It’s complicated

Samuel Arbesman wrote an interesting article on the increasing complexity of our modern world, and the struggles humans will have (and currently do) simply understanding how our creations work. A lovely example is the infamous Millennium Bug that, although came to pass without harm to humanity, proved a sobering reminder of the complexity of human creation:

One example of this trend is our software’s increasing complexity, as measured by the number of lines of code it takes to write it. According to some estimates, the source code for the Windows operating system increased by an order of magnitude over the course of a decade, making it impossible for a single person to understand all the different parts at once. And remember Y2K? It’s true that the so-called Millennium Bug passed without serious complications, but the startling fact was that we couldn’t be sure what would happen on 1 January 2000 because the systems involved were too complex.

Systems of all kinds, be it software or legal, are getting astonishingly more complicated. This isn’t neccessarily a bad thing, and it’s certainly not going to slow down or change. Although I don’t agree with Arbesam’s conclusion, that humans need be humbled by our limits, I do think that his idea of overview is correct. We must seek to understand the aggregate effects and consequences of systems and their interacting components. The details, while impossible to fully grasp by any one human, in fact need not be. Instead I would wager that we can build and rely on such complex constructs to sort through and deliver those details, should the need arise.