The Origins of Modern Complexity

From Cultural Maturity—A Guidebook for the Future

Given the great number of easily overwhelming complexities we face and the difficulties making sense of them can present, we could easily seem at an impasse—and one of potential “end of civilization” proportions. Are we up to the complexity of understanding that a healthy, and perhaps even survivable future requires? I can comfortably assert that we are capable of thinking much more complexly than we do, and in just the more “complexly complex” ways today’s complicated world require. In fact our brains are natively wired for it. The question is not whether it is possible, but how quickly we bring to bear the courage and commitment needed to step forward and make the needed maturity of perspective manifest.

To understand how thinking with greater complexity is possible, indeed predicted, we need to look more specifically at Cultural Maturity’s changes and the cognitive mechanisms through which they take place. Because taking such a look itself requires culturally mature perspective, getting there will take some care. Again, we have to get up on the “horse” of new understanding before we can ride it, and this is not a familiar horse. And just what rethinking complexity asks of us can be particularly challenging to grasp.

The more basic questions of why, today, we encounter such endless and often endlessly confusing complexity provides a good way in. Part of modern complexity is a simple product of technical advancement—global communication and transportation, ever-greater industrial might, the advent of modern computers, new medical technologies. Our success as toolmakers has produced a lot more that we must take into account. But two additional contributions that impact choices of every sort are just as important, and for our project particularly important to make sense of. Each requires that we turn our attention away from complexities we might want to consider, to who we are in doing the considering.

The first contribution is the way that generally agreed-upon cultural guideposts are becoming less reliable. For good or ill, the diminishing power of cultural dictates makes life markedly more complicated. Without ready guideposts we are on our own with many more options to choose from.

It is important to appreciate all that is involved in this loss of guideposts. Certainly, there is how our globally interconnected world brings the absoluteness of past collective truths into question. It is much harder to think of them as god-given when the “gods” of different cultures (and even those of one’s neighbors) hold such differing opinions. But our increased exposure to other cultures and their truths does not fully explain what we see. It doesn’t explain the quantity of complexity, and more important, the new forms complexity often takes. Indeed, as we shall see, our usual way of thinking about globalization—as a simple expanding of horizons—doesn’t fully explain the fact of globalization. Such expansion, by itself would only bring people’s differences into greater proximity and increase animosities.

Cultural Maturity’s changes are needed for what we see. I’ve described how culture has before stood separate and served as a symbolic parent in the lives of we mortals. The relationship has taken different forms, but we’ve never been without it. It has been essential to our sense of safety and meaning. With the modern “age of the individual,” we prefer to think of ourselves as above needing such childish crutches.  But the parental/child dynamic has very much persisted into modern times. The diminishing influence of such mechanisms today throws us into a world with much more to consider and with less guidance for just how to do so.

The combination of technical advances and the erosion of past guideposts might seem like sufficient explanation for complexity’s new demands, but in fact we’ve yet to look at the piece that is most important—at least if our concern is ideology and the possibility of getting beyond it. If these were the only causative factors, we would be left floating directionless with nothing to replace what has been taken away. Our third ingredient is key to the needed deeper understandings of complexity and to the possibility of applying new complexities to ultimately creative ends.

This additional contributor to modern complexity is not so commonly recognized: Because of changes in ourselves, kinds and levels of complexity that have always been present in the world but beyond our ability to make sense of are becoming newly visible and newly understandable. This needed additional ingredient is a product of the cognitive reordering inherent to Cultural Maturity. In this further source lies both much of what is most challenging in today’s new complexities and much of what is of greatest significance.

We see this further level suggested in the observation that we are beginning to leave behind the polarizations that in times past have set one nation against another. Neither technical advances nor the diminishing helpfulness of past guideposts explains this. We see such changes reflected also in my earlier claim that effective political decision-making will more and more require thinking that gets beyond narrow partisanship—or at the very least that such thinking might be an option. Later we will look at how this further level takes expression in the best of human discovery and creativity through the last century—in cutting edge scientific advances, in major social movements, with innovation in the arts. These steps forward produce new possibility, but they also require that we partake in a more nuanced and multifaceted—more complex—world than before we have known. The essential added awareness is that these advances themselves make doing so newly possible.

Characteristics of the kind of understanding needed to address new complexities provide both evidence for this further piece and a feel for the depths of its implications. In the pages ahead, we will examine three ingredients—aside from the fact of lots to consider—necessary to any effective new formulation of complexity. Each plays a role in complexity’s new, more “complexly complex” picture.

First is the critical fact of change. That change is our time’s only constant has become a cliché. And change today is often confusing in its workings, even paradoxical. It is becoming increasingly important that we learn not just to better tolerate change, but to more deeply understand it, both so we can better manage it and so that we can best support needed changes.

Related to this is the importance of better factoring in uncertainty. Life has always been uncertain. I’m reminded of D.H. Lawrence’s admonition that we must never lose touch “with that which laughs at all our knowing.”  In today’s evermore complex world, the law of unintended consequences can punish us with a quickness and severity not known before.

There is also the growing importance of appreciating not just detail and difference, but also how things connect. As John Muir observed, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Ours is not just a more diverse world, it is a more interconnected world. It is not just that ecosystems are complex, it is that they are in fact systems. And it is not just that we have more choices, but that it has become increasingly important that we address what makes a choice meaningful. It is  also increasingly essential that we address questions in ways that serve not just self-interest—whether the interests of individuals or of individual groups or counties—but also larger benefit.

Complexity’s new picture intersects directly with our other threshold tasks. For example, the fact of real limits makes the need for more complex understanding inescapable. With growing frequency we face that what we might wish to do is not possible to do, or at least not at all wise to do. A world with real limits requires us to not just think more complexly, but to think about complexity in fundamentally new ways. An appreciation of complexity is essential also to understanding the new bottom-line truths on which we must base our choices. Such truths draw more deeply on our own complexity. It is through this that they are able to more directly address significance and provide principles that can effectively guide us in the challenges ahead.

Complexity confronts us today on all these levels. Our world is becoming more technologically complicated; familiar rules that in times past have helped keep complexity within manageable bounds have grown less effective; and with growing frequency we encounter new, more “complex” sorts of complexity that stretch us to tolerate and make sense of, and often just to recognize. If we are to make good—we could say mature, or simply sane—future choices, we need to better get our arms around complexities of all these sorts.