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[Easy Chair]

Complexity

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With two supporters, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, just elected to the House of Representatives, the QAnon conspiracy theory looks set to survive in some form the defeat of its hero, Donald Trump. Like millenarians coming to terms with the failure of prophecy, Q’s followers will no doubt incorporate the latest disappointing events into a world picture that is already a rat’s nest of connections. It may be helped in this effort by the profusion of graphical representations QAnon has spawned. The internet is littered with maps and illustrations. You can find a flowchart of the “theoretical functional relationships” of the supposed cabal of pedophiles that is operating an international child sex-trafficking ring, and a Sephirot Map of the Pharaonic Death Cult. There are trees and diagrams and social-network graphs and many, many pyramids, some daringly inverted, so that instead of base matter leading up to an all-seeing eye, “sheep asleep” expand toward “the mystery of universal creation.” Some of the most widely circulated graphics are versions of the Q-Web, by a designer engaged in what he calls the Deep State Mapping Project. The Q-Web is a forest of signs, connecting the legendary lands of Atlantis and Mu with time travel, the Borgias, Aleister Crowley, and COINTELPRO. The familiar nodes are all there, from Area 51 to 9/11, flung together without any apparent logic. Yet despite its incoherence, there is, in a strictly aesthetic sense, something sublime about it, or at least about the experience it is trying to represent, the experience of scale and complexity, of a world that is beyond the capacity of the human mind to apprehend.

Q belongs to a sketchy but ancient tradition of folk scholarship, research into the world’s signs and wonders that has always been carried on in the margins, beneath the notice of respectable academia. Hedge wizards and makers of almanacs, UFO abductees and 5G truthers, all hold out the same promise—that one universal hidden truth shall be revealed, and the horror of not knowing will come to an end.

In Libra, Don DeLillo’s novel about the Kennedy assassination, a researcher with the Borgesian name Nicholas Branch trails the forking paths of the plot through the archives of the CIA. He has been commissioned to write a “secret history” of the event for the agency, or as he puts it, to “follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.” In a formulation that has become famous, DeLillo wrote in White Noise that “all plots tend to move deathward,” but Libra shows that this doesn’t mean they’re tightly controlled, or even fully intentional. “If we are on the outside,” Branch muses, sitting in his office at Langley,

we assume a conspiracy is the perfect working of a scheme. Silent nameless men with unadorned hearts. A conspiracy is everything that ordinary life is not. It’s the inside game, cold, sure, undistracted, forever closed off to us.

At least in DeLillo’s version of it, the conspiracy to assassinate the president was “a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance.”

Does Q dream of its own abolition? Does it dream of finding out who gave the order to shoot? Kennedy researchers share the basic conviction that the various superposed narratives of the assassination could ultimately collapse into one single solution. Q has a different kind of energy.

The volatility unleashed by Q, and Q’s internet-accelerated fusion with other pandemic-related currents of conspiracy thinking—anti-vaccine and anti-mask ideology, virus denial, and the like—give it the feel of something new, a blob of unreason against which the Kennedy narrative seems quaint, almost genteel. But Q’s refusal to cohere could also just be a late stage of the usual thinking, a kind of entropic decay that’s inherent to conspiracy. What’s promised is a grail quest, and at first the world is tantalizing, twinkling seductively with meaning. But as the forking paths continue to ramify, Truth is to be found not in one place, but everywhere. In the Q-Web, everything is connected to everything else. Reality is overwhelming, terrifying. The end point isn’t self-realization, but abjection, the would-be interpreter gibbering before the staggering number of connections. What starts out as heroic fantasy ends up as horror.

Our desire for simplicity is understandable. We like our stories to have plots, for life’s messiness to form a neat arc. In reality, we don’t get to start at the beginning. We’re thrown into the middle of things, into the chaos of history. “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Conspiracy thinking reduces this weight into something more manageable, a plot in both of DeLillo’s senses, a narrative and the hidden agency of a few individuals, a diabolical elite that could potentially be overthrown.

Conspiracy theories seem naïve because they’re so childishly hopeful. It is hard to live with the understanding that the world’s evils have complex causes, and that moral responsibility is diffused so widely that the final retribution a conspiracy theorist dreams of could never come to pass. Maybe it’s just ten guys in a boardroom and the hero can kick down the door and take them out? For many people, only a religious belief that justice will ultimately be done, whether in the afterlife or at the end of days, can provide sufficient consolation.

Yet we all have to face the question of how best to act within the world’s complexity, and the way “normies” cope isn’t ultimately so different from the conspiracists’ reductionism. We tend to steer away from complex explanations, to make things easier for ourselves.

What is simplicity? It’s a quality we feel we can intuitively identify. Simplicity is minimal and elegant. A simple object has no ornament. Everything that is not essential has been refined away. Simplicity is, in most of the ways we commonly talk about it, an aesthetic criterion, something to do with Platonic forms or a white canvas. But it turns up at the foundations of scientific thinking too. Mathematicians look for simple proofs; physicists try to describe the universe in terms of fundamental forces. Yet a perfume of aesthetics clings to even these rigorous endeavors. In physics, wrote Murray Gell-Mann, “a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.” Many other physicists have expressed themselves in similar ways. The link between beauty and fundamental physical reality is such an attractive and familiar sentiment that one hears it expressed almost involuntarily in the voice of Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The German theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder has interviewed colleagues about how beauty influences the way they judge their theories, and how it shapes the avenues they choose to pursue. Her book Lost in Math (published in German under the more informative title The Ugly Universe) makes the startling claim that not only do aesthetic notions of beauty have no necessary basis in physical fact, but they might be responsible for the failure of fundamental physics to progress substantially since the Seventies.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Even if our ideas about the relationship between truth and beauty have shifted since Keats wrote his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in 1819, most people today still intuitively feel that truth and beauty are closely related. Hossenfelder sees this as bias. She identifies three main aesthetic principles current among her peers: symmetry, naturalness, and simplicity. “The presence of a symmetry always reveals a redundancy and allows simplification. Hence, symmetries explain more with less.” The example she gives is a description of the sky. We do not need to say that the sky is blue to the north and south and east and west, at least not if it’s a clear day. We just say that the sky is blue. It has rotational symmetry. Naturalness has a more technical meaning, concerning the numbers a physicist considers reasonable. “Physicists don’t like numerical coincidences that require very large numbers,” explains Hossenfelder. Nor, she adds, do they like small ones. “Generally, they don’t like numbers much different from 1.” A number around one feels natural, proof that a theory fits.

The third principle, simplicity, seems to underlie both of the others. To a physicist, simplicity has two meanings. The famous philosophical razor attributed to William of Ockham states that entities should not be multiplied without necessity. In other words, among several theories that explain the same phenomenon, choose the simplest one. Hossenfelder warns that “we can look for a theory simpler than some other theory, but not start constructing a theory based on simplicity alone.” This is a subtle but vital distinction. Going with the simplest theory is just a sensible heuristic for exploring the universe. Believing that the foundations of the universe are simple is something else, an assumption that may not be warranted. There are objective ways of measuring simplicity, such as computational complexity, but Hossenfelder notes that “the human idea of simplicity is . . . very much based on ease of applicability, which is closely tied to our ability to grasp an idea, hold it in mind.”

Hossenfelder suggests that physics is stuck because physicists are looking for beautiful solutions to problems when the universe may not conform to human notions of beauty at all. It might, in her terms, be ugly—that is to say, irreducibly complex and messy. Simplicity, after all, means simplicity for us. It is a human-scale quality, a way of saying that something is manageable for human beings.

At a historical moment when we are repressing unsettling thoughts—that things may be irredeemably complex and human measures of simplicity might not have any fundamental reality—technology holds a seductive promise. It allows us to manipulate our surroundings in ways that otherwise would be impossible. It promises to make us more powerful, more autonomous, more productive. If the universe won’t scale down, then maybe we can just scale up?

It is no accident that the dominant tech aesthetic is minimalism. Our culture is saturated with imagery of priest-like technicians in simple, minimal surroundings, manipulating phones and tablets that aspire to be pebbles or papyri. The pitch is always broadly the same: for the technologically enhanced human, life is simple—a perfect view of northern California redwoods framed in a giant window. The world’s messiness is nowhere to be seen. It’s been dealt with, sent elsewhere. Where is it? In the cloud.

“Solutionism” has become a sarcastic name for a corporate ideology that, in the words of critic Evgeny Morozov, recasts

all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized—if only the right algorithms are in place.

Solutionism is the thought of the cloud, a vision of the world as a machine with a nice, clear user interface, a set of problems that some clever young founder has just cleared away.

There is, of course, nothing cloudlike about the cloud. It depends on a vast physical infrastructure of data centers and undersea cables that is now a major driver of carbon emissions. Far from reducing complexity, information technology has in some ways intensified it. The internet births Goyaesque monsters. Our social reality seems less transparent and more unpredictable than ever. Do we feel like priests in high-tech log cabins or peasants looking at the sky and wondering whether a storm is coming? High-frequency trading algorithms have transformed the financial markets, already highly technical, into a black box whose fluctuations are opaque to all but its operators. Artificial intelligence, with architecture that resists scrutiny, is being given agency in politically sensitive areas such as facial recognition and social-network analysis. Recommendation algorithms have divided the public sphere into myriad bubbles, in which hoaxes, crazes, and viral disinformation may thrive without being visible to outsiders at all. Consequently, we experience the world as increasingly strange and inscrutable. Instead of an era of simplicity and elegance, we find ourselves in what the artist and media theorist James Bridle has termed the New Dark Age: we find ourselves in the world of Q.

If we live in a New Dark Age, what hope is there for us to act in a meaningful way? Being suspicious of human-scale simplicity doesn’t condemn us to existential despair. Nor is the only alternative a headshaking wonder. The architectural theorist Keller Easterling has proposed an approach she calls medium design, a reference not to scale, but to what she calls the “interplay” between things: “A focus on medium over object is everpresent in many disciplines.” Geologists see rocks as traces of slow processes. Ecologists deal with the relations between populations of organisms and their surroundings. Immunologists deal with the interplay of the many structures and processes that make up the misleadingly unified “immune system.” Easterling wants designers and architects and urbanists to think less about designing discrete things and more about “parameters for how things interact with each other.”

Even if we may not fully understand the forces that operate on us, we still experience them, and this gives us what Easterling, following the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, calls know-how. Know-how isn’t about facts or descriptions. It’s about having a knack for things, understanding what effect a particular tool has on a particular substance, what happens when you shift your weight on a skateboard. Know-how is the knowledge of cooks and chemists, “managing activities and relative potentials between things that unfold over time.” Designing using know-how is a kind of “entangling,” forming connections between processes and then managing the outcomes, rather than exerting
top-down control.

Maybe we need to approach our information world in this way. Instead of behaving like conspiracy theorists, trying to hold unfathomable complexity in our minds, and collapsing into naïve reductionism when we fail, maybe we should think of ourselves as sailors, cyclists, or cooks, steering a course through turbulent times. It’s an attractive way to proceed—dealing with our lack of control by relinquishing control—but is it enough? If we are to solve our hardest problems, we will also have to find ways of seeing beyond (or at least not through) our human-centric biases, our short timescales and limited horizons. We need to learn to step aside from our unearned position as the measure of all things. And in another sense we will need to learn to step back in, to relinquish our illusion of separateness from the world, to give up our ironic distance and dive into the flow.


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January 2021