The Opposite of Complex Isn’t Simple. It’s Isolated
Complex systems comprise myriad and sundry components that interact via countless elaborate relationships. This is true of the human brain and the vast expanse of the global ecosystem, and most things in-between. What is more, the greater the number of elements in a system, the more ways they can interact, making it hard to predict just how that system will ultimately behave.
Grasping these dynamics and successfully managing their outcomes relies on a process called integrative complexity. It is the means to distinguish various aspects of an issue and to synthesize them into something both coherent and viable. Just as importantly, it requires the willingness to at least recognize, if not accept, other points of view. Yet though this sort of cognition is critical in these turbulent times, too many people strive instead to simplify what is complex by minimizing the number and nature of interconnections, and reducing nuanced circumstances to binary, black-and-white machinations. The result, observed the late journalist H. L. Mencken, is that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
Doing so also robs people of their ability to acknowledge one of the essential components of complexity — diversity. In most biological systems the link between complexity and diversity is positive. The presence of multiple species contributes to stability and resilience since such heterogeneity enables a greater range of responses to disruptions or shocks.
Diversity in social systems denotes coexistence among individuals of different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, skills, perspectives, and opinions. Together they forge societies which, according to Emile Durkheim, one of the architects of modern social science, depend on a level of solidarity to function effectively. Durkheim termed early societies as “mechanical,” based on generally accepted beliefs, customs, and traditions that, over time, become established norms. But he also proposed that as these same populations modernize, they diversify, becoming “organic” and increasingly interdependent on more discrete values and cultures.
As with their biological counterparts, diversity in social systems can accommodate complexity by bringing together a broad scope of knowledge, skills, and experiences. The result is an enhanced capacity for collaboration, creativity, and innovation. There are benefits on a personal level as well. A 2022 study by scholars at Harvard University, the University of Virginia, and Ramon Llull University in Spain found that the more “relational diversity” someone has in his or her social repertoire, the higher their sense of wellbeing. Participants who regularly associated with family, friends, coworkers, and even strangers reported feeling happier than those who hung out with fewer categories of persons.
Yet social systems with high degrees of diversity also make it difficult for members to find common ground. As expanding populations replace more intimate communities, they fragment society and dislodge customary standards and principles. It is here that diversity can descend into what Durkheim labeled “anomie:” a state of instability marked by a sense of helplessness, hopelessness, isolation, and alienation. The upshot is often disarray and deviant behavior.
The situation is only made worse by technology. The promise of the Internet, and subsequently social media, was that they would allow users to venture beyond conventional restrictions of space and time to engage in a host of new and distinct relationships. But such interactivity is increasingly controlled by algorithms that dictate the kinds of information people encounter, how and from whom. Replacing face-to-face bonds with mediated connections also begets loneliness. Analysis from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that persons who are on social media more than two hours a day are twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated as those who are there less than 30 minutes daily.
The study was just one of several cited in the recent U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation. The government bulletin asserts that, in addition to the psychological impact, the physiological repercussions from a lack of contact include a 29% increased risk of heart disease; a 32% elevated chance of stroke; and a 50% greater threat of dementia among older adults. Additional research suggests lonely individuals may perceive and respond to information unlike than their more sociable peers, displaying heightened brain activity in regions associated with negative emotions. And a large-scale survey by healthcare and insurance company Cigna deduced that such solitude is worsening with each successive generation.
Whether by circumstance or choice, those who are cut off from ongoing social interactions not only endanger their mental and physical wellbeing, but seriously diminish their complex thinking and problem-solving skills. A failing not limited to individuals.
Politics is by its very nature complex and becoming more so. Where once the power dynamics were largely the jurisdiction of political parties and actors, interest groups, and lobbyists, they now include businesses, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), fringe groups, and influencers. The number of social, economic, environmental, and ideological factors that shape policies have also increased.
When political complexity converges with social isolation the consequences can be toxic. People who are acutely alone may become more distrustful and hostile to others with whom they disagree, a disorder known as affective polarization. A 2020 study published in the journal Group Processing and Intergroup Relations determined that social exclusion is a leading factor behind radicalization. Later research conducted at the RAND Corporation concluded that loneliness is one of the predominant reasons people adopt dogmatic views and join militant organizations. Others, on the other hand, turn apathetic and withdraw from political participation, lessening their degree of representation while magnifying that of extremists.
The predicament is exacerbated by opportunists who deliberately mutate isolation into polarization to cover up their inability to deal with complexity. The Republican party’s current culture war, for example, is an attempt to camouflage its lack of any meaningful public policies. “We’re dividing our country into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces,” bemoans presidential candidate Chris Christie. “Politicians are pitting them against each other to create conflict; and that’s not going to make the country bigger, better, stronger, or freer.”
The implications are ominous, too. It is getting more difficult to manage the dissemination of information and ideas; harder still to define critical issues; and nearly impossible to achieve viable solutions. This is why just 4% of Americans believe the political system is working extremely or very well. It is also a key rationale for the downgrade of the nation’s long-term credit status by Fitch Ratings, underscoring the “steady deterioration in standards of governance over the last 20 years.”
But politics is not the only war zone. Right-wing activists have turned their guns on business. Having successfully dismantled affirmative action at universities they are now targeting diversity at corporations, arguing that measures to prohibit race and gender discrimination unlawfully favor marginalized individuals. Sadly, it does not appear to be a hard argument to make. In the three years since companies advanced such efforts in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police, many have been scaling back their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Job postings for DEI positions have fallen by nearly 20%, and the average tenure for Chief Diversity Officers has dropped from 3.1 to 1.8 years.
This is certainly short-sighted. According to the 2020 national census, less than half of Americans under 18 self-identify as white. Before the end of the decade this will be true of under-30s. And by the middle of the century there will no longer be a racial majority. These facts have not been lost on employees. Among U.S. workers responding to a Pew Research survey, a majority (56%) say focusing on DEI is a good thing. This is especially the case with those younger than 30 (68%), women (61%), and “persons of color” (72%).
The quandaries disrupting American society transcend borders. They are global and immensely complex. Globalization has brought together disparate national economies into an intricately integrated system. One where contrary, and sometimes conflicting, ideas, values, and practices frequently collide. And where a local crisis can quickly become a worldwide catastrophe. Nonetheless, several decades of incorporation and cooperation have tripled the size of the global economy and enabled more than a billion people to escape extreme poverty.
Though not without sacrifices. Growth has not been evenly balanced, favoring industrialized nations far more than developing countries. Wealth inequality has surged internally, as companies and investors have profited by moving well-paying jobs offshore. The environment has suffered, too, with disasters like hurricanes and wildfires increasing in both tally and intensity.
The merits of globalization have, of late, been hindered by the Covid-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, concerns about cybersecurity, and competition over AI technologies. Accordingly, governments and citizens alike are pulling back from the notion of an integrated world economy to more isolating positions. “Nearly all the economic forces that powered progress and prosperity over the last three decades are fading,” warns the World Bank in a recent analysis. “The result could be a lost decade in the making — not just for some countries or regions as has occurred in the past — but for the whole world.”
Moreover, the world order will likely be more precarious as it becomes multipolar. Economist and Harvard University professor Dani Rodrik contends “western policy preferences will prevail less, the quest for harmonization across economies that defined the era of hyperglobalization will be attenuated, and each country will have to be granted greater leeway in managing its economy, society, and political system.” Further complicating matters will be the presence of entirely new players from inside nations themselves.
The state of California is now the fifth largest economy in the world and accounts for 10% of all U.S. exports. Texas is the ninth largest economy, and New York ranks eleventh. Cities wield enormous economic power as well. McKinsey & Company estimates that just 600 urban centers generate about 60% of global gross national product (GDP). New York City’s GDP in 2022 exceeded all countries except the United States and China. Then there is the wealth of technology companies Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, and Amazon, each of which surpasses those of most nation-states.
Among individuals, within nations, and around the planet, both complexity and isolation are intensifying; and the latter is making it ever harder to deal with the former. Research conducted at the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience has determined that when people are lonely for an extended period of time, they tend to further isolate, only to make themselves lonelier, more anxious, insecure, and fearful. Political polarization has brought America to the precipice of a government shutdown. The last one cost $11 billion. But that pales in comparison to the loss of economic output from the fragmentation of global trade, which could reach as high as 12% in some countries.
The complex obstacles confronting the world are formidable and can only be breached through exhaustive perspectives, mutual perceptions, and collaborative efforts. But if individuals and institutions continue to isolate themselves, they may ultimately self-destruct. The choice, as Benjamin Franklin posed to the founding fathers at the start of America’s amazing journey, is clear: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”