Complexity and Truth – Nothing will feel the same until we come to terms with complexity


I believe the global consciousness is going through a psychotic break due to the fact that we are being awoken at mass scale to the truths and complexity of the world for the first time in history.  Those that come to terms with complexity and nuance will come out the other side stronger and better. Those that do not… will not.

Empire of the Sun

I watched Steven Speilberg’s Empire of the Sun for the first time the other day.  It’s always been a movie I wanted to watch but for some reason I never got around to it.  What a great movie.  Interestingly it helped me to tighten an idea i’d been considering about how I felt the global consciousness was experiencing a traumatic break and, somewhat similar to an individual’s psychology, to get through the other side we had to transform psychologically as individuals and as a society and evolve to accept complexity and nuance like never before.  

Let me see if I can explain.

It tells the story of a young Jamie Graham’s (Christian Bale’s debut) psychological transformation from sheltered spoilt brat with a silver spoon in his mouth to resourceful young boy, wise and strong beyond his years.  Set in Shanghai in world war 2 just as the Japanese are gaining the upper hand in China and continuing through until Hiroshima and the end of the war – The story covers Jamie’s physical journey from the rich foreign suburbs across the country side, through various internments camps and challenges until ending by mistaking the distant hiroshima bomb for the light of his adopted mothers soul ascending to heaven. 

It’s a heavy film, but in it I saw a metaphor for what I believe we are experiencing across the 1st world at this time, including a potential indication of how to get ourselves out of this confusion.  Let me try to explain.

Psychological Bubble Pops

At the beginning, Speilberg is clear to paint the picture of Jamie’s privilege and to juxtapose this bubble with the raw realities of life that surround Jamie outside the protective walls of his house.  This is at first particularly highlighted by Jamie’s fascination with a homeless man who resides outside his gates and who haunts Jamie’s attention upon entering and exiting his property.  Jamie seems to be aware that his life is a bubble and is curious about this but at the same time this does not temper his obnoxious treatment of the indigenous chinese staff that look after him.

Speilberg then goes on to show how the illusion created by this privileged bubble is by no means unique to just Jamie through several scenes powerfully showing the high society types of Shanghai arriving to a fancy dress party in cars floating through the chaos of the town. Again leveraging the power of juxtaposition to demonstrate how very clueless the high society was to the reality of what was soon to become an occupied Shanghai.

The beginning of the movie tells this story repeatedly to better set up to the point where the movie really starts when the shit hits the fan and Jamie is separated from his parents.  There is the expected emotional cues of mother and son separated but then what takes place is interesting.  Jamie, and more importantly, the behaviours dictated by the bubble that framed his psychology, was repeatedly rejected by the new reality of the chaos.  The way he saw the world no longer worked.  He, and the way he sought to interact with the world no longer produced the desired results.  This was probably best indicated by a scene where after returning to his ransacked home he crosses paths with one of the chinese staff,  who upon being further castigated by Jamie, approaches him and slaps him in the face – clearly signalling to WAKE UP.

But this only further serves to drown him in chaos.  And as a result in a fit of mania Jamie resorts to trying to surrender to the Japanese.  This is almost an indication that he’d rather be consumed by the oppressive order of Japanese internment than face the chaos of the wider world that no longer made sense to him.  He’d rather be imprisoned than face the chaos and be free. 

After much fleeing, and generally running away from everything he is eventually integrated into the company of an american hustler and “survivor” (Basie, played by the mercurial John Malcovich) who, viewing Jamie as a potential asset,  tries to make several unsuccessful attempts to sell him.  

Awakening & Adaptation

It is at this point, as Jamie is about to be abandoned by Basie that we are given the first clue to the direction of this story and the eventual physiological transformation that Jamie goes through as he adapts to the situation and sells Basie on his knowledge of “rich pickings” in the suburbs where he came from – buying himself some more time under Basie’s protection.  

This marks the beginning of a new adventure.  The core of the movie is about Jamie continuing to adapt to various situations and as he does he becomes increasingly successful at surviving, and almost thriving.  He becomes so well adapted to the new situations he faces that the movie flirts with the idea that perhaps he even likes it.  

What he likes is that he’s found a way to thrive in almost all situations.  He’s abandoned the old bubble ideas and behaviours he used to carry and now can go in and out of all other people’s bubbles profiting from his flexibility and clear understanding of the TRUTH of his new reality.  He is clearly shown fluidly passing through and interacting with different groups throughout the movie.  This is most clearly demonstrated in the internment camp where his hustle has him exchanging assets between the British, Americans, Japanese, young, old, dieng, thriving, the School, the dorms, and the hospital.  With ease he passes between all these groups and gains in confidence and respect throughout the community – which of course, comes handy when chaos again reigns.

He proves to be more successful than almost all others, able to accomplish things that others are not.  He sees things for what they truly are, he has rejected ideological possession, and as a result can interact with all parties involved, all people, and can accurately see the truth in all situations.  

This enlightenment is highlighted and in fact is completed in one of the emotional peaks of the movie, when Jamie’s Japanese friend is shot by Basie and his crew because they mistake the Japanese man’s intent due to their preconceptions defined by their ideologies.  The limits of their ideological possession are finally made clear and obvious to Jamie and at this point he rejects Basie, previously a proxy father figure, and finally you feel that he has become his own man – he has fully transformed.

It’s a really great movie.  

But what the hell has this got to do with the strange times we live in now?  Bear with me…

Global Ideological Possession.

I don’t think that it’s hard to argue that everyone lives within bubbles and that we all use stories and abstractions (read ideologies) to understand the world and to drive our behaviour.  Some have small bubbles and fear change and flexibility, others have augmented their bubbles over time and are much more comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  These bubbles, and the stories we tell ourselves are critical in helping us to interact in the world. We do not see the world as objective truth, we see and operate within the world based on the assumptions, beliefs and stories we have in our heads about the world.  This is almost certainly the case.

I believe it can also be argued that these stories have served us well as programming that over the evolution of humankind has simplified the infinite complexity of the world and has permitted us to see what we need to do to serve us best. As we grew into larger more complex societies new stories evolved to help us to cope appropriately.  Such ideas as cities, states, nations, money, markets, religion, socialism, communism, democracy, capitalism, republican, democrat, liberal,  are all fictions created as pillars to hold up the stories that we have been telling ourselves about how the word works, and how we operate and thrive in that world.

The great awakening

These pillars combine with the stories we live by and hundreds of other ideas to create the bubble that drives our behaviour, our perspective and ultimately how we manifest in the world.  When our bubbles come in contact with other bubbles there is an instantaneous evaluation for points in common and difference and we either assume new learnings or reject differences.  

Over the last few hundred years, more so than in most of history there have been fewer stories of difference that captured the reality of the world.  There were 1st world and 3rd world countries, there were capitalism or communist societies, there were left or right groups, there were black or white, male or female.  The world has been abstracted to these false dichotomies which served to contain the poles of society largely as a result of mass ignorance, nationalism and controlled propaganda.  

Over the last 100 years however, more so over the last 50, accelerating over the last 20 and exploding over the last 10 years, this is no longer the case.  We know more about the world than ever before.  We know more about the people of the world than ever before, we have news beaming globally 24/7 365.  We have content on demand.  We have publishing on demand.  The flow of ideas has exploded.  Never have we existed in an ecosystem this flooded by so many ideas and so much information.  

Ignorance is impossible except willingly.

And now in 2020 I believe we experienced a global bubble bursting – we have been globally slapped in the face and warned to wake up.  If 12 months ago you told me that globally half the world would be confined under house arrest for several months, that the US government would increase their debt to over 7trillion, where protests were calling to “#Defund the Police” and “#Shut Down STEM” and that at the same time the stock market would hit new record highs I would have told you to calm your overactive armageddon imagination.  

Our already significantly dented bubbles have finally popped and the truth of the world, although staring us in the face, just does not seem clear.  We are confused.  We are in panic. The economy does not seem real anymore.  Truth is flexible.  Politicians all seem pointless.  The news is propaganda.  Everyone is extreme.  Media is broken.  Science is broken.  The earth is flat.  And all of that in 140 characters or less.

We are in fancy dress floating in chauffeur driven cars through crowds of chaos and we’re shocked and discombobulated. 

The stories we have grown up with no longer seem to accurately describe the world around us. We do not know what is real anymore. 

Learning to live with complexity.

Like Jamie we are panicking, and flailing around trying to interact with the chaos like we used to before.  We’re trying to fit what we see and hear into an understood bubble.  To contain the chaos in some kind of idea, perhaps even to change our bubble as long as we can get protection from the chaos and shield ourselves from the complexity of reality.

The problem is that the complexity isn’t going away.  The genie is out of the bottle.  Things are only going to get more complex.  There will only be more ideas, not less.  Science will only become more mind exploding.  Politics will only get more complicated. 

We are seeing the world for what it is for the first time.  The whole world.  All its people. all the intelligent, studious, amazing, beautiful people, and all the fucking idiots too.  We’re seeing all the corruption.  We’re seeing all the inadequacies.  We are seeing deep into all the cracks.  And we’re struggling to handle this new complexity.

Like Jamie we want to run up to the Japanese and surrender – we are seeking comfort in our old ideologies rather than seeing reality. But in fact what we need to do is face the chaos, face the uncertainty, see the world for what it truly is – a highly complex super nuanced ecosystem of highly complex super nuanced systems – and adapt.  We need to accept the complexity of the situation, wake the fuck up, and move forward courageously and preferably with grace and composure.  

We need to accept that EVERYTHING is much more complicated than we initially may have thought.  That EVERYTHING has several layers of nuance that until understood preclude a sophisticated understanding.  We need to revisit our sacred cows and the assumptions that underpin our lives and discard what is no longer useful.  

We need to be more humble in such complexity and accept the fact that in most cases both sides of any perspective may be true or may contain some truth.  We need to be comfortable talking about things being literally true versus metaphorically true and appreciating that both have their place. 

We’ve got to stop driving towards black and white.  The world is now an infinite shade of gray. We need to stop trying to drive towards thinking we’re right and accept a more humble position and listen to where other people are coming from.  

We need to grow up and realise that it’s up to us as individuals, no one else, to face the music and make a better world.  There is no global conspiracy.  No one knows what the hell is going on.  We need to stop being victims and do whatever we need to to survive.  It’ll probably get much worse before it gets better.

Light in the tunnel?

The scientific method provides a tool to help us to interpret the chaos and create order of the world.  But as science takes us into areas that seemingly blur the lines between a materialistic view of the universe and something more spiritual and nebulus we need to keep our minds open to new ways of thinking and new ways of thinking about old ways of thinking.  

At the same time that science is seeking to explain the world through quantum mechanics it is increasingly crossing over to questions and ideas about consciousness that have previously been the purview of religion and mysticism.  While the science of complex systems and emergence is starting to sound similar to old aboriginal ideas about how to thrive in an infinitely connected and complex ecosystem of ecosystems. 

Our work into AI systems has turned into a spiritual search for the self – crossing over the disciplines of science and religion.  Vice versa, our understanding of religion through the eyes of evolutionary psychology is providing us with a new understanding of the old religious wisdom and mysticism.  

Fractal complexity takes our simple memetic ideas and twists, turns and emerges them into sophisticated interconnected movements. Fixing science, is fixing politics, is fixing healthcare, is fixing economics, is fixing technology, is fixing geopolitics, etc…

Silos no longer exist.  Everything is converging – into what, at this stage, looks like one giant mess but will no doubt become more clear as the dust settles.  And this is the key.  The dust will settle as soon as we wake up to the new reality.

We’re undergoing massive change, and like Jamie, the only way through is to accept the new reality for what it truly is and to adapt.  We need to go through the complete psychological transformation.  We need to not judge the new reality, nor necessarily try to fit it into old boxes.  We need to truly try to remain objective and see it for what it is.  We need to be open to changing our minds yet analytical to dismiss the crap.  Those that achieve this will learn to develop strategies that will be generationally successful in the new world.  Those that do not…  will be consumed by the chaos.

The good news is you get to choose your poison:  be imprisoned by your preconceived ideas or face the chaos and struggle towards freedom.

But that’s just the way I see it.  

For now. 28/09/2009