//Insanity by Way of Complexity

Insanity by Way of Complexity

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Does complexity, too much complexity, lead to (or at least contribute toward) insanity? How much complexity can humans deal with without suffering a breakdown of some kind? Is there a limit? Are we currently pushing the envelope on that limit? How would we know? What would be the symptoms?

I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s when television sets had only two controls (an on-off switch, and a channel selector) and only three channels to choose from. Reception was by way of ‘rabbit ears’ or a roof top antenna. In contrast, my current television ‘set’ is not really a ‘set’ at all; it’s a highly complex system consisting of multiple components, including a cable box, a viewing screen, a video player, a veritable rats nest of wires and cables, and three hand-held devices bearing, collectively, what seems like several hundred buttons of various shapes, colors, and sizes.

When I turn this system on, I often get audio but only flashes of video: on-off, on- off. When this bizarre phenomenon first began occurring, I had little recourse. There were no instructions (of course), and no one at the cable company was able to fix the problem, which, it occurred to me at the time, was a function of runaway complexity. As dumb luck would have it, I discovered that if I pulled a particular cable from the back of one of the boxes, and immediately reinserted it, the problem would disappear… on its own!  

Had I not discovered this accidental fix, I would have been faced with having to buy a replacement box – or perhaps an entire set of boxes. In any event, for the past several years now, I have lived in mortal terror that my accidental fix would stop working at a most inopportune moment, such as in the middle of a Patriot’s game with the score tied.

2018-12-17T16:44:51+00:00December 17th, 2018|Uncategorized|4 Comments


  1. Barry Cook December 19, 2018 at 1:57 pm - Reply

    One could make the case that simplicity is the greater risk – or at least the failure to perceive or conceptualize all the options or possibilities. When suicide seems to be the only option, consider that you might have overlooked some of your options.
    I agree, however, that the complexity of our gadgets is a source of stress and anxiety – and wastes a lot of time. If consumers pushed back and demanded user-friendliness, reliability and simple interfaces, priorities for marketers would change.
    Proposal: National Grid should shut the power off at 3 AM every day for 30 seconds to force all our electronics to reboot. Even computers work better after a nap.

  2. Matt Fitzgerald December 17, 2018 at 7:06 pm - Reply

    I don’t see complexity itself as a cause of mental disorders, but I do see complexity as an element of certain stressors that may contribute to the development of mental disorders. For example, in situations where people feel helpless because of untamable unpredictability, maladaptive psychological responses are likely to occur.

  3. sansuikyo December 17, 2018 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    This is certainly something I wonder about quite often. I see the “drowning in complexity” problem every day in the healthcare system, and it sure as hell isn’t making care any better and it is an increasing source of burnout for physicians and other healthcare workers alike. In general, when living systems are stressed, they adapt– if they can. The stresses of this very new world of high-tech, high-complexity seems to be bringing us to sort of critical juncture where *some* sort of dramatic correction will occur. Of course, if the whole damn house of cards just collapses, you won’t have to worry about your rat’s nest of wires anymore– but neither will there be any more Patriots games!

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