How Complexity Threatens the Social Contract

Civilization faces many challenges, with concerns about climate change, nuclear war, risks associated with the rise of artificial intelligence, and a long list of other problems. Despite the hard work of many groups and institutions around the world, no clear, acceptable way of fully resolving these problems has yet been offered.

I have proposed that these problems, collectively, comprise a “complexity trap” facing modern civilization. That is: governments have trouble addressing these problems because of a mismatch between the cognitive capacity of the human mind and the complexity of the challenges of the modern world. New problems get added faster than society can solve the problems already on its “to-do list.”

In this essay, I show how this long list of unsolved problems threatens to undermine the social contract — an implicit agreement with reciprocal responsibilities. When all goes well, the government will protect citizens, SOLVING large-scale problems that citizens cannot address on their own. Effective governance — in turn — will encourage everyone in a democracy to obey the law, pay their taxes, vote in elections, and serve in the military when needed. As explained below, 1) the system breaks down when complexity overwhelms the “problem-solving capacity of the government,” and 2) this complexity crisis is dangerous enough that I offer some practical steps to begin addressing the problem. 


Acknowledging the Crisis of Complexity 

The severity of the complexity crisis can be illustrated by taking the U.S. as an example and considering a list of some key challenges now facing the country. The underlying crisis is apparent even when skimming through the list below, but you may find it helpful to pause occasionally, thinking about all the steps involved in trying to find a meaningful solution to a given problem. Each phrase in this list acts as a “pointer,” directing attention to a set of problems so complex that whole books have been written about each of these topics. And even these books — as with those about climate change — are just a starting point on the path to developing some meaningful solution. In each case, the real, unsolved cognitive challenge lies ahead, as society tries to develop plans that are clear, acceptable, actionable, and powerful enough to solve the problems. 

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Some of the key challenges now facing the United States:

Environmental Problems

  • climate change
  • air & water pollution
  • waste management
  • loss of biodiversity
  • loss of ecosystem services

Social Problems

  • immigration (human migration)
  • racial discrimination
  • criminal justice reform
  • LGBTQ rights
  • education
  • reproductive rights

Economic Problems

  • government and personal debt
  • income disparities
  • infrastructure investment
  • inflation
  • healthcare costs
  • effects of aging population
  • unemployment

Geopolitical Problems

  • balance of power in a multipolar world
  • tension & conflict in
    • the Middle East
    • Central and Eastern Europe
    • the South China Sea region
  • challenge of protecting trade routes
  • weakness of the United Nations

Political Problems

  • political polarization
  • voter access and election integrity
  • campaign finance
  • gerrymandering

Military Problems

  • new threats from hypersonic weapons
  • role of AI and cybersecurity
  • nuclear proliferation
  • militarization of space
  • readiness across full range of possible missions
  • terrorist and extremist groups

Problems Posed by Advancing Technology

  • displacement of factory workers by automation
  • privacy in an online world
  • cybersecurity threats
  • misinformation and disinformation
  • hatred spread via social media
  • mental health issues due to social media
  • disruptive effects of cryptocurrencies and fintech
  • risks associated with the rise of AI

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These notes are not intended to give any systematic taxonomy or ontology of all the problems of governance amidst the challenges of the modern world. More problems could be listed under each heading, and there also are many “cross-terms” — connecting one problem with another — that are not listed here.  

And, since I’ve already discussed this in my article on the complexity trap, I won’t say much here about the way in which this list of challenges continues to grow. But it’s important to understand: Governments face every political and social challenge of an earlier age AND must also decide how to respond to all the effects of globalization, instant communication, ongoing damage to Earth’s biosphere, and rapid technological advances like those in artificial intelligence.


Threats to the Social Contract

Unsolved problems in the list above — as with income disparities, decaying infrastructure, and disruptive effects of rapid technological change — are serious issues in their own right. Yet, they also are dangerous because an accumulation of such problems can threaten the social contract. As suggested in the introduction: Citizens in a democracy rely on the government to SOLVE such problems, and there can be trouble if the government fails to fulfill its part of the bargain. Citizens are likely to become disillusioned and may soon lose confidence in, and respect for, any duly elected government. This increases the risk of social unrest and may lead to a negative feedback loop. Such a scenario discourages intelligent, thoughtful, compassionate people from seeking government jobs and emboldens demagogues who may try to take advantage of these fears and seize control.

As the list of problems continues to grow — without effective solutions in sight — signs of trouble are already apparent to anyone who follows the daily news: About 30% of U.S. voters believe that Biden only won the 2020 election because of widespread voter fraud, and a poll conducted in December 2023 showed that only 15% of the respondents approved of the way in which the U.S. Congress is handling its job. The Congressional budgetary process seems broken, with the U.S. debt and deficit increasing under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and with the risk of government shutdowns becoming so common that several independent agencies have lowered their rating of U.S. treasury bonds. 

My concerns about the complexity crisis certainly are heightened when party politics makes it harder than ever to solve our other problems. Yet partisan squabbling is far from the only issue that makes it difficult to deal with the challenges of the modern world. EVERY aspect of governance gets harder as complexity increases, and we must address the complexity crisis even as we try to deal with other challenges now facing governance.


Taking Advantage of this Insight

The novelty of the analysis offered here does not come as I list the problems now facing society. Others (as with Nouriel Roubini in Megathreats) have expressed similar concerns about the long list of challenges now facing the modern world. The novel part of my analysis comes as I take two new steps: 1) I reframe the underlying challenge by focusing on a growing mismatch between the capacity of the human mind and the complexity of the modern world, and 2) I take advantage of this insight to begin proposing some clear, actionable steps (below) that should help improve society’s ability to solve such complex problems.

I approach the challenge almost as if trying to help a friend who feels so overwhelmed that there is real risk of a nervous breakdown. One can’t just suggest that they need to work harder and faster in addressing every challenge in their life. An individual caught in this kind of crisis must acknowledge the underlying problem and make some fundamental changes. And so too with society, where some of the key steps that are needed might be grouped under the following headings: 

Awareness: We must as a society openly acknowledge the challenges posed by the mismatch between the capacity of the mind and the complexity of the modern world. We’ll need a new generation of leaders who have the mental agility needed to recognize this underlying challenge, and who are willing to openly discuss the threat that it poses. Fundamental changes will be needed to govern effectively in this new age of complexity, and we can’t mobilize the effort needed to develop and implement new strategies unless/until leaders are willing to acknowledge the underlying problem. 

Investment: Governments and nonprofits must invest the resources needed to support work on this problem. Discussions about a mismatch between “the capacity of the mind” and the “complexity of the world” may seem very abstract. Yet progress in understanding and addressing this crisis of complexity could have immense practical implications for society. I’ve offered some new techniques for thought in my blog posts and white papers, but this effort — and subsequent applications of these strategies to solve real-world problems — is difficult enough so as to require new organizational structures and new sources of financial support. (No one can do it alone, and yet it’s impossible to build a team without some organizational “home” and some adequate financial support.)

Action: In the meantime, my strategies for thought amidst complexity can be applied to help find practicable solutions to critical problems now facing the modern world. The first, most cost-effective ways of applying these ideas will come as we develop better ways to monitor and address undesired side effects of rapid technological change. As I’ll discuss in my next blog post, some purported forms of “progress” — like Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies — merely provide ways in which people can try to game the system, but do so at a net cost to society as a whole. Identifying and controlling the development of such “parasitic computational strategies” will be a key first step in this larger effort to address the crisis of complexity that now threatens the social contract.

Obviously, steps proposed here will just get us started, but each step above will help support the others, and thus begin to address the overall crisis of complexity. Failure cannot be considered an option, since all prospects for a livable human future are at risk amidst this rising tide of complexity. I thus hope you’ll be inspired to join this exciting effort, contacting me via so we can build the kind of team that will be needed to solve these problems. The challenges are daunting, but this makes it a fascinating intellectual puzzle for anyone ready to work at this level. The prospect of helping to ensure a livable human future is so exciting and so important that it’s worth every conceivable effort.