I remember being a kid. Things probably weren’t as simple as some adults seem to remember—society, even as a child, is complex. You soon learned the important lessons: who the bullies were and how to avoid them. Cars are dangerous, particularly if they’re moving. God is always watching you. Then you start school and you begin to learn things you simply didn’t understand before. You study math and although addition and subtraction seem pretty easy, division and multiplication require some concentration. By the time you get to high school the math has become so complex that hours of homework are required to figure it out. I don’t know about you, but nobody explained to me what jobs you needed this for. I just hoped it wouldn’t be mine.
I’ve managed to get through so far with only the obligatory mathematical complexity of trying to explain certain problems to my daughter when she was in a similar situation. Fortunately she understood how things worked better than I ever did. The complexities, however, also come in other species. I learned that being an adult meant constantly negotiating complexities. That’s tricky for a guy like me because I tend to understand things by tracing them to their origins. (There’s a reason history appeals to me.) Social complexities often don’t allow such tracing—you need to figure out relationships and their implications and how you fit into the picture. The same is true of jobs. I’m sure many of you’ve had a job where the requirements change as circumstances alter. You may have been hired to do one thing, but now you do another.
Then big life events come in with all their own complexity. The other day I was wondering if there’s such a thing as peak complexity. If there is, what happens when we reach it? Do things in life simply become so intricate that society (I’m thinking here simply in human terms) implodes? Or do we start to make things simpler again? Is there any going back? I used to tell my students that my own grandmother was born before heavier-than-air flight. By the time she died we’d been to the moon more than once. Yes, rural life had its complexities, but since the industrial revolution the pace has been—what’s more than breakneck? I know computer engineers and they tell me code is so complex that it’s actually a job to sort it out. Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t mean you can put one together. If we ever do reach peak complexity I have a suspicion that we won’t be able to tell, until in retrospect. Childhood’s beginning.