Sep 14, 2011
“The arrow of human history…points towards larger quantities of non-zero-sumness. As history progresses, human beings find themselves playing non-zero-sum games with more and more other human beings. Interdependence expands, and social complexity grows in scope and depth.” (Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.)
What does it mean for a human society to be more complex? Where does new information come from, and where in the system is it stored? What does it mean for everyday people to live in a simple versus a complex society?
There are certain kinds of complexity that are inherent in the environment: that existed before there were human societies at all, and would go on existing without those societies. Even the simplest human society needs to be able to adapt to these factors in order to survive. For example: climate and weather are necessary features of the planet, and humans still spend huge amounts of resources dealing with changing seasons, droughts, and the extremes of heat and cold. Certain plants grow in certain types of soil, and different animals have different migratory patterns. Even the most basic hunter-gatherer groups needed to store and pass on knowledge of these patterns.
But even early human societies had a lot more than the minimum amount of knowledge required to live in a particular environment. Cultural complexity, in the form of traditions, conventions, rituals, and social roles, added to technological complexity, in the form of tools designed for particular purposes. Living in an agricultural society with division of labour and various different social roles required children to learn more than if they had been born to a small hunter-gatherer band. And although everyone in a village might have the same knowledge about the world, it was (probably) no longer possible for all the procedural skills taught and passed on in a given group to be mastered by a single person. (Imagine learning all the skills to be a farmer, carpenter, metalworker, weaver, baker, potter, and probably a half-dozen other things.)
This would have been the real beginning of Robert Wright’s interdependence and non-zero-sum interactions. No individual could possess all of the knowledge/complexity of their society, but every individual would benefit from its existence, at the price of a slightly longer education or apprenticeship than their counterparts in hunter-gather groups. The complexity was hidden; a person could wear a robe without knowing how to weave it, and a clay bowl without knowing how to shape it or bake it in a kiln. There was room for that knowledge in other people’s brains. The only downside, other than slightly longer investments in education, was a small increase in inferential distance between individuals.
Writing was the next step. For the first time, a significant amount of knowledge could be stored outside of anyone’s brain. Information could be passed on from one individual, the writer, to a nearly unbounded number of others, the readers. Considering the limits of human working memory, significant mathematical discoveries would have been impossible before there was a form of notation. (Imagine solving polynomial equations without pencil and paper.) And for the first time, knowledge was cumulative. An individual no longer had to spend a number of years mastering a particular, specific skill in an apprenticeship, having to laboriously pass on any new discoveries one at a time to their own apprentices. The new generation could start where the previous generation had left off. Knowledge could stay alive indefinitely, almost, in writing, without having to pass through a continuous line of minds. (Without writing, even if the ancient Greek society had possessed equivalent scientific and mathematical knowledge, it could not have later been rediscovered by any other society.) Conditions were ripe for the total sum of human knowledge to explode, and for complexity to increase rapidly.
The downside was a huge increase in inferential distance. For the first time, not only could individuals lack a particular procedural skill, they might not even know that the skill existed. They might not even benefit from the fact of its existence. The stock market contains a huge amount of knowledge and complexity, and provides non-zero-sum gains to many individuals (as well as zero-sum gains to some individuals). But to understand it requires enough education and training that most individuals can’t participate. The difference between the medical knowledge of professionals versus uneducated individuals is huge, and I expect that many people suffer because, although someone knows how they could avoid or solve their medical problems, they don’t. Computers, aside from being really nifty, are also incredibly useful, but learning to use them well is challenging enough that a lot of people, especially older people, don’t or can’t.
(That being said, nearly everyone in Western nations benefits from living here and now, instead of in an agricultural village 4000 years ago. Think of the complexity embodied in the justice system and the health care system, both of which make life easier and safer for nearly everyone regardless of whether they actually train as professionals in those domains. But people don’t benefit as much as they could.)
Is there any way to avoid this? It’s probably impossible for an individual to have even superficial understanding in every domain of knowledge, much less the level of understanding required to benefit from that knowledge. Just keeping up with day-to-day life (managing finances, holding a job, and trying to socialize in an environment vastly different from the ancestral one) can be trying, especially for individuals on the lower end of the IQ bell curve. (I hate the idea of intelligence, something not under the individual’s control and thus unfair-seeming, being that important to success, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.) This might be why so many people are unhappy. Without regressing to a less complex kind of society, is there anything we can do?
I think the answer is quite clear, because even as societies become more complex, the arrow of daily-life-difficulty-level doesn’t always go in the same direction. There are various examples of this; computers becoming more user-friendly with time, for example. But I’ll use an example that comes readily to mind for me: automated external defibrillators, or AEDs.
A defibrillator uses electricity to interrupt an abnormal heart rhythm (ventricular fibrillation is the typical example, thus de-fibrillation). External means that the device acts from outside the patient’s body (pads with electrodes on the skin) rather than being implanted. Most defibrillators require training to use and can cause a lot of harm if they’re used wrong. The automated part is what changes this. AEDs will analyze a patient’s heart rhythm, and they will only shock if it is necessary. They have colorful diagrams and recorded verbal instructions. There’s probably a way to use an AED wrong, but you would have to be very creative to find it. Needless to say, the technology involved is ridiculously complex and took years to develop, but you don’t need to understand the science involved in order to use an AED. You probably don’t even need to read. The complexity is neatly hidden away; all that matters is that someone knows it. There weren't necessarily any ground-breaking innovations involved, just the knowledge of old inventions in a user-friendly format.
The difference is intelligence. An AED has some limited artificial intelligence in it, programmed in by people who knew what they were talking about, which is why it can replace the decision process that would otherwise be made by medical professionals. A book contains knowledge, but has to be read and interpreted in its entirety by a human brain. A device that has its own small brain doesn’t. This is probably the route where our society is headed if the arrow of (technological) complexity keeps going up. Societies need to be livable for human beings.
That being said, there is probably such thing as too much hidden complexity. If most of the information in a given society is hidden, embodied by non-human intelligences, then life as a garden-variety human would be awfully boring. Which could be the main reason for exploring human cognitive enhancement, but that’s a whole different story.