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Saturday, April 11, 2015

The simplicity of binaries

Complex human societies have developed over the past 10,000 years. The developments have been gradual but accelerating, especially over the past 500 years. The ability of humans to work together in complex organizations depends upon the existence of complex rules, some legal, but mostly non-legal. These rules evolved and continue to evolve. They are far from perfect. Any framework of rules must get buy in from those who follow them. Rules create boundaries for behavior and those who follow them by definition agree to give up some degrees of freedom of action. The assumption is that whatever is given up must be less than the perceived gains. Otherwise, the rules will not be followed.

The other aspect of rules is their complexity or simplicity. Complex rules require more effort to enforce and apply. Rules tend to become more complex over time as recognition of failure rates of simpler rules becomes evident.The assumption behind this trend is that additional complexity will result in correcting less than optimal outcomes and the tradeoffs involved will not out as a positive. That is not always the case.

The ideal rule depends upon clear distinctions between when actions are required and when they are not. The rule is either activated or it is not. This principle is not limited to scenarios where questions of legal or not legal come into play. Rules are used to govern all sorts of decisions. Where things get complicated is when what has long been appreciated to be governed by rules with unambiguous thresholds are found to be not so clear.

Perhaps my perceptions are not correct, but it appears to me  that we are moving to a more complex set of rules over time. I understand that my perceptions are biased and that my reconstructions of the past are likely biased toward a simplicity which never really was there. However, there are some many examples where the choices of the past appear to be some much simpler than they currently are.

When I was a child, we had trash. If something was viewed as something to be disposed, we threw it in a trash can. The big challenge we faced was to change behaviors such that people did not drop trash where they stood or tosh it out of their moving vehicles. We did not have a proliferation choices of where to put materials we wanted to dispose of. We just threw stuff in trash cans and we proud of the fact we did not litter.

Now I am thoroughly confused when I am faced with the proliferation of receptacles. I suffer from disposables anxiety. Am I throwing this in the wrong bin? Do they just get combined and end up in a land fill anyway? Is this some sort of huge scam?

The proliferation of choices is not limited to trash. Perhaps one of the most fundamental changes which has transpired (and continues to transpire) is the proliferation of choices associated with sex, marriage, civil unions, and partnering. It used to be that you had men and women, and some of those men and women chose to pair up with each other to form families and have children. Some men and women did not pair up and those did not have families. There were some odd circumstances where some men took on multiple wives but this was frowned on and was done only on the fringes of society or in countries where the assumption was they would outgrow this sort of behavior.

This simple binary state is gone. There are men who marry men and women who marry women. There are men who end not not wanting to be men and similarly women who decide they do not want to be women, and health care interventions which intervene to create some other state approximating the other sex. These individuals can go on to pair up with other individuals whose sexual orientation or state which can fall somewhere into some continuum, no longer representing the male or female binary  (Nature- Sex spectrum).

There are many other examples of where we moved form simple states with few choices to states with multiple choices. Europe had one church for a millenium until the Reformation. The Cold War was about us and them (Soviets). We saw the world in stark terms of good and evil. Now we have a world fragmented into various parties with interlocking and conflicting interests, lead by people who qualify as neither as saints or complete sinners. We confuse legal constraints with the only boundaries defining good and evil.  

We can long for some earlier state of the world  which was simpler but the reality is it was never so simple. The variations were not appreciated until relatively recently. Perhaps we did not have the  time or resources to make much of these distinctions. People in general were too busy simply trying to stay alive. Our predecessors defaulted to simpler constructs, not because they were evil but because they did not have the resources or reserves to accommodate a more nuanced view of the world.

It ultimately goes back to the curse(s) of sedentism. With the passage of time, we have tended to be better at harnessing resources which has created more opportunities to create social and legal complexities which previously could not exist. These complexities allow for the needs and wants of people to differentiate but this differentiation requires more resources and energy and drive us to work harder. They make our lives better but in many senses create a world that is more fragile and structures that are harder to maintain. No single change appears daunting by itself but layered on one another the complexities grow geometrically. Can we understand where additional complexities in social and  legal structures go beyond the point(s) of diminishing returns?

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