Two days ago we began a new conversation.
On the first day we looked at the rise and fall of advanced civilizations as a biological imperative. Instead of war powers, rampant viruses, climate change, or incompetent leadership being the cause of collapse, we began to view it as the result of a discrepancy between the rapid rate at which complexity is discovered and manufactured and the slow rate at which the human brain can evolve new features to address complex problems. Once the complexity of our circumstances exceeds the cognitive capabilities we have evolved at any point in time, we simply can go no further. Governments, experts, and leaders become gridlocked. Then, following gridlock, we begin substituting unproven beliefs for facts in a desperate attempt to keep progress moving forward. Public policy becomes dominated by irrational beliefs as problems grow worse. Whether we examine the Mayan's ultimate response to drought (they abandoned building reservoirs and turned exclusively to human sacrifice to solve their problems) or the United State's invasion of Iraq (also based on unproven beliefs) the pattern is the same. When complexity makes facts too difficult to obtain or understand, we have no other choice but to act on our beliefs. And that includes the President of the United States of America.
To this point it has been important to understand the biological reasons for why we now struggle in Washington, D.C., in the boardrooms of GM, AIG, and Goldman Sachs, at the United Nations — everywhere where insurmountable complexity has taken hold.
But the time has come to dig our way out. And thankfully, modern man has two remedies that earlier civilizations did not have.
The first is mitigation. When the brain hits a cognitive limit we become unable to separate solutions that will work from those that will not. In an urgent situation like the Gulf oil spill, the consequences of becoming an "incompetent picker" were devastating. First we put a concrete box over the hole, and three weeks later, as millions of gallons of oil continued to spew into the Gulf, we discovered the first solution we picked didn't work. As a second option we began trying to drill though one of the pipes from the side to siphon off the pressure and oil. Another three weeks passed before we realized that wasn't going to work either. But in this situation we were lucky. Solution number three cured the problem. But what if it had been the eight or ninth solution we tried, four years later? Eventually, this will be our situation. As complexity causes the number of wrong alternatives to exponentially exceed the number of correct ones, even smart people become incompetent.
But models for high failure rates allow us to pursue multiple solutions at the same time while making an allowance for the majority of them to fail. No problem. The solutions that work stop the problem dead in its tracks. In the case of the Gulf oil spill this would have meant that, rather than implementing ONE solution at a time in sequential order, we would have dropped the concrete box on top of the hole, drilled the pipe from the side and deployed "static kill" all in tandem right from day one. Two solutions would have eventually failed, but the "static kill" would have stopped one of the greatest manmade ecological disasters within a matter of days instead of months.
So the first step is to mitigate in a smarter way.
But in a world where efficiency is the Holy Grail how prepared are we to have leaders waste 80 cents of every dollar to stop a calamity? It wouldn't take long for the citizenry to label the waste as incompetence, even though replacing one leader with another would make no substantial difference whatsoever. From an evolutionary perspective all of our brains have the same limitations. So regardless of who is making the decision, the number of wrong choices continues to escalate relative to the number of right ones. The odds are stacked against every leader.
At the ground level this means it doesn't matter whether we put a Tea Party candidate or a left wing radical in the White House, the result will be the same. Unless we begin to look at our impasse as a biological obstacle that all civilizations since the beginning of time have encountered, we cannot progress.
We are the first civilization to come face to face with this pattern and the first to have proven mitigation models to turn to, so there has never been more cause for hope.
But hope does not come without a price. We will have to accept a higher threshold of waste in order to get to the cure. Not everything we try will work — in fact most things won't. And if that's the case, how will we pay for all the wasted programs when we are already sinking in debt?
Ahhhhh, but isn't debt just another complex problem like a spill in the Gulf or pandemic virus or climate change? Can't we attack debt using the same high failure rate models — launch many solutions at the same time?
Perhaps the time has come to accept the evolutionary limitations of the human organism itself and to mitigate in a way that will allow the brain to catch up to complexity. And if we do, what then? Then we must use that time to arm our brains with tools which allow us to manage massive amount of content and intricacy with as much ease as Archimedes sitting in a bathtub and watching the water spill over the edge.
But that's a topic for tomorrow...