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Do we live in a magical world?

The disruptive change brought by technology, particularly by Information Technology, impacts global issues and our personal and professional lives. We may reach the point where we perceive that the world we live in is beyond our comprehension. Indeed, until a few years ago, people were used to dealing with objects that a human being could fully comprehend. They knew that a more knowledgeable person would explain if they could not understand a tool or a process personally. A good mechanic could take apart every piece of a car and build it back: not a very productive activity, but doable. A handy person with sufficient free time could erect a home from scratch: my neighbour did. This feeling of being in control would apply to the majority of items. Like a large boat or an aeroplane, some things would be far more complex, but it would be easy to identify the team of highly trained people in charge.

Today, each of us ordinarily relies on systems beyond the comprehension of a single human being. When you use a Windows-based computer, you may not realize that the code that runs it, the Operating System, consists of some 50 million lines, not counting all the programs you loaded. If you wanted to read it, let alone understand it, it would take you almost five years at one line per second for 8 hours per day, without weekends or vacations. As of September 2015, Google code amounted to 2 billion lines, 50 times more than windows. The amount of knowledge embedded in daily appliances, from watches to mobile phones or cars, is beyond the comprehension of a single individual, no matter how educated or intelligent. It is almost like living in a fairy tale: things happen almost by magic, and no one can explain it to you to the last detail. We must have faith that it will work and, apart from the occasional glitch, sometimes dramatic, it regularly does. Going back to the parallel I was drawing with my parents' lives in a previous post, here is what summarizes best the main divide across our lives: given enough time, determination, and some knowledgeable friends, they knew that they could get a grasp of almost everything they handled while I can't possibly do so.

In our modern society, we need an unprecedented level of trust to live our lives. If, for some reason, you lose faith in the network of experts, scientists, and engineers that design and run the systems we rely upon daily, your whole life loses its foundations. A reasonably sceptical person needs a solid education in science to understand and trust the processes behind generating the knowledge our lives rely upon: the scientific method relies heavily upon healthy scepticism. On the other hand, extreme scepticism without a solid technical and scientific background is dangerous and can be life-threatening for some. In February 2020, "Mad" Mike Hughes, 64, died when he crash-landed his steam-powered rocket: like many flat-earthers, Hughes could not trust centuries of scientific research and hoped to prove his theory by going to space. Conspiracy theorists of all sorts similarly put their lives and our ordinary social and political stability at risk every day.

Is the apparent magical essence of our world the reason fake news is so popular these days? Since one lives surrounded by what appears to be magic, it is hard to separate truth from fake. If everything is possible and happens by "magic" anyway, it is easy to fall deeply into the natural human tendency to believe in what one likes to be true. Moreover, if everything is possible and beyond comprehension, how can we distinguish a reliable expert from a wizard. The simplest thing is to believe the one who tells the story we like. Modern technology also accelerates this reinforcement of bad ideas; with a few clicks on the internet, we can easily find people who share our thoughts. Even more, the search algorithms will keep feeding us with the reinforcing message that like-minded people and organizations surround us. Maybe this explains the recent rise of populism and a strong argument for a dramatic increase in education and particularly science education worldwide, but this is another story.

Some healthy scepticism may indeed be helpful to make sense of our complex world. Complicated systems are reliable only if they are exact. We have seen in a previous post that even a simple modification can turn a stable, easily predictable system into a complex one prone to chaotic behaviour. We live with the assumption that our world is fully described by advanced economic and intricate financial systems, like a perfect mechanical clock. We assume a mechanistic world-view inspired by the scientific and technical advances that made possible the First Industrial Revolution. Yet, the speed at which transactions run, the reaction loops between multiple actors interconnected through ever more complex systems may result in totally unexpected results. The 2008 financial crisis was primarily caused by ignoring the emerging effect of interrelated financial instruments under the illusion that the system was foolproof.

We may have reached a level of complexity where our assumption of the world being like a mechanical clock does not provide us with sufficient precision to avoid chaos. Our magic tricks may increasingly fail us. The climate crisis is a dramatic example of the consequences of ignoring the complexity of a system while trying to maximize just one parameter, in this case, production and wealth. A more comprehensive world-view is necessary to tackle the complexity that surrounds us.


Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

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