Rory Sutherland

Complexity is too simple

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Pojoaque, near Santa Fe,

New Mexico

This is a magical part of the world — and it’s easy to see why D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Douglas Adams were tempted to hang around for a while. When James Delingpole finally gets his act together and leads 10,000 Spectator subscribers into the desert to form a libertarian commune, northern New Mexico should be the first place he tries. He’ll have the blessing of a former two-term governor here, triathlete and Everest mountaineer Gary Johnson, now the Libertarian party’s presidential candidate.

As Republican governor, Johnson spent part of his second term campaigning for the decriminalisation of marijuana: when asked of his past drug use, ‘Did you inhale?’, Johnson replied, ‘I barely exhaled.’

Truthful politicians? What other surprises are there? Well, just where you wouldn’t expect it, there is a spectacular 2,000-seat opera house north of Santa Fe. It’s Glyndebourne in the desert, with the auditorium open on three sides to the wide skies and evening breezes. A performance of The Pearl Fishers (our tickets cost $27) was made even better by an unpaid chorus of cicadas.

What else might you do in a desert town of 68,000 other than go to the opera? Well, perhaps a talk by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Murray Gell-Mann, accompanied by Lord Renfrew, Sir Christopher Llewellyn Smith, David C. Krakauer and computer scientist Melanie Mitchell.

Santa Fe is home to the Santa Fe Institute, an eccentric, private, non-profit academic entity dedicated to multidisciplinary research into complex adaptive systems, which was hosting this free talk. Almost everything claims to be ‘multidisciplinary’ nowadays, but when you consider that the panel included two physicists, a biologist, a computer scientist and an archaeologist, it’s clear the Institute takes its mission seriously.

Expect to hear more about ‘complexity’ in coming years. It is, in its way, a rather unfortunate name for a very important insight — that the tools and measures we have developed to explain some parts of the physical world are not up to the task of explaining more complex phenomena such as biological systems or human interaction. When Gell-Mann remarked that the universe is in fact very simple — and that any simple monocellular organism was ‘much more complicated than the sun’, you got some measure of the issue.

‘Complexity theory’ is important for two reasons. It has an important role in combating what Karl Popper called ‘treating clouds as if they are clocks’: applying simple linear rules to things that aren’t linear at all. The tendency to model financial markets as if they are simple mechanisms being one egregious example.

The other reason we need places like the Santa Fe Institute is simple. The search for single-discipline solutions may have hit a wall. As Professor Llewellyn Smith remarked, ‘Talk to engineers about energy problems and they come up with technical fixes, talk to economists and it’s all about bribing people.’

Single-factor problems aren’t the big problems any more. I was made aware of this when listening to a radio interview with someone developing small, self-flying air-taxis. ‘Oh, the technology is relatively easy… It’s the legislative and psychological problems that are tough. People will complain about noise.’

Though not here, I suspect. When the Manhattan Project test-detonated the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, creating a seven-mile-high mushroom cloud and a blast audible from Albuquerque to El Paso, they found it necessary the next day to issue a 50-word press release ‘in response to several enquiries we received’.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.