A world of ever-increasing complexity

There was an article in The Guardian Weekly  in early January pointing out that our lives are more scrambled and complicated than they have ever been.  The writer, John Harris, called modernity “a mess: multiple user accounts, endless password filling in, smartphone contracts, computer and internet problems that so few of us really understand” and the “generalised insanity of consumerism”.  Our lives are lived in ever-increasing speed and complexity, and all it offers longterm are diminishing returns. And what for?  Epicurus would deem us all crazy.

One of the diminishing returns is peace of mind, or Epicurean ataraxia.  I was  reminded of John Harris’s article owing to a just-completed and particularly fraught period inducting a new computer, a new modem, a new range extender and downloading a massive piece of software (7 tries).  Various helpful people from India kept me on the phone for what seemed like several days. While wrestling with the downloads there was a sudden drop in  internet strength to 1.3 Mbps and increase of the ping rate to 1046 when it ought to be under 100.  Result: the downloads failed after all-night sessions. It might sound as if I know what I’m talking about, but actually I haven’t a clue.  All I know is that a computer controls the internet speed of millions who deal with Verizon, and if it encounters a problem it automatically reduces the internet speed to that of a sleepy snail.  Problem: it omits to tell the customer it is slowing his computer to a crawl.  We are no longer in control.

Initially, complicated systems  deliver big economic benefits.  But in due course the average man in the street ends up frustrated and angry because his time and his pitifully short life is being eaten up by useless complications, and he starts to think the whole thing is unrewarding and ridiculous (any takers?). He feels he has no influence or control over his life.  Some people think that the collapse of the Roman, Mayans,  Minoan, Hittite, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty all succumbed, in part, to the fact that ever-increasing burdens were not matched by material rewards, leading to revolts and breakaways.

One cannot blame complexity for everything going on today, but I can attest to the fact, as an elderly gent, that I cannot keep up and that I get frustrated and anxious about what is supposed to be “progress”, couched in incomprehensible technical language devised to exclude most of us, so-called educated or not.  Ataraxia seems to be ever more elusive as we toil for our hi-tech masters who think it all should come naturally, without the need for instructions in plain English.








  1. I have a lot of sympathy for your argument. Often the world seems fiendishly complex, particularly for the older generation. Many people have a nostalgia for a simpler age, where people made fewer decisions, the world was easier to understand, and governments were able to influence events more on behalf of their people. At least part of the reason for Brexit, Donald Trump and the rise of populists across the world, is that many believe the economic benefits of complexity are beginning to be outweighed by the stress and alienation of modern life: international institutions, the workings of which are alien to the common man, are a case in point.
    However, such nostalgia is dangerous. Although modern technological innovations and consumerism appear frustrating at times, we would be far worse off without them. Gandhi is remembered for his role in achieving Indian independence. But along with the oppression of empire, he also hated its modernity. He wished for India to return to a feudal nation, predominantly rural and agricultural, without any of the technological advances the British bought. Had India followed his advice, its economy would be a basket case, and poverty would be even higher than it is today.
    My point is that we shouldn’t abandon the innovations of the modern age in the hope that an imagined past will return. The past may have been simpler, but it was also crueller. Disease, squalor and ignorance were far more common. The challenge of today is not to reject complexity outright, but to manage it in a way that the common man can identify with and benefit from. With any luck, complexity will cease to be perceived as cumbersome, and viewed more as sophistication.

    • I wouldn’t for a moment dream about putting the clock back. I agree with you that nostalgia often omits the misery and poverty of the old times. It is the attitude and behaviour of the modern business [people that frustrates me. They seem incapable to producing products that work reliably, of warning you that they their systems have gone wrong and what they are going to do about it, and putting themselves in the shoes of others, e.g refusing to supply explanations of how things work and to have sentient human beings available to help you through a bewildering technical task. They know how to do; if you don’t, tough! Customer care is perfectly dreadful, in general. They would actually make more money (this is only what they are in a hurry for, isn’t it?) if they built up a good reputation for after-sales service, as it used to be called (come to think of it I haven’t heard that phrase for many years). I blame the business schools in part – they are about money , not human beings.

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