Exponential Growth and Systems Thinking
Humanity + Technology at Scale
Social Arc is a publication about humanity and technology at scale. The arc relates to the exponential curve created when plotting a graph of the effects of human activity over time.
This curve could describe various quantities:
- Growth of population
- Growth of cities
- Adoption of technology
- Number of automobiles
Social Arc is also a publication about social architecture, and by that phrase, I mean the way that we design our world to accommodate human activity. We build tools, systems, infrastructure, architecture, institutions, laws and governments to help us more efficiently do our work and enjoy our lives.
As the web has matured, so has the way we think about the work of building websites. We used to communicate primarily about the technologies, concerned with how to build things. Then we used to communicate about what we were building, and the content strategies that could organize the process. Then we began to think about why were building things, about the business models and systems that could be transformed by our work.
While at first we might have been concerned about the design deliverables and artifacts, now we have come to realize that we are designing experiences, and we must now take into account that there are real people who use our tools to solve real world problems, and these actions have real world consequences.
If our technologies have reached such a scale that they are affecting the global political order, deciding elections and creating addictive behaviours that are transforming the neural pathways of our brains, we can no longer excuse ourselves with the quip, “Well, we are not performing brain surgery!”
The influence of design has surpassed our awareness of the power we can collectively wield over ourselves and our environment. It is time for designers to develop some self-awareness about our impact on the world and how, collectively, we can change things for worse or for better.
Systems thinking helps us to better understand our current context and the complexity of the human experience. We are also part of an ecosystem and environment that are at times chaotic and violent, and at other times balanced and harmonious.
Humans have agency to build better habits, but we also have the ability to build better environments. We build relationships, we build communities, and we build cities. The project is far more complex than the field of architecture can encompass. The built environment is an extension of who we aspire to be as a group of human beings living and working in the spaces that we share in common. When we build, we project our aspirations into the future. What we build then shapes us into who we will become.
A Ship Metaphor
The exponential effects of human activity have reached a critical mass that threatens our own existence. Global climate change is one of those effects. The other is the mass extinction of species of plant and wild life.
The task of redesigning our cities, lifestyles and habits is under way, but the challenge of changing the direction of this large ship of human endeavour is compounded by the inertia of our current trajectory.
A small rudder can turn a large ship, but a rudder can be controlled only by those who have access to the helm of the ship. If those who control the wheel have barred entrance to the bridge of the ship, the passengers are at the mercy of the crew.
An alternative might be to abandon the ship for more agile and maneuverable craft. Rather than a mutiny, this may be the necessary decision in the face of a collision course with an iceberg. If we have already collided, the reasonable course of action would be to escape the damaged vessel. If no one has yet conceived of the lifeboat, people may need to quickly fashion something before the vessel sinks, taking everyone with it.
This is not meant to be alarmist. This is meant to create an awareness of our current reality and the urgency with which we must respond. Our fate is only life threatening if we insist on remaining on a critically damaged vessel.
Alarms have been sounded in the past regarding fears of overpopulation, and they have been unfounded.
We can temper our pessimism by acknowledging that human beings are resilient and ingenious in their response to problems. Therein lies the problem. If people insist on maintaining their own ignorance and lack of awareness concerning the problem, they only seal their fate as physics and biology conspire to relieve them of their existence. Gravity will sink the ship and the water will deplete the oxygen required to maintain their respiration processes and brain function. This is just basic physics and biology.
Lately, it seems that many people have been concerned about the communication problem. At issue is the truth of the situation. People are fighting over who gets to hold the megaphone.
There are some of us who are more interested in the design problem. We are aware of the problem, but we have yet to conceive of the appropriate solution, one that is desirable, feasible and viable for the problem at hand. We must assess the time, energy and resources that we have available and fashion the means of solving the problem. Perhaps the solution is behavioural. Perhaps the solution is technical. Regardless, most of the time, energy and resources required to solve the problem are being directed toward the wrong problem.
Perhaps the problem does not have a solution. We must resign ourselves to our fate. Death, in fact, does appear to be one of those problems.
However, while we do have life, it does seem to make the most sense to make the most of the time, energy and resources that we do have. And we have a lot for which we should be grateful.
During what little time we might have left, I would rather build something that preserves our humanity. I don’t know about you, but that’s what I intend to do.