Complex Or Complicated?

Interesting, physics-oriented post, on Backreaction on the issues of better dealing with global political, economic and environmental problems. These are often popularly described as complex (as opposed to complicated):

The difference between complex and complicated is that a complex system has new, emergent features that you would not have seen coming from studying its constituents alone…The complex problem, it can’t be decomposed. It can’t be reduced. It’s global, interrelated, it’s on many timescales, and it doesn’t respect professional boundaries either. Worse, you don’t know were it begins and ends. It’s full of “unknown unknowns.” It’s not only their problem, it’s our problem too.

Then there’s the issue of handling such problems!

It is however not true that we don’t know what to do with a complex problem. We just don’t do it. In contrast to our political systems, humans are good at solving complex problems. It’s the complicated ones that you better leave to a computer. Look at the quote from Avril Lavigne that is title for this post. She’s talking about relationships. Navigating in a human society is multi-layered task on many time-scales with unexpected emergent features. It’s full of unknown unknowns. That’s not a complicated problem – it’s a complex one. We have the skills to deal with that… The reason why we can’t use our abilities to deal with economic or political problems is simply lack of input and lack of method. These are solvable problems. And they are neither complex nor complicated.

There’s also the very interesting suggestion that Google may have a role to play in providing some of the required input:

It is not too far fetched to think that Google will play a role in that with creating “real-time natural crisis tracking system,” “real-world issue reporting system” or “collecting and organize the world’s urban data” (see: Project 10 to the 100). The next step is to find a good way to extract meaning from all this data to be able to react in a timely manner to changes.

Quite fascinating ideas!

I’ve written previously on complexity here and here.


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