Overcomplicated | Samuel Arbesman

Summary of: Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
By: Samuel Arbesman


Embark on a journey into the world of overcomplication with Samuel Arbesman’s ‘Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension’. This book sheds light on the growing complexity of modern systems, from urban infrastructures to computer software, and how this complexity often surpasses human understanding. As the ‘Age of Entanglement’ emerges, many people react with fear or reverence, often overlooking the middle path of honest reflection on the risks and benefits of complex technology. Prepare to delve into the differences between complicated and complex systems, the phenomenon of ’emergence’, and the intricate dance of interconnectivity.

The Rise of Technological Complexity

Glitchy software is frequently linked to incidents such as air-traffic system outages and stock market crashes. The increasing complexity of modern systems, including urban infrastructures, website databases, and supply chains, has multiple potential “failure modes”. Complexity has reached a tipping point where it often outstrips designers’ abilities to fully understand them. Contemporary computer systems’ “radical novelty” makes them even more complex and difficult to comprehend than earlier systems. Our present technological achievements’ trajectory and destination lie beyond human understanding and comprehension. The rise of technology ecosystems and interconnectivity resembles circulatory systems, where their interconnectedness is too fast, uncertain and complicated for human understanding. This overcomplication of technology elicits either “reverence” or “fear” among people. Those who revere technology are placing undue faith in its capabilities, whereas those who fear it experience maximum resistance towards automation and AI. The middle path of honest reflection about the risks and benefits of complex tech offers a balanced, optimistic mindset that sees the potential of untidy, “imperfect” systems if they don’t become so complicated that they surpass human capacity to regulate them.

The Difference between Complicated and Complex Systems

Complicated systems are not the same as complex ones. Complex systems show dynamic complexity and exhibit feedback, whereas complicated ones are only a tangled mess. Increasingly, technology’s complexity mimics organic features, granting the benefits of automation. While people can reach a depth of understanding of a system through training, it is difficult for a single individual to grasp all the details, leading to overlooked aspects and occasional calamities. One common mistake is regarding technology as “magical.” It is critical to differentiate between complicated and complex systems for successful functioning.

The Age of Entanglement

Computer scientist Danny Hillis identifies the early 21st century as the “Age of Entanglement,” where complex systems bring about unexpected phenomena. Abstraction is crucial in interacting with such systems, but it has limits. The volatile collision of hidden elements in a system causes unanticipated problems, like the 2010 financial Flash Crash. Experts can’t control “emergence,” a phenomenon where interactions at one level lead to unforeseen results at another. The Entanglement affects us all and requires nuanced thinking. Hillis encourages us to understand and adapt to the complexities of the modern world.

The Internet’s Messy Evolution

The internet has become convoluted and complex due to the “kluges” or makeshift solutions added over time to address its shortcomings. These fixes have led to bloating and the accumulation of outdated systems that continue to interact with newer technology. The result is a network that is far removed from its elegant and efficient origins envisioned by its creators in the 60s. The legacy systems run by institutions like the IRS are testament to the challenges of starting over. Ultimately, the internet’s evolution is a product of both accretion and interaction, a process that has made it a formidable but unwieldy beast.

Interconnected System Risks

In a world of massive interconnectivity, interoperability poses a growing threat of system failure. As designing for edge cases undermines simplicity, so do exceptions in language and programming lead to complex distribution. Modularity and system engineering hygiene can help limit complexity, but there remains a potential for a combinatorial explosion of factors beyond human comprehension. Such risks highlight the need to account for common rarities and their impact on interconnected systems. The ease with which seemingly disparate systems can now interact only increases the costs of failure, making continued attention to system design essential to avoid global disaster.

The Complexity of Systems

In the book, the author explains how the limitations of human thinking hinder our understanding of complex machines and systems. The Therac-25 radiation machine serves as an example of how a software bug caused six patients to be overdosed with radiation. The designers failed to account for potential bugs in the software. Systems operate differently from human thinking, and machines count from zero instead of one. Humans become overwhelmed when processing vast amounts of data, particularly when stressed. Even in simple software programs, if-then statements branch into unfathomable pathways. Systems that optimize themselves produce useful insights, but nobody understands how. The author argues that bugs are not just annoyances to be fixed but also serve as a realization that we are in the entanglement. The era of specialization and new fields of study makes it necessary for teams of specialists to work on complex projects. While teams work well, no single person can grasp the project fully.

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