Friday, February 26, 2010

why we're doomed to fail

there is a LIMIT on the capacity of stuff our minds can handle.

at the very basic level, our short term memory can only handle 7 +/- 2 units of information, that's why phone numbers are usually seven digits long, or truncated into chunks that are less than seven digits each.

this chunking is a technique to increase our innate limit on short term memory. so while we cannot remember more than 7 +/- 2 numbers, we will be able to remember longer sets if we chunk them provided each chunk is within the "magic" 7 +/- 2 limit. thus, we can remember 0919-457-3217, but it's hard to remember 36481247512 even if both contain 11 digits.

so, short term memory is a very basic limit, one that is innate to almost everyone of us. we're just taking bits of information here. and even with chunking, it's easy to realize that we will soon reach a limit on the levels of chunking that we can do.

for example, we can chunk bits into sets containing less than 7 bits each. then we can chunk those sets into sets less than seven chunks each -- like memorizing seven phone numbers per set. but as we go up each level, it becomes more difficult (try memorizing 5 sets of 4 groups of 5 phone numbers per group).

sooner or later, we will reach the limit of chunking as well.

then, for more complex phenomena, there's this little thing called the Dunbar Number. this is a theoretical number that researchers are postulating to be the limit of social group sizes. that is, this is the hypothesised limit of meaningful connections we can have.

we can think of this number as a limit on the number of close friendships a random person can have. when you consider the number, 150, it makes sense. after all, these connections are supposed to be close. how many of us really have 150 close connections? it seems our brains are not capable of handling the complexities of 150 close social connections.

sure, we can have 5 million entries in our phonebooks, but how many are really close to us?

the point is, simple or complex, our brains have certain limits.

and as our world moves into more and more complexity, we will soon hit that brick wall of cognitive limits. our machines may help us for a while, letting us remember gigabytes of info, and organizing our lives into manageable chunks. but sooner or later, those chunks will reach their own fundamental limits. we cannot chunk 7, to 7, to 7, and so on, ad infinitum.

as complexity grows without bound, our capability to handle them shrinks proportionately.

we are doomed to fail. brace for impact.

Random thoughts on politics, social issues, money, finance, sex, humor, stupidity, or just about anything, of a hatemonger, an obsessive-compulsive, and a schizophrenic forced to live in a cramped and humid apartment.