(10 minute read) Many presentations and articles in education and technology forums begin by saying that the world is becoming more complex than it ever has been before. Let’s pause to consider if this is actually true. By what measure is this assertion being made? What assumptions may underpin such statements? Is the world actually becoming more complex or are we just becoming more aware of the complexity that has always been present? What do we stand to lose if we assume the world is becoming more complex?
There is no doubt that global communication systems are becoming more interconnected and the number of people plugging into these complex networks is increasing so from this perspective, the world is indeed becoming more complex. However, the complexity of the world around us can be measured in many different ways.
One possible reason for us to assume that the world is becoming increasingly complex is the perception that the rate of change appears to be increasing. This may certainly be true if we consider that rate of technological advancement or the rate of knowledge creation in just about any field of science. Barlow argues that the rate of change in technology is exceeding our ability to keep up with it. Dr Gruen asks the question, why are we so focussed on the rate of technological change now? An alternative view is that technological innovation is actually slowing despite appearances in the app store and the expanse of social media. Economist, Robert Gordon is definitely one who is unimpressed by our current technological advancements. Which ever way you fall on this debate, it is clear that we need to be careful of the assumptions we hold and be prepared to consider other perspectives. It is not clear whether technological advancement is indeed leading to greater complexity or less complexity.
Why are we now taking the complexity of our global interdependencies more seriously? One reason is that we are reaching a number of critical tipping points in human history that are drawing our attention to a reality that our world is (and always was) made up of highly interdependent and deeply connected complex systems. The OECD writes that we have reached a tipping point where inequality can no longer be treated as an afterthought. UNESCO joins this call to action over inequality as does Amnesty International. On global climate change, UNESCO IOC highlight that the importance of the ocean can no longer be underestimated and the IPCC alerts us to the fact that climate change continues to accelerate at an alarming rate. We are now more aware of our global interdependencies and now more aware of the need for complex problem solving (WEF) however the underlying complexity has always been present, we are now only just waking up to it. The WEF Global Risks Report released in 2017 is filled with graphs and graphics that emphasise interconnections and the need for better governance on a global scale.
The world has always been complex. Is it simply that we are only now becoming more aware of it? It was through the inherent complexity at the molecular level and global level that led to the emergence of life in the first place. Evolution itself is the result of the most complex of systems – life. In fact, the world needs more complexity, not less. Complexity is diverse, beautiful and necessary for our existence. In many ways, our world is becoming less complex through standardisation, globalisation, environmental degradation, cultural imperialism and the oppression of minority voices. We need more complexity, not less.
The possibility that complexity is decreasing
Environmental degradation through the clearing of forests for timber or making way for homogenous palm oil plantations is leading our world away from the complexity of natural ecosystems. These ecosystems are home to a world so diverse that we are continually discovering new species. Environmental scientists around the world may very well argue that the world is becoming less diverse, less life supporting and less beautiful as a result. “Life is a part of nature and life depends on the uninterrupted functioning of natural systems“, UN World Charter for Nature, 1982.
It could be argued that the rise of the global titans of business such as the big four in tech – Amazon, Google, Apple and Facebook – is not increasing the complexity of our world but reducing it. Where local communities previously dominated our lives and local businesses thrived based on rapport and trust built over many years, we now connect via less diverse means. Over 2 billion people now sign up for their news and social connections via a single terribly bland interface – Facebook. The technology we create with has a singular – albeit beautifully designed – simplicity in the Macbook or iPhone (over 200 million unit sales per year). Our access to a world of knowledge is increasingly defined (>91%) by one conduit – Google. Global consumer goods are less defined by an array of small local businesses and now more dominated by a single mega supplier (>$100billion USD) – Amazon. As these companies grow, it may be argued that the world is become less diverse, more predictable, more consistent and probably, less complex.
The spread of the latest Hollywood blockbuster across the world is a synchronised event choreographed precisely to extract the maximum revenue from the opening weekend. The revenue from the release of these blockbusters continues to climb indicating that the world is becoming more interconnected but at the same time the world maybe becoming increasingly dominated by megabusinesses fundamentally driven by the need to get more bums on seats. To do this, they need to achieve the maximum appeal to the maximum number of people. This inevitably requires that minority voices or controversial issues that may be challenging or uncomfortable for certain groups or even entire populations are excluded from these movies. A wrong move by the producers of a blockbuster would mean that they could lose access to some of the most populous countries in the world and suffer massive losses in revenue as a result. From this perspective, while the distribution network for such movies is more complex and interconnected, another perspective could be that such a global reach is reducing cultural complexity.
On a recent visit to Chennai, I had the privilege to visit the Tara Books workshop and meet Gita Wolf at the Tara Books shop. This small publisher stands in stark contrast to the mega publishers that dominate the education market. Where size, scalability and maximum reach is the driving force behind the big companies, a small publisher such as Tara Books quietly reaches for a different goal. Each book is hand made. The paper is made by hand, the pages are screen printed by hand, the binding is hand stitched and finally, the book is assemble by hand. The result is individual works of art – each a unique artifact that has the smell and texture of the workshop where they are made.
The stories and artwork contained in each publication is unique to the individual artist and reflect the subtle cultural context from which the stories came. The contrast between the global companies and the local artisans at Tara Books highlight the homogenising influence of global publishers and the rich diversity of smaller local entrepreneurs. Whether the outcome is increasing complexity or less is very much dependent on which vantage point you are standing. However, a visit to the Tara Books workshop only emphasises the need to retain the rich cultural diversity of the world around us because it is enlightening, beautiful and valuable beyond measure.
If we consider the linguistic diversity and complexity of our world, the loss of local dialects and languages is occurring at an alarming rate. Such vast losses of local cultural heritage provides a clear demonstration that rate of change does not equal increasing complex. The rate of loss of cultural diversity indicates that our world is becoming less complex and more culturally homogenised. This linguistic diversity is as “necessary for mankind as biodiversity if for nature” (UNESCO).
What could this mean for us?
When we read a sweeping statement about the increasingly complex of our interconnected world, pause to consider from what perspective this conclusion is drawn. Pause to consider whether we are subscribing to that narrative and allowing unchallenged assumptions to influence our practice. In building, designing and resourcing our libraries, what are we doing to seek out cultural complexity to enrich our learning environments with diverse perspectives? Libraries have a unique mandate to unearth the richness of human creativity and connect our students with the most diverse range of human expression that we can find.
Honouring individual student inquiries and allowing these to drive our daily interactions and tasks will help our libraries and classrooms to be increasingly responsive and diverse. Seeking out and honouring the unique cultural perspectives and experiences of our students will increase the beautiful complexity of the world around us.
Every day, I am amazed by the privilege that being a librarian is. Librarians have the mandate to fill our environment with expressions of human creativity from across the world – all in one place! Libraries therefore have a unique opportunity within schools and communities to be an influence for increased diversity, wider perspectives, and rich cultural connections. For increasing complexity.
2 thoughts on ““The world is becoming more complex” – is it really? Pause and consider this.”
Thanks, Philip, I enjoyed this blog. The phrase ‘the world is getting more complex’ has become a cliche which needs scrutiny or at least better evidence. On the pace of change in society, do you know Harmut Rosa’s work? See e.g. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=_lmsAgAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=hartmut+rosa+acc%C3%A9l%C3%A9ration&ots=I4_Ig0Z_r5&sig=hPhlkGaBGbO92QYkqANF09-Q68s#v=onepage&q&f=false
I recently read a (very different sort of) piece from Tech Crunch from a couple of years ago which described our economy as a ‘convergent’ economy – converging, in this case, around the ubiquity of tech, but this convergence would also apply in some of the cultural and other examples you have given. This got my attention as often we think of this period of change as involving lots of ‘divergences’ – at least from old norms and categories – rather than convergences around tech, globalisation etc. So, in some ways we live in a world with a lot of divergence, but in some ways there is a lot of convergence which would seem, in turn, to reduce complexity. More work needs to be done to clarify these ideas.
Hi Carl. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and the reference. A reframing of the temporal structures of society when considering a perceived acceleration in the pace of life is a fascinating perspective to consider. The “shrinking of the present” where previous experience does not necessarily provide a reliable reference for the future may well be the source of increased stress and the sense that the world is becoming more complex. This is certainly something that I need to read more about. I wonder if there is indeed an upper limit to this rate of change – an inherent restraint that is manifest in the resources limits of our planet. Kate Rayworth writes about this in relation to economics https://www.kateraworth.com/ – an wonderful read. Thanks again.