Friday, January 21, 2011

The end of civilization

At some point in the middle of the 20th century, science made a critical transition: it had become impossible for one human brain to understand all of physics. The brilliant physicist Hans Bethe commented in his memoirs on that sad day when he realized that he no longer could comprehend it all.

As the knowledge base and complexity of our society grows, we become more dependent upon specialization. Computer programmers write software for computers designed by hardware engineers who use chips made by companies that buy silicon from mines whose employee retirement plans are managed by portfolio gurus that use computer software, etc. The inter-dependencies loop around our society - leading to all sorts of feedback

If one genius cannot understand all of physics, it is only natural to conclude that it is impossible for any one individual to understand everything. Given the impossibility of fully understanding the complexity of our sociotechnological system, well-intentioned policies may do more harm then good. Since laws and institutions are required to keep society running smoothly, it is a delicate balancing act to protect freedom of ideas and innovation while simultaneously designing constraints that do not lead to the unraveling of civilization.

As a physicist whose work relies heavily on quantum mechanics, I am comfortable with the notion that it is impossible to control all factors simultaneously. It is impossible to force a simple single particle to both have a specific location and momentum. By fixing one parameter, the other one becomes uncertain. In a complex system such as a society of billions of interacting individuals, the phenomena of chaos also becomes possible. I worry that control imposed by a few well-intentioned policymakers can lead to grave consequences. The modern practice of ideology-based legislation, which intentionally ignores facts, could make matters worse.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis, which I discussed in a previous post, is an example of several interacting factors that led to a financial crisis. I also argued that the consequences could have been the same even if all parties acted within the law (which they didn't).

Potential problems go well beyond the financial market. The complexity of our society makes it vulnerable to chaotic fluctuations and to outright collapse. Writing in the September issue of Scientific American, Danny Hillis points out the May 6, 2010 computer glitch that caused the Dow to Plummet 1,000 points, and then recovering by the end of the day. On November 19th, 2009, a single circuit board in a computer in Salt Lake City resulted in a cascade of failures that prevented air tragic control computers from communicating with each other in North America - resulting in hundreds of flight cancellations. In the blackout of 2003, power lines near untrimmed trees shorted, causing a power shutdown, which due to a faulty computer at one power plant lead to a cascade that shutdown 100 power plants in the Northeastern part of the United States and Ontario, affecting 55,000,000 people. These events were not the result of malevolence or human greed, but due to system complexity.

Our society and physical infrastructure are evolving as a result of our actions. Computer networks are growing, and the interdependence between systems is increasing. This growth is leading to advances that allow us to track flights and scan bar codes on our smart phones . These same underlying technologies could lead to catastrophic collapse. The truth of the matter is that we have created a monster that we cannot control. It is a monster that serves us, but one that could lead to our demise.

Our chaotic system cannot be effectively controlled from above, nor am I a Luddite espousing simpler tech-free times. We must recognize that along with progress, there will be painful setbacks. As civilization becomes more complex, there are greater chances of setbacks. The answer lies not in reactionary measures to legislate, which can itself stifle innovation and drive instabilities, but in low-tech redundancy. For example, being independent of the telecommunications network, ham radios are an excellent alternative to cell phones.

I am confident in the human spirit's ability to innovate, which if unrestrained, will undoubtedly lead to evermore wondrous ideas and technologies. In my opinion, the end of our civilization will not be brought upon us by the hand of a fluctuation, but in the bliss of complacency and ignorance.

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