Fear and Inevitability in Social Complexification
How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Post-Industrial Nightmare
By Bruce Carter
…modern man is strapped down by a network of rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence. This is not accidental or a result of the arbitrariness of arrogant bureaucrats. It is necessary and inevitable in any technologically advanced society. The system HAS TO regulate human behavior closely in order to function… The result is a sense of powerlessness on the part of the average person. — [Kaczynski, Industrial Society and its Future]
The world that we’re creating for ourselves is getting more complicated every day. It’s a process that we typically take for granted, enjoying the increased wealth it provides, and when we do take notice of it, the most common response is a looming sense of dread. We seem to be sliding into a dystopia – not in the classical sense of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, where the problem is too much social order – but rather a more conventional dystopia, such as those described by William Gibson in Idoru and elsewhere, where the problem is too much chaos, a society that seems endlessly alien and strange even to the very people who comprise it.
But the fact is, we now already live in and rely upon a society and an economy which in a very real sense we do not understand. No one person can fathom the intricate and constantly shifting networks of exchange and contract that tie us to one another. This is true not only of society as a whole, but even for any one person.
Take the typical economics 101 example of a farmer owning a cow and selling the milk to his neighbor. In the world we’ve created, the farmer is employee and part owner of an incorporated entity which owns the cow and the milk, which in turn is partly owned by an agribusiness corporation, which in turn is traded on an open exchange market, with thousands of people holding a tiny piece of it, and those pieces changing hands every second. The milk is also conceptually bundled, sliced, and traded in tiny pieces on a commodities exchange (not the milk that exists now, but some future milk; today’s milk was sold months before it ever existed). Furthermore, all of these entities are tied together by secured loans, insurance policies, vendor/client contracts, regulations, subsidies, derivatives, bonds, and a myriad of other abstract agreements, many of which are themselves sliced up and sold as assets on their own trading markets as well. To merely answer the question “who owns this cow,” or “who owns that milk” would require a massive effort of financial analysis at any given moment, and even that will likely change in the next moment.
If such a simple question requires such a complex answer, imagine how more complex the answer would be to the question “what real, tangible value is created from this insurance adjuster working on that spreadsheet?” Then imagine the range of jobs that we each perform today, and you’ve got a vague sense of the staggering scope of trying to concretely answer the simple question “why do we do what we do every day?” This is Marxist alienation taken to Camus’ nausea levels. Not only are we separated from the wealth that we create through work, we’re more often than not separated from even having any clue how a great deal of the work that we ourselves do creates any real wealth for anyone anywhere at all. It’s like Alice in Wonderland, and this is our own day to day activities!
And what’s worse, we need that complexity. Intricate and complex methods of organizing the work that we do, of directing human activity, are required to leverage the immense productivity gains that technology affords us. It grants efficiency, flexibility and hyper-specialization in the creation of value. As such, each technological advance leads to a corresponding increase in the complexity of our aggregate behavior. Information technology takes this process to a much higher level, inserting decision-like causal changes into the system without any persons making decisions. We can track and manage decisionary processes without even knowing what they are, at least not in any detail. And more importantly, we can do so far more efficiently than if we actually understood any of them.
As with scientific and technological advances, advances in organizational complexity are simply inevitable. If we don’t do them someone else will, and then they’ll buy us. Economic competition is like running a race in which the people at the back of the pack are constantly forced to drop out, every financial quarter. There is no option for any corporation or country other than to do whatever it takes to win that race, because only those who win continue to exist.
But it’s not entirely unreasonable to fear what we don’t understand. It’s no wonder so many of us find it intolerable. Since we rely so thoroughly on this Baroque web of social contract, our lack of understanding of its permutations causes the justifiable fear that it may fail us and we won’t even see its failure coming, or be able to prevent it. This is often the case with economic recessions, but at least those aren’t complete failures; enough of the system exists so that it can recover. We have yet to see a market crash that can reasonably described as “fully post-apocalyptic.” But because we don’t understand it, no one can assert with certainty that such a thing might not happen at any moment. Our own social order is like a Sword of Damocles hanging over our head all the time. Or at least we suspect it might be, and without being able to understand it we have no way of ruling that out as a possibility.
When considering economic crashes, there seems to be something of a paradox (I use this not in the strict logical sense, but more in the strongly-counterintuitive sense). Per Adam Smith, all of the wealth in a society derives from its natural resources combined with the capabilities of its people – their skills and ability to work. But before and after an economic downturn, those don’t change. We still have all of the resources we did before; our people still have the same willingness and ability to work as they did before. If that is all that wealth is made of, then where did all the wealth go when an economy crashes? Some numbers in some computers somewhere change and now suddenly millions of people are poorer than they were yesterday? If nothing tangible was lost, then how can we say that anything was? The answer to all this is that what is lost are those myriad contractual agreements by which we organize our work. What is lost is that organization that governs our ability to cooperate. And without it, we’re less able to direct our activity in ways to effectively provide value to one another.
As such, a society without complex organization looks very much like a completely collapsed economy. Materially it looks like a pre-industrial society or a third world nation. However, unlike those we aren’t already prepared to live without it. In the Victorian era (as well as in third world countries), most households, even those in cities, rely in great part on subsistence farming, with most of their household goods being home-made. We hypothetically could choose to live like that. But I don’t want to, and I think that most people aren’t prepared to live that way either.
As abstract as all this sounds, this analysis is important because that sense of dread is very common. The rise in libertarian and anarchist sentiment today is a direct psychological response to it. We wish we weren’t so reliant on millions of strangers, and so we assert that we are not, that we are each self-reliant individuals needing no one and helping no one unless by specific intentional choice in each instance. But that’s conflating hope with belief. The fact is, we are not self-reliant at all – or at least very, very few of us could be described as such. We might blind ourselves to the benefits we get from society, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting them. So long as we are part of society, we are part of society. It is patently false to stand up in the middle of a crowd and shout that you’re not a part of it. It rises to ridiculous levels when more and more of the crowd starts agreeing with you, chanting along together that they are all lone individuals and that there is no crowd at all.
Nor can we fight against or otherwise prevent the ongoing march of complexification. To do so would be as futile as a Luddite sabotaging a factory to put a stop to technological advancement and scientific discovery. Or in even more extreme cases, to exercise radical freedom and lash out violently solely because you can do nothing else, with no hope of achieving a tangible goal, like Camus’ Meursault. Or the Unabomber (who did so for the very reasons described here). As things stand, a complex economy cannot be radically reformed or revolted against without millions of real human beings suffering massive deprivation. That would be bad. Destroying the system because we’re afraid it might fail us is like setting fire to the ship we’re sailing on to prevent it from potentially hitting a rock and sinking. There is no land in sight.
So what’s the solution? As with many problems in philosophy, the solution is to realize that the problem isn’t really a problem. This is how it is. Certainly we should try to understand our society as much as we can, and manage it as well as we can, to whatever degree that we can. But to rail against its very being is not only futile but self-defeating: we are it, and it is us. We need it because we are it, and thus we need each other. The fact that we’re all in this together shouldn’t be terrifying, even if the details are confusing. To the degree that we’re alienated from the value of our labor we’re also bound to one another, and ethically speaking that’s not a bad thing at all. Quite the contrary.
Our knee-jerk reaction of fear and anger at being part of a system that is too big and intricate for any of us to understand is an inevitable consequence of having organized ourselves into a society consisting of millions of people, as opposed to the small autonomous tribes that our brains are evolved to be comfortable with in a state of nature. But there’s no logical reason to give in to that fear and anger just because we’re experiencing it, because the fear and anger are not logical. We are human animals, and therefore have ingrained emotional responses arising from instinct; but we are also sentient beings, and therefore can rise above those responses by examining that which we fear with a rational perspective.
In short: get over it.