11/16/2013 07:25 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Crises of Complexity

The astronomer Carl Sagan was once asked why, if the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe was so large, we had never been contacted by another civilization. He offered two possible reasons. The first was that the distances were so large that crossing them had not been possible. The second was that doing so would require a civilization to be extremely sophisticated and complex - and that perhaps complex societies just don't last very long.

The latter explanation should give us pause as we examine recent events on our own planet. An instructive example is the implementation meltdown of the Affordable Care Act. Despite having four years to prepare the website for enrollments, it crashed repeatedly in its opening days. This is not the fault of technology alone. Implementing the legislation occupies about 10,000 pages of federal regulations, and the law is so complex that we are still learning about how its intricate provisions of requirements, incentives, and penalties are leading to unwelcome and unintended consequences. The Obama Administration may seem like the gang that couldn't shoot (or reboot) straight, but we should put our criticism in context. The "free-market" approach to health care that opponents pine for left over 40 million Americans without insurance and was heading to its own medical cost train wreck.

We should no more identify the problems of health care reform solely with President Obama than we should identify the financial meltdown of 2008 solely with then-President Bush. That calamity came from a set of global, interconnected financial instruments and systems that even those who created and used them admitted they had trouble understanding. When it all began to unravel, it was hard to know how to fix it, and we may not have fixed it yet.

Indeed, complex systems are fragile. The more complex, the more points of unanticipated failure there are. Consider our dependence on computer software, artificial intelligence and robots. Microchips are in almost everything. Software that goes down and power outages can now plunge us not just into the dark but the Dark Ages. They can disrupt our ability to get and cook our food, heat and cool our homes, shop, drive, bank, and more.

We are also advancing in a seemingly unstoppable warming of the planet, a result of our complex and fossil-fuel dependent energy sector and systems. The dangers to the atmosphere, the biosphere, and especially the people who live in coastal regions are daily more evident. At the same time, the political systems we have seem no match for the problem, unable within or across nations to reach and implement agreements to dramatically reduce pumping carbon dioxide into the air. Creating the problems of complexity seems much easier than collaborating on the solutions.

Why are we continually surprised by theses crises of complexity? Why do we struggle so to address them? Poor leadership contributes. We lack those with sufficient foresight and political skills to collaborate effectively across divergent and strident differences to find solutions. Poor management also contributes. We often can't seem to do things right, even when we figure out the right thing to do. We need to do a much better job of educating for leadership and management and of finding the right methods of getting capable people into positions of responsibility and the right incentives and approaches to help them succeed.

Yet putting more skilled people in charge will not by itself change the outcome, despite what we'll hear in the next three years as we head down the electoral highway. "Been there, done that" - as they say - and the problems remain. They go beyond the capabilities of individuals or the promises of parties.

Perhaps we should also consider that, individually and collectively, we are held back not just by defects in competence but by deficits in character. Perhaps by demanding what we want the way we want it, we are forcing a level of complexity in our systems that will in the end frustrate our basic needs. Obamacare, for example, could have been assembled much more simply. Many of those 10,000 pages were needed to respond to the varying, insistent demands of constituencies who withheld support until they got what they wanted. Perhaps, as well, hubris has brought us to assume we are smarter and more in control than we can be. Perhaps we are Icarus, nearing the sun only to find that our wings are melting.

This is not an attack on bold thinking and action, both of which we need. We have plenty of people - politicians and others - who are certain they know how to solve our problems. They are anxious to offer solutions, and they deserve a hearing. But we - and they - should be wary. When confidence turns to conceit, track records turn to tragedy.

In the end, the solution is not complexity or simplicity but a balancing of both. The solution is not competence or character but the right mixture of both. Without that balance, Carl Sagan's speculation about intelligent life on other planets will seem eerily close to one that might someday be made about our own.