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The Arcane in Two Aeon Articles

I’m done for the week. Now that my winter break surplus is expended, I think I’ll try to reduce my output back to two posts per week. That’ll also give me more time to edit, which is a skill I really ought to be honing a bit (I’m a bit of a gunslinger with the writing-publishing cycle).

Current possible near-future topics: scenius, flat organizations, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, and more game studies (although I’m going to pull away from the anthropological angle for a bit).

Below are two articles I read last week, both from Aeon Magazine.



In “It’s Complicated“, Samuel Arbesman talks about unmanageable technological complexity. The moves that the article make are familiar. It coincides with some subjects I’ve been fond of in this blog.


We already see hints of the endpoint toward which we seem to be hurtling: a world where nearly self-contained technological ecosystems operate outside of human knowledge and understanding. As a scientific paper in Nature in September 2013 put it, there is a complete ‘machine ecology beyond human response time’ in the financial world, where stocks are traded in an eyeblink, and mini-crashes and spikes can occur on the order of a second or less.

But ever since the Enlightenment, we have moved steadily toward the ‘Entanglement’, a term coined by the American computer scientist Danny Hillis. The Entanglement is the trend towards more interconnected and less comprehensible technological surroundings. Hillis argues that our machines, while subject to rational rules, are now too complicated to understand. Whether it’s the entirety of the internet or other large pieces of our infrastructure, understanding the whole — keeping it in your head — is no longer even close to possible.

Even our legal systems have grown irreconcilably messy. The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety. Michael Mandel and Diana Carew, of the Progressive Policy Institute in WashingtonDC, have referred to this growth of legal systems as ‘regulatory accumulation’, wherein we keep adding more and more rules and regulations. Each law individually might make sense, but taken together they can be debilitating, and even interact in surprising and unexpected ways.

Also notable (Greer/Wolfram/Lewis/Procedural Rhetoric thread):

Playing with a simulation of the system we’re interested in — testing its limits and fiddling with its parameters, rather than understanding it completely — can be a powerful path to insight, and is a skill that needs cultivation.

I was kind of curious by the response in the article and on social media, though. Especially negative comments. Some kind of nerve was touched?

People seemed to read arguments in the article that I couldn’t see.

  • In engineering, for millenia no single mind understood whole artificial systems: This is true but beside the point. I think this critique confuses complexity with complication.
  • The natural world is more complex: Yes, probably. I’m not sure how one actually measures complexity (is there a ceiling? Wolfram thinks so), but nature certainly does have an innumerable amount of component parts, coupled in countless, surprising ways. Nature also has the advantage of 1) not being designed by us, and thus we ought to be more ignorant of it than our own artifacts and 2) of being a superset of ourselves and our artifacts and other things, some maybe vastly more complex and some vastly less. In short, I don’t know why the natural world’s complexity is notable in this context.
  • This is a luddite argument: No it ain’t.
  • Yes it is. The article is expressing a fear of complexity and wants us to step back: Really?
  • The Experts know what’s going on: Do they?
  • This topic is inane and didn’t need to be written: Why is that?
  • Just wait until we fix our brains to be able to handle this complexity: Don’t hold your breath, friend.



Phillip Ball, in another Aeon article, “Machine Envy“. Although I find it interesting, I don’t totally follow it on some level. I think that popular science by design has never grappled with science as a method so much as a body of facts/stories to be believed in. The reason I think it is ‘by design’ is because science as a monolithic authority is more memetically powerful. Big instrument worship is an affliction of popular science and a mere background fact of life in science. No one is immune to big instrument worship or lazy thinking about tools (or anything else), but I’m inclined to think that there are other social forces at work in the scientific world that provide effective-enough bulwarks against that.

Whatever else it might accomplish, the typical modern lab set-up is a masterpiece of impromptu engineering — you’d need degrees in electronics and mechanics just to put it all together, never mind making sense of the graphs and numbers it produces. And like the best engineering, these set-ups tend to be kept out of sight. Headlines announcing ‘Scientists have found…’ rarely bother to tell you how the discoveries were made.

Would you care? The tools of science are so specialised that we accept them as a kind of occult machinery for producing knowledge. We figure that they must know how it all works. Likewise, histories of science focus on ideas rather than methods — for the most part, readers just want to know what the discoveries were. Even so, most historians these days recognise that the relationship between scientists and their instruments is an essential part of the story. It isn’t simply that the science is dependent on the devices; the devices actually determine what is known. You explore the things that you have the means to explore, planning your questions accordingly.

When a new instrument comes along, new vistas open up. The telescope and microscope, for example, stimulated discovery by superpowering human perception. Such developments prompt scientists to look at their own machines with fresh eyes.

I also like the argument about the necessity of devices. The real power of observing tools is that they allow us to analogize an unknown other with a more familiar representation that we can grapple with. In an older post, I mentioned this while describing Bret Victor’s apparent project. By converting sounds into visual waveforms, we enable new possibilities for manipulating sound. The amorphous is made a little more concrete by analogy to experiences/sensations we recognize. By creating new notations/representations, we can afford new abductive jumps. Our complicated Big Instruments are very important- they just aren’t idols to worship or raw conduits of complete theory.

The challenge for the scientist, particularly in the era of Big Science, is to keep the instrument in its place. The best scientific kit comes from thinking about how to solve a problem. But once it becomes a part of the standard repertoire and acquires a lumbering momentum of its own, it might start to constrain thinking more than it assists it. As the historians of science Albert van Helden and Thomas Hankins said in 1994: ‘Because instruments determine what can be done, they also determine to some extent what can be thought.’


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