The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand
Vast systems, from automated supply chains to high-frequency trading, now undergird our daily lives — and we’re losing control of all of them
Welcome to No One’s Driving — a column by novelist and tech writer Tim Maughan about how to understand a world governed by systems and technologies that are spiraling out of control.
One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. Donald Trump is president, QAnon has mainstreamed fringe conspiracy theories, and hundreds of thousands are dead from a pandemic and climate change while many Americans do not believe that the pandemic or climate change are deadly. It’s incomprehensible.
I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.
In other words: No one’s driving. And if we hope to retake the wheel, we’re going to have to understand, intimately, all of the ways we’ve lost control. This is the first entry in a series — called, yes, No One’s Driving — that aims to do exactly that. Each month, we’ll examine a technological system that has grown too complex to be understood by, well, just about any one person, and break down how it has spiraled out of control, why that is dangerous, and what we might do about it.
Most of us do not spend a lot of time thinking about the huge, complex systems that keep our technologically dependent society running. And with very good reason. It takes a certain amount of faith and belief — in ourselves, in capitalism, in the digital platforms that mediate our interactions with it, and in the infrastructures that support all of the above — in order to wake up and get through every day. But eating breakfast, pulling on our business-casual Zoom-appropriate shirts — all those mundane acts are made possible by an almost unfathomably complex, algorithmically…