America’s Complexity Conundrum

 

America ComplicatedBy Anuj Kapoor

Complexity in society has increased manifold in the past few decades, not in a linear fashion nor in an organic manner, but rather along an exponential path. This increase in complexity manifests itself in every aspect of our lives, not least in the many jaw-dropping creations that come out of the Silicon Valley such as encryption and hacking; in simple financial transactions with things like crypto currencies and digital transactions and in every aspect of system driven social and economic practice. The ability to understand and manage this complexity leads us into an area that requires a lot more attention to detail than has perhaps ever been the case. Take something as prevalent and omnipresent as Facebook or Google. How much of your information, your online behaviour or even your privacy is under your own control is a complicated and confusing issue. Forget the ethics and principles of it. Just understanding how meta data is used to profile and program the population, how much one’s specific information, clicks, searches, friend lists etc. may be tracked and used to target you for specific campaigns, ads, news and views, is something that not everyone finds palatable much less desirable.  And this is before we even get to things like Artificial Intelligence and other tantalizing new fruits of technology.

Hillary and trumpThe reality is that complexity is now a fact of life. Getting Trump into the White House will not change that. The fact that people find change threatening isn’t new, but the speed of this change whether it be on issues pertaining to global warming, or migration is hard for many to come to terms with. Obama and Hilary who have embraced these changes and seem to be preparing Americans for a new and continuously evolving world come across as part and parcel of this complexity. Not so ‘the Donald’. He keeps it painfully simple. He wishes away the changes and harks to the past calling for making America Great ‘again’.  I find the binary left or right, capitalism versus socialism based view of the world increasingly insufficient. Such simple binaries, no matter how attractive, are just not in keeping with the changing world. We all need to get used to that and learn to live with a degree of complexity. Whether rapid change becomes a continuous phenomenon or settles down after a period of rupture, it will inevitably become commonplace and the human mind will adapt or evolve to imbibe it and use it. Just not yet, it seems.

Simple brick walls on boundaries just won’t suffice. They may seem like the complete no nonsense solution to people, but they are the equivalent of applying Band-Aid to a cancer patient. Maybe there is some placebo effect, but really, you need to get into the cellular structure and bio chemical treatment to fight that level of problem. Getting someone who understands the need for grappling with the complicated issues and of taking on intellectually rigorous pursuits is a critically important first step to attacking today’s ills fast. Needless to say Mr. Trump’s bombast carries neither the sledgehammer nor the scalpel to these issues. If there were a  meaningful leader from the right that brought the sledge hammer, one could at least argue about the two approaches.  Mr. Trump is simply creating confusion, preying on the base fears and bugbears of ordinary people. Take the ban on Muslims from entering the US for example. Trump has constantly changed his position on that most visceral of issues. First he changed his argument to allowing exceptions to the ban for people like London’s Muslim mayor and rich Arabs and so on and now he has gone from that to saying that Muslims from some troubled countries will be temporarily banned.  He started with stoking the worst fears of people and seemingly suggesting a strong ‘clean’ solution to their problems even though it was full of holes and flaws never mind the lack of ethics from the start. His new position is not close to what drew some of his supporters to him in the beginning.

Firewalls, hacking, fibre optics, cryptography etc. aren’t things people feel comfortable with. Increased information flow means people are more aware of the existence of the complex inner structure of their computers and their digital lives, they just don’t understand how it all works and it makes them nervous. Donald Trump’s solutions and diagnosis of these issues is a convenient simplification and at times denial which is just not sufficient.

The other aspect is that perhaps no future election will be free from the kind of scandals this 2016 election has been plagued with. All the information, candidates’ work and lives in digital format will end up spilling out or being dug out. Maybe Artificial Intelligence will develop enough to add further dimensions to analysing candidates, their personalities and agendas. The simple fact is there is no running away from these developments and this last ditch effort to pour cold water in the form of Donald Trump onto the system just won’t work. It’s the equivalent of smashing your computer in frustration when you don’t understand computing. All that happens is you end up with a broken machine, while the data, systems, and all these complex issues remain on the network or on remote servers across the world. Adapting to this complexity, the way Obama has attempted to do, by pivoting away in the direction of the future rather than trying to turn the clock back, is surely the right approach to pursue.  Little surprise therefore that most people who deal with complexity and are good at leveraging it, as in  the Silicon Valley, are almost all supporting Hilary and the democratic ticket with a few rare exceptions.

The haze of innuendo surrounding Hilary after her longstanding record as a public servant and the ‘Teflon quality’ as some have called it, to Trump’s base despite his many follies reflects this divergent approach to the networked world. One where you get into the detailed nuances and learn how to deal with complicated systems and look a bit messy and the other where you attack the medium and try to negate and ignore it. The latter just cannot work.

There is another big complication in this election, which has been exacerbated by the communication deficit from the Obama administration during the last 4 years. Unlike in the cold war, where there was an obvious outside enemy to rally the people against, in this election, the complexity of a more globalised society and a narrative that requires a leader to not rally against any part of the world, but towards a networked future, makes it harder to appeal to the right leaning centrists and near impossible to reach out to the far right.  When robust and long standing principles like nationalism themselves are reaching a degree of complexity due to network effects, transient capital & labour markets and migration, a lot of the old terms need redefinition and I believe we are just seeing the beginning of that process with this election. This election is a precursor to a new generation of politics where a completely different lexicon will emerge in the political discourse. I hope Americans will not set the clock back by a decade by voting their insecurities into power, as they take their time to adjust to the new reality. I hope they take the positive step towards the future by electing as it happens, America’s much belated first Lady President on November 8th.

Anuj KapoorAnuj is the Founding Director of Himalayan People (www.himalayanpeople.com) a start up based in the Himalayan region. He holds an MSc. from the LSE and has worked in banking in London prior to becoming an entrepreneur.Email:  anuj@5benches.com

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