When we talk about complexity, what does it mean? I’ll peek at an everyday phenomenon to illustrate why things are far more complex and complicated than they used to be.
The term complexity is used a lot to describe social life, institutions, and the state of the world, but what does it really look like? I’ve used the term many times and often with examples that risk alienating readers because of their size and scope. (Sorry for that).
I will use the example of working from home / remote work to illustrate what complexity can look like and how what goes on in our neighbourhoods is a product of what’s happened before and what is evolving before us. First, let’s go back in time.
The (Good?) Old Days of Work and Home
In most North American, Australian and European cities post-World War period, the model of work and home was straightforward: there was a place you resided in (home) and where you earned a living (work). Sometimes, shopkeepers might have an apartment above their shop, but for the most part, work and non-work life were separate.
This had as much to do with what we did for work as how we did it. Manufacturing, while waning, was still a prevalent source of employment. Office work required paper products, specialized tools (e.g., typewriters, early computers), and communication means (e.g., landline phones, meeting rooms, and conference facilities) that could not be easily replicated outside a specific space. Everyone commuted to work whether by foot, car, or transit and once the hours of work were performed, people went home.
At home, we had tools and technologies like refrigerators, stoves, and furnaces that were large, simple, inefficient, and stable. Once you purchased one of these tools, you were likely to use it for decades. Replacing such tools frequently was uncommon, impractical, and largely unnecessary. They did break occasionally, but not enough that it was a concern. The most advanced technology you used might have been your home telephone or a television. Aside from the TV, your phone was built to last as long as you needed it.
All these tools could be repaired by someone locally or by you, the owner.
Whatever waste you generated was put in a metal bin and removed by garbage collectors weekly. Maybe you composted some waste for your garden that you had in your backyard or on your balcony; otherwise, it all went into the bin.
Did you need something for home? You went to a store. If the local store doesn’t have it, you might be able to mail order it from a catalogue and expect delivery to a local post office in four to eight weeks.
The Current Work Context: Introducing Complexity
The photo above was taken outside a townhome complex with about 30 units. The two vans were among 8 separate service vehicles surrounding the complex. Sandwiched in between are bins for garbage, recycling and composting.
On any given day, this townhome complex receives dozens of delivery vehicles, service vehicles, and maintenance crews — and it’s not a particularly unusual or complicated complex. This is only one effect of the complexity of the modern day.
Post-pandemic, many people work from home — full or part-time. Compared to the mid-20th century, far fewer work in manufacturing, much more work in services, a vast majority work with computers, and most people consume services and products from home. They do this through the Internet on one of dozens (maybe hundreds) of devices connected to it. Even your refrigerator, thermostat, lighting system, or HVAC unit might be monitored and controlled using the Internet now.
The Internet and those devices are critical to getting work done. For many people, so is access to delivery of sensitive documents, products, and services to maintain a home-based office or business. Telephone services are rarely on a landline but delivered via the same cables/wires that connect to a Wi-Fi modem in the home. The number of circuits, computer chips, and connections required to power all this is enormous and sometimes interconnected. If the Internet goes down, you lose your ability to communicate, work, and much of your leisure entertainment.
The Price and Power of Stuff
This requires a LOT of stuff. That all costs money. We all have to buy more stuff to ensure we have the tools and technologies to power our jobs, education, home life and access to friends and family — who, unlike in the 20th century, more likely live far away from us instead of nearby because the technology allows them to. We want to buy more advanced things to allow people to afford them, and because these same tools are used to market desires to us, tapping into humans’ neurological, perceptual, and social tendencies.
This means we need to spend more money on more things, requiring we spend less wherever we can. That means that your fridge, furnace, and TV might be far more efficient and advanced than before, but it might only last one-third as long. It means more stuff, waste, energy used to acquire it, and more time to maintain and manage it all. All that stuff needs to be sorted and managed separately. Thankfully, we’re no longer dumping toxic products into our garbage to the same degree, although as we remove e-waste from landfills we increase the amount of waste by buying more things that constitute e-waste more often.
This puts more pressure on our jobs, income, and education. Rather than buy and forget, we need to buy and re-buy because things go obsolete quickly, break, and require updates so they can connect and integrate with more things. Think of what it means when your toothbrush can show you how it’s brushing anymore. Instead of one adult having one paid job in a household, we might have two or more adults having multiple jobs. We then probably need help doing other jobs like childcare, cleaning, exercise, and home maintenance because we don’t have time. That adds to why we need more income, more work, and why we have less time.
Because our leisure time is so compressed, we need tools and devices to fill our time- meaning more reliance on just-in-time entertainment (e.g., streaming) and less on regular meetings with other humans. Besides, scheduling things with others is far too complicated when they have the same level of jobs, tasks, time pressures, and financial worries as we do. Chances are, the people we want to spend time with live far from us, requiring more advanced planning to connect.
Of course, we could schedule a Zoom call or FaceTime between tasks. Yeah, that might work. How’s three weeks from now, 7:45PM my time — what’s that in your timezone?