, we could argue that there is a difference here between natural phenomena like the sun and a constructed artifact.

Can we say, then, that for artifacts it is a good proxy to think about the heat they generate? A car generates more heat than a computer, does it not? Consumes more energy? So again, it seems, the measure is shaky. But the attraction in this kind of metric seems to remain: our civilization is more complex than that of the Egyptians, and we consume much more energy.

A variation on this theme is to look at the energy we can produce, harness — that would connect this measure to the Kardashev scales. Maybe there is something there.

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.