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Cerfing complexity

This article appears in the issue June 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 6]


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Vint Cerf is generally called the father of the Internet. He was in the group that connected the first two nodes of ARPANET and was one of the designers of the TCP/IP protocol. And that was just the beginning. So, the appellation is well deserved. We are lucky to have had a person of such caliber at the founding, for like Tim Berners-Lee and many others who have given us so much, Cerf’s public impulses have consistently been selfless and generous.

Esquire magazine recently ran an interview with him that they busted up into a series of unrelated quotations. Even within that format, the Wisdom of Cerf shows through. I was particularly struck by one little insight:

"The closer you look at something, the more complex it seems to be."

Because of Esquire’s disaggregation of the interview, we have to guess at Cerf’s tone of voice. My guess is that he said this with a sense of wonder and delight, not out of frustration. Of course, I may be reading Cerf’s mind inaccurately. But the plausibility of that reading is itself significant: It seems reasonable that one of our great minds delights in the bottomless complexity of the world.

This is not such a weird idea these days. But it does fly in the face of one Western culture’s founding thoughts. Ever since the Greeks, we’ve assumed that knowing something means seeing beneath its complex, ever-shifting surface to the shimmering simplicity underneath it. For the Greeks—and for us, for thousands of years since—we’ve assumed the world’s complexity is an appearance to be penetrated. The world’s truth (we’ve assumed) is simple, orderly and beautiful. And most of all (we’ve assumed), it’s knowable. If beneath the ever-changing river, famously analogized by Heraclitus in the fourth century BCE, there weren’t a simple principle, then there wouldn’t be anything to know. We’ve assumed.

With the development of Complexity Theory, we are able to find a different type of simplicity beneath the apparent chaos, for we now know that hugely complex events can be generated by extremely simple interactions, but I doubt Cerf was thinking about the path of smoke, the architectural wonder of termite nests or the other standard examples of Complexity Theory. I think Cerf was pointing us to the endless layers of detail and intricacy of our world, a source of joy and even transcendence.

Especially since this thought may be on the mind of the Father of the Internet, we should ask about the role our new technology has played in our change of attitude.

Computers, and then networked computers, and then ubiquitous networked computers, provide the mental "scaffolding" for us to deal with complexity, to use Andy Clark’s term from his book Being There. Clark’s point is that thinking is done out in the world in a very real sense, using external aids that extend our ability to remember and think. Our paltry brains just aren’t big enough. So, when parchment was expensive and few people knew how to write, our capacity for knowledge was highly constrained. That capacity went up significantly with the printing press, and has gone up exponentially with the Internet. Any one of us plus Google knows orders of magnitude more than the smartest of us did 50 years ago. We’re not necessarily smarter, much less wiser, but we certainly know more. The presence of computers has enabled us to embrace the complexity of the world, rather than to flee from it as the enemy of knowing.

Second, our previous externalizations of knowledge have generally introduced boundaries. Books keep ideas apart simply because they put ideas between covers. Libraries keep books apart simply because the real world forces binary decisions: This book can be near those others, but necessarily will be at increasing distances from the rest of them. Aristotle enshrined this in a law of thought that bows deep to the limitations of material nature: To be a thing is not to not be that thing. Simplicity for the Greeks was baked into the very nature of existence. But the Web’s architecture is based on links. No links, no Web. Links connect, not divide. The Web is healing the rifts the real world forced into our ideas.

Third, the Internet connects not just ideas, but people. We are thus able simultaneously to distribute the task of knowing our world, and loosely integrate what we know. That integration happens formally through links but informally—and wildly messily—through the sociality of the Web. Not only do we have experts of every stripe examining, well, every stripe, but those experts are in passionate conversation with one another, across time, difference and culture. It’s not enough, of course. We tend to talk too much with those who are like us and not enough with those who are different, and this itself masks some of the deepest complexities. But it is better than anyone could have imagined. And it will never be enough. The world is too complex for that.

Out of this complex swirl of complexity, a corollary to Cerf’s observation is obvious. Not only is the world endlessly complex, it is also endlessly interesting. Indeed, that is one of the lessons taught by the technology Cerf was instrumental in giving us: Everything is interesting if looked at in sufficient detail.

That in itself is a bottomless gift. 


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