The Evolution of Complexity

In the Beginning – High Trust

At the dawn of civilisation, mankind knew very little, he discovered fire by accident, and after a while he found out how to replicate it at will. He fashioned primitive tools from bone, flint and later iron and bronze. He made up stories and he created faiths as explanations for the things he simply could not understand such as the miracle of life, the daily rising of the sun and the completeness of death. He invented coins to trade with then unravelled the mysteries of the world through mathematics, geometry, navigation and science. Mankind was on a voyage of discovery trying to replace wonder, trust and faith with science and indisputable fact.

In the beginning

In the beginning

The steam engine was the catalyst for the Industrial Revolution, then rapid advances were made with electricity, wireless telegraphy and aviation eventually culminating in putting a man on the moon in 1969, indisputably mankind’s greatest achievement at that time or as Neil Armstrong out it, “one giant leap”!

Since then we have seen an explosion in technology, computers on our desktops that are incredibly powerful, the smartphones we all own far outgun the technology used to put man on the moon. The connected world, the internet makes it possible for anyone anywhere on the planet to research without going to a library and to communicate and publish information easily.

The Science of Complexity – High Knowledge

Our technological world is getting more complex every year and consequently the amount that any one person can truly understand is getting smaller not bigger. Many people use every day objects such as smartphones and satellite navigation units without having the first idea of how they work. Even the mechanically minded now lift the bonnet on their cars and stare at a monolithic block that is the engine with some well signposted caps for us adding screen wash which is about the only thing that people do. The days of changing a clutch or decarbonising an engine at home, once quite common place are long gone.

They might as well be from another planet

Many people don’t question how the things they use every day work, as far as these people are concerned the tools that they use might as well be from another planet. Regardless of whether we question them we are surrounded by things we use which we have little idea how to repair and even when they do go wrong the repair companies replace a large subsystem rather than changing just the part that fails, this makes repair expensive and the “right-off” way of living more acceptable. We don’t just dispose of things when they go wrong either, our thirst for technology means we replace for the latest. Take a mental note of how many mobile phones you have discarded for new in the last 5 years!

Black Box Engineering – High Trust

So increasingly we are surrounded by “Black Boxes”, which are really the basis of the Systems Engineering discipline which has helped engineers create the technological things we have.

The Black Box is simply a function with inputs and outputs. A nuclear submarine is probably one of the most complex man made objects we currently have, it consists of a system of systems, a hierarchy of engineering design elements. No ‘one man’ can know everything about how it works but some of the senior engineers could certainly talk you through a block diagram and if you wanted to know about the intricacies of a particular block or sub-system they could bring in an engineer who knows that part but importantly not the whole or even another part!

Black Box

Black Box

So we do not comprehend the inner processes of the Black Box, we simply can’t otherwise our mental capacity would be exceeded but we trust that someone else does and we can therefore use it and integrate it into another system, be this a nuclear submarine or a the way we use a tablet pc in our business lives.

The image of the black box reminded me of the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, maybe this black box concept and the cycle of faith/trust is what Kubrick was getting at.

The Trust vs Knowledge Cycle

The sheer volume that we simply have to trust and believe in that was once reducing is now increasing all of the time; in the beginning mankind knew little about the world and trusted or had faith in a lot, then we went through the age of discovery and science offering explanation and understanding and now engineering and technology is creating things that no one person can understand and we all have to trust and have faith in once again.

What is different is that we are totally dependent on these things:

  • What is it like when the network fails in your office/business? People for the most part simply stop working.
  • Think about power outages, unless you are on an emergency supply everything stops.
  • What would we do if all of our electronic devices stopped working?
  • What if financial transactions stopped?
  • What if goods and freight stopped moving?

The consequences for our economy, safety and survival are almost unthinkable.

What does it mean for you?

It means that certain skills are becoming more important:

  1. People with highly specialised technology design skills (Design Engineers with narrow specialism)
  2. People who can explain the systems view of things (Systems Engineers and Systems Architects)
  3. People that can convey complex concepts, systems and arguments with simple diagrams and imagery (Gurus/Evangelists)

The last category have to be highly personable, they probably have performed at the first two levels for credibility and they have to be enigmatic and erudite. They are essential to simplify complexity so get yourself into this role and you will be in high demand!


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