Another essay this week, this time on the idea of responsibility and its interactions with complexity. I think there’s some very interesting thoughts in here, and I hope that you will consider giving it a read, but consider this the customary disclaimer that this has little to nothing to do with writing and reading.
A very good friend of mine recently suggested that we as a society are currently suffering from a crisis of responsibility, and ever since then I have been finding it a remarkably insightful lens through which to analyze current events, perspectives, and opinions that I observe being promulgated. It is a useful lens to contemplate, and I thought it worth sharing here. We’ve alluded before to the amazing complexity that we have managed to create for ourselves, and this seemed a good opportunity to explore that; after all, this crisis of responsibility could also be considered a crisis of complexity. They are intricately linked and result from and enhance each other, despite being also quite distinct.
I’ve often marveled at the ability of the human species to create systems so complex that their creators do not fully understand them. Economies, for instance: they are entirely the product of human interactions, an artificial construct we created, and yet we do not even come close to understanding their myriad intricacies in any kind of definitive way. Yes, we have economic models of varying complexity that at some level can claim to describe how economies function, we have definitions for terms and some shared consensus on how the original economies likely arose, and we have a surfeit of “experts” in economics who seem exceedingly prone to making predictions about the economy and then being wrong, but we don’t really understand them. At a basic level we can describe the functioning of an economy, but the complex functioning of the modern world economy and how it interacts with economies at more local levels? Evidence abounds of just how poorly we understand these systems: just look at the evolving conversation on inflation over the past year or so. Yet they are a product of our own minds, arising from human ingenuity, habits, customs, cultures – that is, arising from us.
The internet is another example of a system that has burgeoned into something far more complex than we understand, despite being a creation of our own inventions. We understood what we were doing when we made computers, as they were the product of over a century of development in “computing machines.” We understood what we were doing when we linked a few of those computers together and enabled communication between them. Today, we understand servers, data centers, fiber-optic cables, wireless communication – all of the components that combine to form the internet. We throw terms around like “Web2,” “Web3,” “blockchain” (I should probably do a post on that), “metaverse,” “non-fungible token,” “internet of things,” and so forth. For all of that, we don’t really, fully understand this thing that we have created call the internet. It has outgrown our capacity to pin it down, dissect it, and truly comprehend its workings, like a living being, and yet we are on a very real level its creators and its enablers; it would cease to exist without us (at least for now).
That we can create systems more complex than we can understand, sometime even deliberately, has fascinating implications for a discussion on the nature of Creation, intelligent design, and so forth, but that is very much a subject for another post. More relevantly to this discussion, our ability to create systems that we ourselves do not understand can in some ways be blamed for this idea of a crisis of responsibility. If we had a perfect understanding of how, say, the economy functions, then we would known exactly who is responsible for altering it, and there what levers and dials to turn in order to manipulate it into a certain form. Our lack of understanding leads to a crisis of responsibility because no one knows those answers. No one and no institution can wholly take responsibility for it, because it is more complex than we can understand. Thus, the crisis of responsibility arises from the crisis of complexity (it is worth noting that while I am here referring to it as a crisis, such complexity is not in and of itself a negative – in fact, I consider it quite remarkable, and of immense advantage to our species and our civilizations – it is only in this context of the discussion of responsibility that I am construing it in such a light).
Society itself may be the most complex system that humans have ever created, arising organically from a complex interplay of historical, modern, psychological, physiological, environmental, and circumstantial factors. In such a dispersed and chaotic system, there can be no single wellspring of responsiblity or simple solutions, which is why there is little agreement today on even what societies’ ailments might be, much less what optimal solutions ought to be implemented. Furthermore, all of these systems that we have discussed – economies, societies, the internet – are composed of individuals and driven by individual actions, so that analysis at a macroscopic, system level scale will inevitably fall short of describing the full scope and scale of complexity involved. Just like Einstein’s theory of General Relativity breaks down at microscopic scales because of the inherent uncertainty and “frothiness” of space itself on a quantum level, the best models of our large-scale human systems inevitably break down when confronted with the frothiness of the individuals involved.
Most pernicious, therefore, is a crisis of responsibility at the individual level, and yet that explanation can be utilized to make sense of so many of the apparently nonsensical behaviors and decisions that we are witness to on a daily basis. I submit that the vitriol of our debates and politics, the wanton and asocietal behaviors on display, the irrationality exposed on social media, the increasingly extreme viewpoints, can all be attributed to a crisis of responsibility, and specifically a lack thereof at an individual level. When the individual does not assume responsibility for his/her behavior and its consequences, those consequences cease to be of significance to the individual, but do not cease to be of significance to other individuals. This perpetuates the lack of responsibility, for individuals thus affected are subsequently wont to assign blame to the originator of that action, thus offloading responsibility for their own actions upon an external source. Such cognitive gymnastics seem complicated in writing, but are a regular component of the human psychological makeup. This exemplifies the all-important difference between cause and correlation, and between reasons and excuses.
Although I would hope that it is obvious to my erudite readership, I will here point out that this is a lens through which to examine the world in which we live, and not an all-encompassing diagnosis. It is a means of explanation, not an analysis of cause and effect. Examining the world through the framing story of a crisis of responsibility can provide a pathway to comprehension; it is not intended to provide a solution, nor to be a rigorous exposition of causal truth. Treating it otherwise would be in and of itself an offloading of responsibility.
Despite that disclaimer, the relevance of the crisis of responsibility lens suggests a certain utility in addressing in some small fashion the ills with which it can be associated. I strive to live by the maxim “if you are going to complain about something, then you had better be willing to do something about it,” and so I would be remiss if this essay served merely as an expose for a perceived shortcoming, and did not attempt to provide some form of redress, although I fear doing so may smack of a certain superciliousness which I generally seek to avoid. To return to the original association of this essay between responsibility and complexity, a potential solution to improving responsibility may be to increase comprehension of that complexity. It is in part for this reason that I write posts like the one about the US 5G standoff, or about nuclear energy, which seek to elucidate a complex issue. I contend that the better individuals understand the complex systems with which we surround ourselves, the more rigorous will be our decisions, and the more apt we will be to assume responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. It is far harder to offload responsibility for one’s actions when one fully comprehends the context and potential consequences of those actions prior to the point of decision.
Unfortunately, this becomes something of a non-starter, because taking the initiative to learn about complex ideas in and of itself requires a level of responsibility. For so many people, so much of their cognitive load has been offloaded to external sources upon which they rely for analysis, instead of exerting the effort to learn about issues for themselves and form their own analyses. This is a classic example of exploitation of the path of least resistance, for in truth it is significantly difficult to find information on complex issues, learn about them, and form an independent and rigorous analysis. Far easier, then, to simply allow the “experts,” pundits, news reporters, editorial writers, political parties, and other authority figures tell us what to think. Doing otherwise, as I strive to do and to enable in others (and I recognize that to a certain extent my own essays could be lumped into the category of external analyses upon which others come to rely in place of their independent efforts, which is both ironic and unfortunate, and why I will often seek to avoid providing a definite conclusion, especially in more expository pieces such as our posts on scientific topics) requires not insignificant exertions of time and effort. I wonder at times if this offloading of independent thought is in fact the most dangerous aspect of this concept of a crisis of responsibility in the long term.
It is the utility of this concept as a framework through which to interpret events that prompted me to share it with you in the form of this essay, and it is in that form that I hope you may also extract some usefulness from the idea. Mostly, I would hope that it might at least provide a genesis for thought and conversation. If this idea does hold merit, then perhaps that would be a place to start in addressing it.
That concludes our essay on the crisis of responsibility framework. I hope that you found it interesting, and I would be more than happy to engage with you in further conversation on this idea in the comments below, especially any instances in which you have found these ideas to be particularly applicable. We’ll be back on Thursday with our regular book review, which for this week will be Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.