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I'm a computer programmer. There is one thing that I've noticed now for some time, and it has obsessed my mind.

Does complexity generate more complexity naturally?

To understand the example better, consider this scenario.

You want to create a website. You create a static website (with 4 simple pages). Then you want to get a good ranking at Google. You enrich your website, by adding a blog engine to it. Then you need to provide content for your blog. You employ somebody to enter content. But that person should be managed (Human Resources in the smallest scale). You should write another application to manage HR. However, this other application needs an operator to work with it. You hire someone else. Now that you have two employees, you should also hire a bigger place. Bigger place means more electricity, water, and other types of resources usage and more expenditure means that you have to make more money. Thus you expand your website to sell online products. However, to sell them, you need an online payment method, and so on and so forth.

As you see, I'm trying to describe a situation in which, you should add another topic to your life, to manager your already defined issues, and this new topic in itself, brings the requirement for still other topics. I feel it's like a chain. You buy a car, then you should dedicate part of your time for taking care of your car (or if you don't you should work more, to make more money, to hire somebody, who can take care of your car). This means that now you have less time for other works. So you'd better manage your time. You subscribe to an online calendar service. But that means that you should have an internet connection almost everywhere. You buy an iPhone. But it needs to be charged sometimes. So you should carry the charger. But your bag is almost full. So you get a bigger backpack, and you see what I mean.

So—to make it simple again—the question is:

Does complexity in nature always bring about more complexity?

closed as not constructive by Joseph Weissman Oct 29 '11 at 0:06

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  • In programming how is the complexity managed? What principles of programming would you use to reduce/manage complexity in life? – Arjang Oct 19 '11 at 10:02
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    It's hard to see how philosophy could contribute to this. You'd probably be better off finding someone who is versed in complexity theory and its applications. – Nathan Oct 19 '11 at 10:09
  • @Nathan : I disagree, the essence of question is rooted in philosophy – Arjang Oct 19 '11 at 10:20
  • This is in no way a philosophical question. If the questioner is asking about what happens in nature, then it is a scientific question. If he as asking about what happens in social settings, then it is a psychological or sociological question. – Michael Dorfman Oct 19 '11 at 11:48
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    @stoicfury: I read the question as meaningful, but I ignored the difference between artificial manmade complexity and that found in nature. What I think Saeed means by complexity is not some technical computer science or mathematical meaning but just the regular antonym of simple. And that makes his question -pure- philosophy: are things simple, or at least is there a stopping point of discovery/invention, or can one always keep going? Can one stop at atoms? (or in terms of invention, can one stop in inventing the hammer?). Clarification by Saeed might help but I think the question reasonable. – Mitch Oct 20 '11 at 13:46
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I think there are two issues here:

  • epistemological: how complex is nature?
  • ethical: how does one manage desire?

Explanations for the two parts are as follows:

  • You are finding from experience that nature is as complex as you care to go: there are rules to nature that are fairly accurate but then there are exceptions (or in your example, there are human artificial designs which attempt to deal with a pattern) and then dealing with the exception (dealing with the consequences of the design), there is another pattern that cab be found. Is there any rule in nature without exception?Experience has shown that one can always recognize (and attempt to engineer around) further and further refinements to rules. Even mathematical rules if nit exceptionable have their nuances and embellishments. (this is related to the problem of induction: how do we know that there is a pattern to all these patterns?)

  • how do you manage your desires? Can you accept some things or do you need to solve even the slightest discrepancy? Even if some effort will take care of an annoyance, is it worth the trouble? One can accept all annoyances (and remain annoyed) or obsessively try to stamp out all problems or coldly do a cost-benefit analysis. I'm sure there are other possibilities.

In short, I think things are as complex as you want (nature and artificial things) are infinitely complex, and you can choose or are forced to stop at some point.

  • thanks for your answer. The reason I asked this question was that, seems that people are trying to make life easier and more simpler by adding tools to their lives, like using Micsofot Excel to manage their financial data, using cars and airplanes to travel to more far places, etc. However, the result is that, they get trapped in a more complex, harder life. Because no complexity results in simplicity. Rather, what I see is that complexity introduces more complexity. – Saeed Neamati Oct 19 '11 at 12:27
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Edited to add, as a preface:

I think that I identified what you meant by "complexity" in this case, but it is worth noting that it is perhaps too broad a term without further qualification. I hope that Michael Dorfman doesn't mind me quoting him from the comments (with some added formatting):

  • Imagine a chessboard set to a complex position, in a locked room. Does this complexity generate more complexity? Of course not. The question is meaningless in the absence of an operative force of some kind.
  • Picture a complex set of ingredients spread around a kitchen. A skilled chef, following a complex recipe, can render these ingredients into something simple: a loaf of bread. Does complexity, when operated upon by a causal force, always lead to more complexity? Of course not.

One may debate whether a loaf of bread is simpler than its parts; but in any case this seems beside the point of your question, which is more to do with how complicated one's daily life is, by some sort of measure of complication, and perhaps the role of personal choices, technology, and attempts at problem-solving in general on that complication. You should try to determine whether this is what you mean, and in any case reformulate your question to be more specific.

Having said that, here is my stab at answering your question as I understood it.

The impact of technology choices on the complexity of life

Mitch identified the fact that some of the complexity is coming entirely from managing desires. In your first example, the immediate things which stick out are that first you want to create a website, and second you want to get a good ranking at Google; neither of these are necessary, and the first does not logically entail the second. However, some of what you're describing is not even desire per se, but sheer technologism: a love of technology for technology's sake.

The role of technologism.

Any tool that we use for anything — up to and including written and spoken language — can be construed as technology; but one can also adopt cruder technologies instead of more advanced ones, or simpler technologies in place of more sophisticated ones. By "technologism", I mean a generic preference to use more advanced technologies over less advanced ones; or rather, more sophisticated technologies over less sophisticated ones.

More advanced technologies are often more sophisticated, in that they are more difficult to use. This is not always the case: an alphabetic writing system is arguably more advanced (because more flexible) than hieroglyphs, and likely to be simpler in some meaningful ways of measuring. But most of the time, when making distinctions between advanced technologies, we have in mind something closer to the American specially and pains-takingly designed space pen, versus the pencil until recently favoured by Russian cosmonauts. This example involves two devices which at least are very similar in their usage, but require different levels of infrastructure first to develop, and subsequently to support as a routine tool. And like the space-pen versus the pencil, there may be genuine reasons (a wish to avoid free-floating graphite particles) to adopt the more sophisticated technology over the less sophisticated technology. However, technologism tends to drive people to adopt sophisticated technologies without any motivation based in personal utility.

Why choose to use iCal, for instance, when a simple diary book would suffice (or even just unbound sheets of paper), together with a freely-chosen writing stylus? If you have a smartphone anyhow, adopting iCal actually is a simplifying move: you allow your multifunctional device which you already own take care of one further task, which is an efficient choice. And even if you don't have a smartphone, you may find that buying one satisfies many objectives you may have, including being easy for your friends to reach, keeping track of your appointments, being able to navigate strange cities (thanks to a large technological burden which Google has chosen to bear on behalf of its users, presumably to enhance its advertising capability), and so forth. Similarly, cars were for many people a simplifying move — from horses, which were only simpler 'devices' inasmuch as no-one thought to become horse-surgeons except as a full-time profession. (Of course, most veterinary medicine which could generously be described as 'surgery' tended until recently to consist of shooting the animal to put it out of its misery; firearms being a piece of technology which, among other things, facilitated the ethical choice of sparing animals pain.)

Technologism is unconcerned with such matters of personal utility, and in Western society tends to be connected with other unconscious motivators for behaviour:

  • Consumerism. You are exhorted to (and you may personally wish to) adopt devices as status symbols. It is not enough to have tools to solve your problems, but fashionable tools. It is not enough to have any old mobile phone; you must get the latest incremental advance on offer by the hip company that makes the sleekest design. Sometimes there may even be substantial technical improvements in these upgrades, but like the paper diary versus iCal, you might not in fact have any use for them; and the problem becomes one of failing to assess your needs.

    Worse, your utility-motivated tools may be designed with obsolescence in mind — it is not enough to use Excel; you must use the latest version, lest your documents become un-portable, and lest the operating system on which you use the current version of Excel fails to install on later computers, after the computer you are using now has stopped working correctly due to a hardware failure.

  • Social custom. Another problem with technologism is peer pressure not just to acquire more devices, but to do the things which these new devices facilitate. Twenty years ago, mobile phones were very uncommon. Today, if you do not have one, co-ordinating with you may prove to be frustrating for those of your friends who are accustomed to planning around being able to get in contact with people at a whim. A mobile phone facilitates an activity which becomes normalized, so that not adopting the technology becomes a choice with important social consequences, even if you are only adopting the tool for the utility of someone else. E-mail is another such phenomenon, as indeed are web-pages: what is the motivation for having a highly-ranked webpage in the first place (assuming that it is not merely a personal whim), except that you have services or ideas that you wish to be easily found by others, and Google-searching has become the normalized medium to do so (in place for instance of the Yellow Pages)?

In many cases, the complication to life added by technology is due to the adoption of technology for reasons other than personal utility. Almost by definition, any technology which is more useful than its alternative will simplify your life. The problem is when you adopt it for reasons other than utility, or when you start engaging in activities facilitated by the device which previously you did not engage in.

Distributed complexity burden and the complexity arms race.

Of course — as I alluded to in the case of Google and mobile phones — technological advance sometimes comes at a cost of complication to other people. Google adopts a complexity burden by making it easy for you to search for websites or navigate a new city; you adopt a complexity burden by making it easy for others to contact you. Similarly, using a car is impossible without the industrial infrastructure necessary to build the car and to provide fuel for its operation; someone has to do that work. However, while this does complicate society as a whole, it need not complicate any one person's life provided that the population growth exceeds the growth of infrastructural complexity. The complexity density of society could in principle remain constant from the dawn of agriculture right to the modern day, with new generations of people adopting the new professional classes of wood-cutter, iron-miner, black-smith, engineer, and so forth. (It almost certainly didn't do so historically, but with civilizations falling, dramatic improvements in technique, and unsteady population growths, the density of complexity would have jumped back and forth a number of times.)

However, an important caveat is that even if you increase population to compensate, there then develops one source of complexity which seems like it may be inescapable: the complexity of dealing with so many other people. This is the reason why we have governments, and furthermore why those systems of government have themselves become complicated over time with checks and balances, to deal with the problems of keeping an adequate quality of approximate order in large groups of people.

Indeed, compared to the social interactions of our closest biological relatives, the great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas, it's all elaborately byzantine. It is a popular hypothesis that the reason why human intelligence evolved to the levels which it has was as a result of a runaway evolutionary "arms race" within hominids, to cope with the problem of interacting socially and flourishing in the presence of communities of increasingly intelligent peers. Indeed, language was an enormous simplifying technology towards solving this problem, which also goes some way (as a hypothesis) towards explaining why we are capable of such elaborate and precise communication. In this case, if this hypothesis is correct, the increase in complexity caused by growing populations was solved imperfectly by increasing intelligence, which served to increase the complexity of the problem itself by raising the standard of intelligence required to succeed; a similar phenomenon to the problem of needing a mobile phone to interact with others who take mobile phones for granted.

So on long time-scales, there may indeed be an inherent complicating nature to technology, even when that technology is not of our devising and consists of the biochemical structure and operation of the brains of ourselves and our descendants. We may reasonably expect a long-term trend towards further brain-capacity — provided that we do not self-destruct, implode under the weight of our own civilization, or develop into an species of antisocial animals, such as bears are — simply as a result of struggling as our ancestors did with the pressures of understanding the increasingly complicated nature of the world we are surrounded by, full of Machiavellian primates and fashionably sophisticated jeejaws.

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