A world full of turtles

You might stare at the title and think I have lost my marbles, but if you have ever heard the phrase “turtles all the way down”, you know what I am talking about. We live in a world where everything is sitting on layers and layers of abstraction, to the point where a single push of a button can deliver the result of a gazillion different processes in less than the time it takes for you to even think about one of those processes. Can’t relate? Think about the last time you ordered dinner. Now think about everything (and everyone) that was involved in preparing said dinner and making sure it reached your table. How about the table itself, that you so conveniently keep your cutlery on? Or the plate on top of it which actually holds the food?

All it took was thinking about one supply chain to short-circuit my brain. How do we even begin to comprehend the complexity involved in our daily lives? In actions so mundane that we often don’t even think, and just rely on muscle memory to perform, like brushing our teeth or drinking a glass of water?

Life is soup, you are a fork Link to heading

The modern world is far too complex for our puny three-dimensional heads to wrap around. If you look at the history of human evolution, we originally started off as small tight-knit communities, each with their own culture, rules, and practices. At some point, we began uniting more and more of these communities through ideologies that went beyond the communal differences — religion and nationalism are the most striking examples. As this unification progressed, the scale of interactions grew to a point where a single individual could no longer keep track of a process from the beginning to the end. It just involved too many people, transactions, agreements, and rules, and required having an insane amount of raw knowledge of basically everything for it to start making sense.

It is at this juncture that we decided to stratify — the old adage of divide and conquer came into play, and different groups and hierarchies were established to ensure that the individual cogs spin smoothly in the grand supply chain machine. This effectively promotes selective ignorance in the interest of the greater good. The end result is a cohesive cluster of groups that each do one thing really well, and can co-ordinate amongst themselves to achieve things far beyond the abilities of a single individual. But while this may be economically optimal, you pay a price by losing breadth.

During the Renaissance, there have been a handful of people who were experts in more than one field. Leonardo da Vinci was a painter, scientist, engineer, anatomist, sculptor, musician, architect, and more. The same goes for Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei. This was possible because the volume of knowledge available at the time was small enough for a highly motivated individual to assimilate across a single lifetime, and then apply that knowledge in the real world to gain practical proficiency. Today, searching for a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-topic of something will bury you in such a humongous avalanche of information that even if you live long enough to go through all of it, you would forget what you started with before you make it halfway through.

Denial is a river in Egypt Link to heading

So how do we deal with this? The simplest solution is denial. We choose to deny the complexity of the world around us, and use our intuition, combined with loose guidelines (so-called “rules of thumb”) to try and analytically justify the way we operate in this reduced framework, while simultaneously ignoring the overarching side effects of our actions across the contexts outside this decision region. We attempt to stay in our comfort zone, minimising the unknowns, and fall prey to cognitive effects like confirmation bias in order to convince ourselves that risk-averse decisions are superior to the ones that do not guarantee a desirable outcome.

The other way of dealing with this is compartmentalisation. When a decision needs to be made, we can isolate the individual domains of impact, analyse each of them independently, and then consider looking at cross-domain influences if necessary. Apart from the obvious benefit of being more informed, it also allows us to choose to reject a resulting effect of the decision, rather than being oblivious to its existence.

There is no such thing as freedom of choice unless there is freedom to refuse.
– David Hume

Look hard, look deep Link to heading

For the most part, we tend to fixate on getting tasks done and dusted, and fail to recognise or appreciate the smaller pieces of the puzzle. While this is largely circumstantial (one may not always have the luxury of taking time out to digress from their work and go on a journey of discovery), I urge you to make an attempt to go beyond the mundane. Curiosity doesn’t kill cats; it just kills your ignorance. Look harder at the world around you, and go out of your way to question everything. You will be mind-blown by the sheer beauty of the journey taken by things we take for granted. And everyone loves that person who spouts random fun facts once in a while ;)