As the Industrial Age appears to be coming to a close we are left scrambling for new terms to define the world we live in in the 21st century and there are no shortage of candidates from the Space Age to the Information Age to Globalization or probably the most often used term Post-Industrial society. As significant as all of these different ways of contextualizing the deep and rapid pace of change that is underway at the turn of the 21st century, they are also somewhat limiting in scope. They all capture some major trend underway but none of these are truly able to capture the breadth and depth of change, as the end of the Industrial Age means the end of the basic theory, principals and methods of the modern era (that have driven us for centuries) being called into question and faulting.
The modern scientific framework that forms/formed the backbone to our industrial civilization was born out of a revolution that had its cultural roots in the Renaissance and found its philosophical foundations in the genius of Rene Descartes, but it was really just a dream until the whole thing came together as a coherent framework with Sir Isaac Newton, this radical and bold vision of how we might see the world in terms of purely material cause and effect governed by mathematical laws of nature now had the full conceptual and technical tools needed, and for the past few centuries we have been fleshing out this framework with ever more sophistication and detail while also developing a set of industrial technologies and social institutions build upon this knowledge, giving rise to what we call the industrial age.
On a conceptual level, the 20th century was one long downhill for the dream that was born with the modern era, through the World Wars and then the rise of environmental awareness among other things, people have come to question the idea of continuous progress driven by advances in science and technology, today people are more inclined to see this vision that once inspired us as more of a nightmare as expressed in countless dystopian Hollywood films. The dream of the Renaissance artists, Descartes and Newton has been played out and it has created the world we live in, but these ideas and the ideal of continuous progress are essentially dead they can’t help us move forward and solve the challenges we have today.
The world of the 21st century is not the world of Newton and Descartes, with the rise of information technology and globalization it is vastly more interconnected and interdependent, in a word it is complex, and it is becoming ever more apparent that the framework that drove the modern era was not designed to deal with this complexity. But to understand this let’s talk a bit about what exactly complexity is.