Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Appreciating Complexity (Cultural Trends Part 4)

Originally posted on January 8, 2011

Another trend is toward a growing appreciation of complexity in the social as well as natural sciences, and indeed in the general mainstream world-view. (For many of these trends, the growing awareness of a given trend may only involve a small fraction of the general population in the next few years—but I think this number is growing.) In the olden days when I was growing up—in the mid-20th century—the idea of complexity seemed to attach mainly to certain machines. Gradually this quality emerged in every science as the research uncovered more, and then more of this inter-related connectedness: Social intelligence, for example, involves a rich feedback system of non-verbal communications, and non-lexical types, too—that involves verbal communications, but mixed with pauses, voice tone, shifts in tone (inflexion), pace, etc. These elements are often subtle, even subliminal. (The emergence of “systems” thinking is part of this, also—a more feedback-filled, dynamic view that replaces the mechanistic view of how things work.)

In mathematics we have seen the birth of fractals and chaos theory. In biology and psychology, there’s been a growing awareness of individual differences between organisms. This trend supports a variety of new ways of thinking. We used to treat people as fungible, replaceable. Give each young person the same curriculum to study, and use the same methods of teaching. We’ve found that this doesn’t work, while what’s more effective involves a more flexible approach that identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each person and adapts to this awareness. Few schools have caught up with this awareness, alas.

A related trend is away from compartmentalization and towards holism. (The term, “holism,” was coined by the South African philosopher and statesman Jan Christian Smuts in 1926, I think.) The pursuit of inter-disciplinary studies parallels what I wrote a few days ago about interspirituality.

Along with the speeding-up of changes in our world in most if not all spheres, there’s also the complexity of the number of peoples, the number of endeavors, the number of activities, games, businesses, ideas, and information. If it seems overwhelming, that’s because it is. In the olden days it seemed that a person could aspire to become truly well-read and well-rounded, but that ideal has evaporated in light of the accelerating cultural effulgence. An attitude of striving to make things better must become increasingly balanced with an attitude of surrender, and this is probably a good thing.

About cultural trends: Other paradigm shifts are happening, also. I don’t doubt that the aforementioned discussions of cultural trends only acknowledges some of the different kinds. Moreover, what I’ve written is only in a sense topic headings, the briefest introductions to various trends, each of which could easily fill a book or more. I’m not in denial of the innumerable challenges we face in many domains, ranging from ecology to the sad mixture of social, political, economic, political, and other factors at the root of many international and local conflicts today. But for me, contemplating the cultural trends that I’ve been able to discern also offers hope.

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