The World is Getting More Complex – Or Is It?

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

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4 thoughts on “The World is Getting More Complex – Or Is It?

  1. Hi Neil,
    I am not sure that de-skilling and increased complexity are contradictory. In the field of evolutionary biology, for example, these two go hand in hand. Single-celled organisms are quite skilled; they have to perform many operations to survive. In more “complex” organisms, cells lose most of their polyvalence as they become part of some collective (lungs, hearts, etc.)
    But by “complex” and “de-skilling” you mean something different of what I have mind?

  2. Hi Neil,
    This is a tricky topic in the sense that every parameter has to be very clearly defined to make a case one way or the other. In this I agree with Marco’s comment above that deskilling by itself need not mean reduced complexity (one can argue that the complexity of the context has in fact increased through the use of complicated machineries & technologies but the interface to use has become easier. In other words, for one side things might have become easier & ‘deskilled’, but to make that happen another side had to work in a complex world to create those machineries).

    Now from a general perspective, in many ways the world has become more complex. And I am talking not just from technology or business perspective but from a macro perspective. Things are definitely not the same as it was 50 or 100 years ago. Nations are inexorably dependent on each other’s economies in a way that a tremor in one corner shakes the very foundation of existence. Getting educated is no longer about getting a college degree – it is about being in flow with the river of information. Businesses can no longer affort to just market their products and services, it is about interactions ….and so on.

    Now having said that, what has become relatively simple is communication and networking. I can now chat and collaborate with someone from the other side of the world as easily as I can with my neigbour. Also to your topic of deskilling, complex technologies with simple interfaces are now available –now even my grandma can do some pretty cool stuff on computer :-). So in this aspect, the world has become less complex.

    Bottom line, I think depending on which lens you are using to view the world it might appear less complex or more complex. Interesting topic – enjoyed the read.


  3. Thanks Marco and Ned, that’s very useful and I found myself nodding as I read both posts. It is worth noting that neither Minogue nor I were saying that the “modern world is less complex”. I think I am being fair to Minogue when I say he and I lean to being agnostics rather than firm believers on either side. In our different ways we were just questioning the conventional wisdom that the “modern world is more complex” because it can often be difficult to pin down hard evidence and it can often be as easy to find counterexamples as it is to find examples (thank you calculator for replacing my slide rule – thank you Velcro, thank you SatNav, thank you Biro ….)

    And both Marco and Ned are absolutely right, there are demonstrable cases where the modern world is definitely more complex. When anyone says “the modern world is more complex” I think the proper response should be: “whose modern world?” and “what do you mean by complex?”

    Trying to get a little way down the line on this, it is important to ask what from what perspective such statements are posed and it appears usually to me to be from the perspective of human activities and decision making – hence to take Marco’s question as to what I mean by “complex” and “de-skilling”, it is definitely along the lines of Ned’s “interface to use” rather than the internal complexity of the machinery itself.

    On that I have to confess that the image I had when I talked about “deskilling” was of me as a 16-year old employed during my school holidays in the Scottish fishing port where I was brought up helping an old cooper fill old wooden and metal fish barrels with rotting fish.

    They were for export to Norway where they were considered a delicacy (the Norwegians have a name for this but why spoil the fun, you can find it out for yourself by sampling Norwegian versions of tapas)

    The old cooper had gone through a 9-year apprenticeship to learn his trade as a young man (admittedly some of this might have been professional barriers to entry). Now his skills were mostly applied repairing what remained of the vintage barrels which were prized as part of the rotting fish package deal. Nowadays plastic or metal containers have replaced old style wooden and metal barrels and where barrel making still exists it has mostly been automated.

    In that respect is clearly a simpler process nowadays to make one more or extra barrel or water-tight container than it would have been say 100 years ago (apologies, as an economist I have been trained to think on the margin …)

    Now, that does not mean that the world is now less complex, any more than generalizations that it is more complex makes it so. But isn’t it fun to take “what everyone knows” and kick it around a bit?

    More fun than spending school summer holidays sweating over barrels of rotting fish I can tell you

    Thanks, Marco and Ned


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