Note: This is a guest post by Neil Kay. It is part of a chapter that he is writing for a book that I am editing with David Rooney and Greg Hearn called Handbook of the Knowledge Economy, volume 2. We’ll post Neil’s chapter as he writes it over the next few weeks. He explains the overall theme of the chapter here. I’ll do the same with mine, which is seriously overdue too. – Tim
It is a truism that the “modern world is more complex” that those of yesteryear. A Google search with that phrase brought up about 159,000 results at the time of writing.
On the other hand, a Google search of “modern world is less complex” brought up precisely one result, a link to a book extract from Minogue (1963).
But if we took our hypothetical skilled potter from Crusoe’s time and placed him in a historical context, we would likely find progressive reduction in complexity over time in the form of increasing standardization of artifact characteristics and/or work processes (Blackman, Stein and Vandiver, 1993, p.61). And Crusoe would probably have agreed with Kay (1997, p.228) that his own unfortunate predicament helped show that “It is difficult to argue that navigating and running a lightly manned and push-button controlled supertanker is a more complex business than was the operation of an eighteenth–century sailing ship” (a crude test of this would be to compare the cumulative and aggregate man-years of experience and training needed to competently captain and crew an 18th Century sailing ship versus its modern equivalent).
Minogue (1963) actually says; “There are many respects in which the modern world is less complex than many which preceded it” (p.121), and I note; “It is as easy to identify trends towards increasing simplicity of tasks and decisions (Kay, 1997, p.228, italics in original).
While there is a lot of duplication in the 159,000 Google results for the “modern world is more complex” (and, in fairness, not all of them may be agreeing with the statement), it does seem that Minogue and I seem to be in a minority of two, at least as far as Google is concerned. But I am heartened that if all the textbooks can be wrong on Crusoe’s non-existent economy, then the conventional wisdom can be wrong in this as well, and Minogue and I might just be right. And it is a remarkable fact that another Google search on the word “de-skilling” currently brings up about 368,000 results – remarkable because the phenomenon of “de-skilling” directly contradicts the conventional wisdom elsewhere on Google that the “modern world is more complex”. If it were a person, we might say that Google was suffering from cognitive dissonance