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Science Theory Stagnation (6.1-6.2)

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6 The devil of complexity

People are the product of complexity, but nature likes simple and linear things. The theories admired by the world, such as Euclidean geometry, Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism, and general relativity, have simple and clear mathematical forms. This ethos even affects other fields, such as economics. Many economic theories obviously have the style of the Newtonian system, and a few basic “axes” can deduce a huge system. This reductionist thinking is deeply ingrained in the field of science and has achieved great results in the past 200 years. But unfortunately, using ideal models, these theories are very suitable for simple systems. If the system is slightly more complicated, such as the three-body problem in celestial mechanics (the motion of three celestial bodies with similar masses), the situation will become completely different and very small. The mathematical solutions will vary greatly. Human beings have gradually realized that the concept of “real world simplicity” in textbooks is just an ideal, and complexity is common in almost all fields. The research of chaos theory even shows that even very simple mathematical equations, such as


Extremely complex chaotic phenomena will occur under the disturbance of the parameter space.

The cover of the first English version of “Three Body”

Frontier studies in recent decades have shown that reductionism has encountered difficulties in many fields. For example, in the field of biology, the interactions between huge amounts of macromolecules can no longer follow the old path of reductionism. In the fields of turbulence, plasma, climate, etc., complex phenomena have hindered relevant basic theoretical research.

The evolutionary tree and the technology tree were mentioned earlier. The evolution of organisms roughly follows the law of “natural selection by nature, survival of the fittest”. Then, what law does the evolution of the technology tree follow? Looking at modern history, in today’s R&D teaming, eliminating some accidental phenomena, “capital return expectations” is a key.

In the early development of technology, human inventions were mainly based on intuition and curiosity. Many technological products seemed to have a “simple and beautiful” style, such as wheels, balances, pendulums and bows and arrows. But even for these modern-looking inventions, not all civilizations have crossed this threshold. A typical example is the Mayan civilization, where the wheel has not been invented for thousands of years.

In the evolution of civilization, simple technologies are combined to form a slightly more complex technology, which greatly improves the efficiency of human work. Typical examples are horse-drawn carriages and sailboats. In this process, various technologies are interrelated and affect each other. The complexity of some products has surprised modern people, such as the channel water supply system in the heyday of the Roman Empire. At this stage, due to inheritance and resource endowments, the technological achievements of various civilizations began to differentiate. The technological achievements of many civilizations could not be replicated by other civilizations even after hundreds of years. For example, in papermaking, the West cannot understand its technical principles even after contacting the finished product. The reason is simple. The steps involved in early papermaking are very complicated, including water immersion, shredding, washing, cooking, rinsing, pounding, adding water to form a suspended slurry, picking up pulp, and drying a series of processes. Chinese civilization is due to Cai Lun’s Random disturbance successfully crosses the threshold, other civilizations have no such luck.

After entering the industrial age, under the guidance of theory, mankind tried to simplify the model of a single component and construct more complex technologies on this basis, such as steam engines and internal combustion engines, to promote the development of civilization. For more than 200 years, complex technological systems have continued to emerge. There are physical objects of machinery and equipment that cannot be separated from daily life, as well as information systems and rules that allow global civilization to cohere. Technology goes further and further along the road of complexity. Many of today’s technical products, such as the Boeing 747 jet, contain millions of parts, and documents related to operation and maintenance instructions can fill a room. Another example is the Windows operating system, with tens of millions of lines of code. A single individual can no longer understand the complexity. It is necessary to use division of labor and cooperation to design and manufacture such technical products.

After the complexity has developed to the present stage, the theories involved in technological progress are too complex, the complexity of technical implementation may be beyond the scope of human capabilities, or the cost to be spent is too high, the expected return time is too long, and humans are temporarily unable to move forward.

In an era where everyone is one’s own and capital is king, technology creates a high-complexity step that can kill oneself.

6.1 What is the complexity?

Many programmers and netizens see the word complexity, and subconsciously think of time complexity and space complexity, and expressions such as O(N) or O(NlogN) emerge in their minds. But the meaning of complexity is definitely not limited to the computer field. In fact, complexity is a concept that is difficult to accurately define. Scholars have put forward various definitions. There are 42 definitions mentioned in the book What Science and Technology Want:

In information theory, complexity can be understood as the effort required by the receiver to process the amount of information.

In fractal theory, complexity represents the “fuzziness” of the system.

In grammar, complexity is the degree of universality of the language required to describe a system.

A large number of definitions complicates the concept of complexity. Even for the technical field, there are a large number of definitions. For example, the EXPY index is proposed in international trade to measure the technical complexity of export products. But in terms of technological evolution, the technical complexity proposed in this article (emphasis, not scientific complexity) can be understood as follows: the amount of human resources at all levels and the degree of cooperation of technical departments required to verify and design a product.

The technological complexity of early human society was very low, and most of the creation of technological products came from a simple imitation and use of nature. For example, the wooden javelin. Primitive humans initially associate the broken branches with their sharpness, but the broken interface of the branches has a certain randomness. In order to survive, mankind began to think that the non-sharp interface could be transformed into sharp. With the most primitive stone axe, the wooden javelin was born. The manufacture of this primitive javelin does not require much mental and physical strength, only the most basic tools, and a single individual can complete it in a relatively short time.

Technology has a characteristic, similar to biological evolution, it has self-development after birth. For various purposes, humans began to improve the original low-complexity products. Still taking the wooden javelin as an example, in order to further improve the sharpness and lethality, various measures have been invented by mankind. For example, add a tail wing to improve stability; carbonize the header part; use metal materials to improve lethality. The improved process means that the complexity is greatly increased. Individuals can no longer be produced in a short period of time, and more manpower and material resources are required from the outside world.

The inter-connection and inter-embedding of technologies have increased the complexity, but greatly improved the capabilities of mankind. Therefore, mankind has the motivation to continuously improve. Especially after the Industrial Revolution, capital became active, which allowed the technological complexity of mankind to expand exponentially. On the one hand, in terms of breadth, many seemingly ordinary technical products, such as bicycles, may involve as many as dozens of industrial sectors behind them, such as exploration, mining, smelting, casting, machinery and chemicals. Now no one can make a bicycle that is comparable to the assembly line from scratch. As for a giant like the Saturn V rocket, it may need the support of the entire earth’s industrial chain. In depth, the principle of a single technical product is no longer supported by the experience of craftsmen. Many technical products require more scientists and theoretical calculations than first-line producers, such as jet aircraft and aircraft carriers. The principle design of many technical products has approached the limit of classical theory, such as the latest CPU of INTEL.

On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V launch vehicle carried Apollo 11 at the Kennedy Space Center

Increasingly escalating technological complexity has finally created a strange phenomenon: capital promotes the upgrading of technological complexity, but in the end it hates today’s high technological complexity.

Technology and its complexity are just like humans and their own muscles. The contraction of muscles provides power and pushes humans forward. In general, the more muscles, the faster a person runs, but as the muscles increase, the muscles themselves have to spend more energy to propel themselves forward, and the running speed will begin to decrease. If there is no new way to optimize muscles, a situation will eventually arise: a super fat man can no longer take a step forward.

6.2 Two rules behind the complicated world: Fittest and Return Expection

I believe that many people have questions when they are young, why are there so many strange creatures in the world? From the hundreds of tons of blue whales in the depths of the ocean to the poisonous scorpions in the jungle; from the eagles soaring in the sky to the parasitic roundworms in the human body, how did such colorful creatures come about? On the other hand, humans have long observed that the survivability of creatures is amazing. For example, in the salt lake of Death V-alley in the United States, the water there can be blind and wounded, but it breeds. The bug. In the hot and barren desert, countless little creatures survived by the dew at dusk. The instinct and power of these creatures to survive is amazing.

The world before the Industrial Revolution attributed the miracles of the biological world to the design of God. Since the 18th century, rationalism began to be respected by intellectuals, and many people began to try to answer this question outside of God. Darwin’s theory of evolution is the most successful of them.

When Darwin explored the globe, he found that many seemingly different species had the same ancestors. Later, he came into contact with Malthus' concepts of reproduction and competition. Therefore, the theory of “natural selection by nature and survival of the fittest” began to sprout. In the book “The Origin of Species”, Darwin formally proposed the theory of evolution.


Biology is in eternal competition, and when each species reproduces the next generation, genetic mutations will occur. If this mutation is conducive to a better life for this organism, or has a competitive advantage, then this favorable mutation will be screened by the environment and retained in the way of “survival of the fittest”. Therefore, organisms from the same ancestor, in different environments, different genetic mutations are preserved, and over time, the offspring seem to become two different organisms.

The dynamic mechanism of the colorful biological evolutionary tree lies in simple random mutation and the four words “survival of the fittest”.

The evolutionary mechanism behind the huge technology tree constructed in the modern world is also very simple-the expected return on capital.

The evolution of technology is different from the evolution of biology. For example, the influence of human free consciousness has many similarities. On the one hand, neither of them can be separated from the foundation of the previous generation, that is, completely new biology and technology can not exist; on the other hand, both are governed by basic physical laws. It is amazing that both can produce a new generation through “mating”.

In the early stage of technology research and development, in addition to the return of benefits, personal wisdom and curiosity are also an important mechanism. But beginning in the late 19th century, the situation has changed. As the complexity and scale of technology increase, the proportion of individual talents begins to decline, and there are fewer and fewer examples of a person like Einstein who can create a new field. On the contrary, professionalization, collectivization and engineering began to spread. From Edison’s establishment of laboratories to later Bell Laboratories, various laboratories have sprung up. This transition reached its peak during World War II. Atomic bombs, missiles and computers were invented after large-scale government investment.

Technological research and development after the Second World War mainly relied on the power of the collective (company or the country). In other words, technological research and development depended on the face of capital.

In the process of technological evolution after World War II, different types of technologies are interrelated and embedded, forming a variety of new technologies. But whether the new technology can be promoted does not depend on whether the new technology is cool, but whether the capital is expected to profit from it. For example, ATM (abbreviation for Asynchronous Transfer Mode) is a data transmission technology based on traditional circuit switching. It was very popular in the early 1990s and was welcomed by major telecommunications companies in the early days. However, ATM technology eventually lost to IP technology. The reason is very simple. Although IP technology has many shortcomings, it can run on the existing network at low cost. The deployment cost of ATM technology is too high and the operation is very complicated. It takes astronomical funds to operate. Capital finally made a choice, and IP technology won.

In a world dominated by capital, any technological innovation must meet the requirements of capital returns. When studying the competition between companies, Christensen put forward the far-reaching concepts of disruptive innovation and sustaining innovation. In terms of technology itself, innovation can be divided into three categories:

Performance improvement innovation, efficiency improvement innovation and market creation innovation.

Performance-enhancing innovation is reflected in the replacement of old products by new products. Under normal circumstances, the new jobs created by such innovations are very limited because new products are substitutes. Once consumers buy new products, they will not buy old products. For example, after purchasing a Toyota Prius, you will not Will buy another Camry. In “An Innovator’s Answer”, Christensen refers to this kind of innovation as sustaining innovation. All successful traditional companies will try to replicate such innovations and therefore allocate a lot of resources to them.

Efficiency-enhancing innovation is to help companies manufacture mature products or services at lower costs so that they can be sold to original customers at lower prices. Efficiency-enhancing innovation has two important functions. One is to improve production efficiency, which is essential to maintain a competitive advantage, but it will bring a painful side effect: cutting jobs. The second is to release capital to make its operation more efficient. Toyota’s production system reduced the company’s original two-year inventory cycle to two months, helping the company release a lot of money.

Market-creating innovation is to attract new consumer groups and create new markets through revolutionary improvements to complex or expensive products. The development of computers is representative of this type of innovation. Initially, mainframes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and were only used by a small group of professionals. Personal computers dropped the price to $2,000, expanding the consumer base to several million people. Smart phones now cost just $200, expanding the consumer base to billions of people worldwide.

Capital usually likes the first two types of innovations because capital is averse to risk, while the first two types of innovations are based on existing improvements and are less risky. In contrast, market creation innovation does not have such investment attractiveness. Because the payback period for such innovations takes 5 to 10 years, and efficiency-enhancing innovations can be effective in only 1 to 2 years. To make matters worse, the former requires a large amount of capital to form a scale, while the latter reduces the size of the company’s capital.

The problem facing technological innovation is that in an era of increasing technological complexity, the attractiveness of market-creative innovation is declining. In the low-complexity world of the past, individual capital can still focus on the long-term in order to subvert competitors. However, in this age, the exploration of many technological routes may require a lot of time and huge capital. The risks are extremely high and the expected return is not clear. Capital is naturally insensitive. Perhaps this is the destined “capitalist dilemma”.

Finally, biological evolution and technological evolution have exceptions that violate the basic rules.


1 Civilization and technology
1.1 Rough talk about paradigm
1.2 The paradigm shift experienced by human civilization
1.3 Science Theory stagnation
1.4 The gap between science and technology
2 The paradigm spring dream advocated by scientific and technological interest groups: the so-called technological explosion
2.1 Rendering and brainwashing
2.2 Papers and patents: the absurdity behind astronomical numbers
2.3-2.4 The bit world and the real world / Part and whole
3 The shadow outside the paradigm spring dream
3.1 The technological dilemma faced by humans
3.2 Numerous technical gimmicks
3.2.5 New gimmicks in recent years
3.3 Frustration of PhD laborers and biotechnology

4 The dilemma of low-entropy body and the technical steps faced
4.1 From the second law of thermodynamics
4.2 The backbone and forks of the technology tree
4.3 Forever 50 years and controlled nuclear fusion
4.4 The future is not always better

5 The Pit Before 5 Steps: The Fate of Human Society
5.1 The Sociological Significance of Dissipative Structure Theory
5.2 The disappearance of the big competitive environment
5.3 Differences erased by globalization and the thermodynamic balance of human society
5.4 Aging self-locking
5.5 How to fill the hole?

6 The essence of 6 steps: complexity devil
6.1 What is complexity
6.2 Two rules behind the complicated world: survival of the fittest and expectation of return on capital
6.3 Technological progress and technological revolution: changes in complexity
6.3.1 Evolution example of transportation / power system
6.3.2 The characteristics and complexity of the technological revolution
6.3.3 The high-complexity science devil facing
6.3.4 Dilemma originating from technical foundation
6.4 Many evil consequences brought by high complexity ( more is different)
6.4.1 I know you have a life and death race
6.4.2 Maintenance costs
6.4.3 Negative feedback from society
6.5 Simple mathematical derivation

7 Silent Star implied by the prospect of terror
7.1 The Great Silence and Fermi Paradox
7.2 Three scenarios for contemplating extreme fear
7.3 The Great Sieve of the Universe
7.4 A small match

8 reflection and summary
8.1 The tragedy of Easter Island
8.2 Calmness does not mean pessimism
8.3 R&D requires a paradigm revolution

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