The limits of complexity & change

From: Amara D. Angelica (
Date: Sun Apr 20 2003 - 02:25:39 MDT

In "The limits of complexity & change," May-June 2003 The Futurist
(, Theodore
Modis presents a logistic model of complexity that asserts that "the
rate of change may soon slow down." He sets the peak of complexity
growth (inflection point) at 1990, which is when, he believes,
"complexity grew at the highest rate ever," after which complexity's
rate of change (but not cumulative growth) began decreasing. He bases
this on:

1. An analysis of 28 important canonical milestones that represent peak
complexity increases over the past 15 billion years and the ensuing
stasis, where importance = change in complexity x duration of ensuing

2. An overall historic "logistic" or S-curve model of complexity based
on punctuated equilibrium. This model is assumes Darwinian competition,
i.e., limited resources, so the rate of growth vs. time follows a bell
curve and the assumption that we are currently (circa 2000) just past
the inflection point (peak of the bell curve). He bases this on an a
priori philosophical principle of complexity ("the evolution of
complexity in the universe has been following a logistic growth pattern
from the very beginning"), rather than on a specific analysis of current
resource limitations and their possible effects. "The next world-shaking
milestone should be expected around 2038," he says, based on the above

This is of course contrary to Ray Kurzweil's "Law of Accelerating
Returns" model of exponential growth
(, which argues that "the resources underlying
the exponential growth of an evolutionary process are relatively
unbounded" and that several forces the impel this growth, such as
positive feedback loops, the increasing "order" of the information
embedded, etc.

3. A reductio ad absurdum argument that the current exponential pattern
is "so steep that around the year 2025 we would be witnessing the
equivalent of all of the twentieth-century milestones in less than a
week, and the rate of appearance of milestones would continue to
increase. Sometime later, humans will become incapable of perceiving
changes that take place in fractions of a second. Does it still make
sense to talk in terms of change when no one preceives it?" The notion
that human perception (the classic "tree in the forest" argument from
Bishop Berkeley's idealism) is a prerequisite to reality is questionable
and Modis offers no support for this argument.

These arguments raise several interesting questions:

1. Is his forecasted exponential growth rate accurate, based on an
extropolation of current growth rates? (This is independent of the
question of resource limitations.)

2. Are a priori principles of complexity and rate of growth based on
historical growth data across various domains (cosmological, geological,
biological, sociological, and technological) meaningful?

3. Exactly what are the future resource limitations we face that would
cause a stasis in technological growth until 2038, given the promises of
nanotechnology, quantum computing, AI, etc., and other radical possible
developments that could lead to accelerated exponential growth? This is
not explicitly addressed, so the pessimisitic 2038 figure for the next
complexity jump seems unsupported. It seems to be based on an a priori
philosophical principle of complexity ("the evolution of complexity in
the universe has been following a logistic growth pattern from the very
beginning"), rather than on an analysis of specific resource limitations
in the future and their possible effects.

Note: a more technical version of this article is available:
"Forecasting the Growth of Complexity and Change"

I would be very much interested in comments by SL4 list members.

Amara D. Angelica

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