[Book] Overcomplicated (or when systems go feral)

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
by Samuel Arbesman
Current (Penguin Randomhouse), July 2016
256 pages


Why did the New York Stock Exchange suspend trading without warning on July 8, 2015? Why did certain Toyota vehicles accelerate uncontrollably against the will of their drivers? Why does the programming inside our airplanes occasionally surprise its creators?

After a thorough analysis by the top experts, the answers still elude us.

You don’t understand the software running your car or your iPhone. But here’s a secret: neither do the geniuses at Apple or the Ph.D.’s at Toyota—not perfectly, anyway. No one, not lawyers, doctors, accountants, or policy makers, fully grasps the rules governing your tax return, your retirement account, or your hospital’s medical machinery. The same technological advances that have simplified our lives have made the systems governing our lives incomprehensible, unpredictable, and overcomplicated.

In Overcomplicated, complexity scientist Samuel Arbesman offers a fresh, insightful field guide to living with complex technologies that defy human comprehension. As technology grows more complex, Arbesman argues, its behavior mimics the vagaries of the natural world more than it conforms to a mathematical model. If we are to survive and thrive in this new age, we must abandon our need for governing principles and rules and accept the chaos. By embracing and observing the freak accidents and flukes that disrupt our lives, we can gain valuable clues about how our algorithms really work. What’s more, we will become better thinkers, scientists, and innovators as a result.

Lucid and energizing, this book is a vital new analysis of the world heralded as “modern” for anyone who wants to live wisely.


Samuel Arbesman is Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a science and technology venture capital firm. He is also a Senior Fellow of the Silicon Flatirons Center of Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship at the University of Colorado and a Research Fellow at the Long Now Foundation. His writing on science, mathematics, and technology has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired. Arbesman’s first book, The Half-life of Facts, examines how knowledge changes over time. He lives in Kansas City with his wife and children.

Review (New Scientist)
By Regina Peldszus

“The fact that Arbesman uses the term “overcomplicated” in reference to such systems should invite us to listen carefully. He is not someone who didn’t read the manual. A trained computational biologist, Arbesman uses quantitative models to explore the chaos around us. And because the “entanglement” he diagnoses today is more akin to an evolving ecology than a carefully configured and managed machine, Arbesman encourages us to adopt the attitudes and methods of field biologists.

These people delight in anomaly and embrace diversity. They derive intrinsic satisfaction from the observation, description and collection of “bundles of facts”, even if a full picture or generalised model is not immediately evident. By invoking the repertoire of the field biologist, Arbesman argues, we are in a better position to confront our systems.

This practice – observing and making sense of the sometimes contradictory interplay between actors and processes – smacks strongly of another field-based approach: ethnography. And it’s no coincidence that ethnographic field research has become an essential tool in understanding our relationship with technology, and a key player in applied domains as distinct as healthcare design and bespoke defences. Ethnographers have explored and explained institutions ranging from weapons laboratories to particle accelerators, utility regulators and Mars mission control rooms.

Overcomplicated is not an advertisement for ethnography. It does not explicitly address human agency at all. Even systems with evident political dimensions, such as tax law or the Challenger shuttle loss, are understood as technological rather than sociotechnical. This is an uncanny omission: do humans not inadvertently contribute to, passively allow, or even actively promote overcomplication?

Not any more: Arbesman suspects that our tech truly has outgrown us.”