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Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
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Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension

3.53  ·  Rating details ·  522 ratings  ·  70 reviews
The acclaimed author of The Half-Life of Facts explains the challenges of overly complex technology.
On July 8th, 2015, something weird happened. The NYSE computers went down and trading was suspended for several hours. The culprit wasn't hackers or a rogue algorithm. It was just... a glitch. And it's just the beginning.
Technological complexity is no trivial matter. While
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published July 19th 2016 by Current
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Scott Sigler
I enjoyed this book, but put it down at some point and didn't pick it back up. I would say that's my fault more than the author's — it's getting harder and harder for me to finish a print book. Audiobooks dominate in my world. ...more
Apr 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
This is a short book about the limits of our techniques for managing technology. I didn't care for it. The basic premise of the book is "our technology has gotten too complex for us to understand and we need new paradigms for managing it." Much of this book is true, much is thought-provoking, but alas the two subsets have limited overlap. The book also suffers from a lack of clear audience: it's a book about what technologists should do, written for non-technologists with limited grip on the pro ...more
Jerrid Kruse
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Introduces the Entanglement in which complex systems are so interconnected that they are essentially not understandable. This leads to mythical entities like "bugs" and "glitches" that seem to be somewhat random (based on our lack of knowledge). The author notes how complexity thinking in science (biology) might be more useful to gain understanding of tech than a relationship thinking (physics). Yet, a mix is likely reasonable. Finally, given the complexity, the author notes the problems with aw ...more
Peter Geyer
The subtitle of this book – "Technology at the limits of comprehension" – could pass for my personal knowledge and inclinations on this topic notwithstanding, as Samuel Arbesman points out here, that I may be expecting too much of the complex cobbled-together systems that operate throughout my life.

His theme, and use of the term "kluge" has also been applied in the area of brain research, where presumptions about brains in general can suggest that it's much more perfect than what it is,particula
Navaneethan Santhanam
Worth reading, if a bit repeitive

Certainly a timely and fairly interesting book, but the author seemed to repeat himself a lot about all modern technology becoming increasingly hard to comprehend in entirety. There were two or three genuinely interesting bits. He talks about "physics thinking" vs "biological thinking", ie, the difference between finding grand overarching patterns vs examining the specifics. He also used the lens of complex systems to find unifying themes in areas as diverse as l
Pap Lőrinc
Feb 03, 2017 rated it it was ok
Summary: "the world is complicated, nobody can understand it, but that's ok". ...more
Aug 25, 2016 rated it really liked it
Why cars, websites, and other cool technological things, go batshit crazy and what to do about it (sort of).
Aug 04, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought this was a nice introduction to some concepts in complexity theory and computer science. I thought at times it was repetitive i.e. technology is creeping towards the limits of our understanding if not already surpassed. However, I also thought the author provided some great insight that should make any reader think (interoperability, entanglement, emergence, dark code, hapax legomena, etc). I also liked the correlations to linguistics and a primer on some NLP concepts and machine learn ...more
This short book discusses the problems caused when technology becomes so complex that few people can understand all aspects of a given invention. The author discusses the ubiquity of errors in software and historical examples where this has caused problems as well as additional problems caused by inter-connectedness.

The author doesn't much posit solutions to this and merely observes what he calls thinking like a biologist and thinking like a physicist in terms of understanding elements vs a syst
We build systems (software, legal frameworks, etc) and we keep adding features and exceptions to them, each addition triggering an exponential increase of interactions between individual parts. And that's when we lose the ability to understand or anticipate all possible pathways through the system. Our systems and technologies become black boxes.

Once our technological creations reach such high complexities that we don't understand them anymore, we either resort to fear or awe (the modern day su
Oct 19, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
In the beginning I really loved this book, because it acknowledged what I've seen time and time in software development. The most carefully laid plans turning into kluges. But in time the book mostly repeated itself and lost my attention. I think it had value because this isn't something you're taught in school. I feel better about my own work and my own limits as a mere human. But I'm still wanting to learn how some of these mistakes could be avoided, or mitigated once they crop up, ideally in ...more
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
I was surprisingly underwhelmed by this book. To sum up - there is lots of systems out there, they are complicated, no, one person can know everything, all good. Press repeat, and repeat again, insert an anecdote, then tell us that there are lots of systems out there and its all very complex - but use a few different words. Kind of reminded me of a 10th grade english essay - where you are just learning to construct the argument and defend it (not well).

I thought the premise of this book was gre
Randy Long
Jul 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
Pretty good synopsis regarding the new normal of Project Management, Expert Systems, and current norms and practices in the world. Truth be told, I had an idea like this a few years' back but nothing ever came of it (go figure).

Arbesman has a good grasp of software engineering, traffic management, the grid all current sectors undergoing rapid and irreversible change. This Information Age has all the makings of a full blown man made disaster, but I'm ever the optimist.

Good read about the dangers
Aug 02, 2019 rated it liked it
from over complicated to entanglement. All starting from simplicity to complex.
Biologist field for technology.
Learning from bugs.
Technology humility

01 欢迎来到这个纠缠的时代
什么是复杂系统 /从“启蒙时代”到“纠缠时代”/ 抽象的局限 /
02 复杂系统形成的 4 个原因
原因 1:吸积 /原因 2:交互 /原因 3:必须处理的例外情况 / 原因 4:普遍的稀有事物 / 越来越多的复杂系统
03 为什么复杂系统越来越难以理解了
力不从心的大脑 /认知的极限 / 最后一个无所不知的人
04 令人费解的 bug
并不是所有 bug 都能被消除 / 从错误中学习 /像生物学家一样思考
05 为什么需要生物学思维
复杂的技术系统需要生物学思维的 3 个原因/技术领域的“生物学家”/当物理学遇见生物学 /复杂性科学的视角 / 思维方式的进化 /我们需要通才
06 生物学思维是理解复杂世界的一把金钥匙
不要被表象迷惑 /以欣慰感看待不理解的事物 / 谦卑之心 + 迭
May 24, 2017 rated it liked it
The author took an overcomplicated look at overcomplicated things. Examples were general enough to give weight to the narrative that, although​ simple things start simply, they evolve with complicated requirements, and thus, complexity. The author repeatedly gives little solution besides, enjoy the ride and forget about resetting the clock to simpler times.
Dec 20, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A walk through the green field of complexity theory. While the book contains good ideas and examples that make you think, it's not fully internally consistent and could have been edited better. Looking forward to a second edition when the field has matured and the author has had more time to develop their ideas. ...more
Christopher Mcdermott
Very timely

Excellent book that lays out a very good argument about how we are getting detached from the systems that are running out world due to their increasing complexity . The book is well written and suggests some solutions for the problem it describes.
Aj Greenman
Oct 15, 2018 rated it liked it
This book is kind of all over the place without ever really getting anywhere. It keeps coming back to the central theme (technology is becoming too complicated for us to handle) without really going anywhere from there.
Oct 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: technology
“The ghost of the old system continues to haunt the new,” “The system always kicks back,” and the Unawareness Theorem: “If you’re not aware that you have a problem, how can you call for help?” Gall’s rules
Mar 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book isn't a very long read, but I was very impressed with the message. He does a great job explaining complexity in systems. A good read for any technologist who wants to deal with the challenges in their technical world. ...more
Nov 15, 2016 rated it liked it
Compelling thesis and entertaining anecdotes, but only contained enough for a more economical 3-5,000 word essay. The last hundred pages were repetitive.
Maciej Janiec
Feb 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Let's try to uncomplicate it. ...more
Jun 28, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
At the end of the day, it's a good book on epistemics. ...more
James Tomkins
Oct 02, 2017 rated it liked it
Interesting but a bit lacking in any deeper conclusion.
Deane Barker
Oct 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A short but wonderful book about how we perceive complex systems and some techniques for understanding them better.
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was ok
Interesting read for those who may not work with technology. Sadly I am in that field and, although I agreed with most of his points, I didn’t find them to be particularly insightful.
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating book describing the overcomplexity of today's existing systems and how to step back to analyze the bigger picture of what technology is doing. ...more
Jason Wong
Feb 03, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: work
This book can be summed up quite easily: the world has gotten more complicated as we’ve built upon our previous works, but human cognitive capacity cannot keep up. Therefore, we must get past the “physics thinking” of understanding the entire system and summarizing into tidy equations. Instead, we must embrace “biology thinking” - systems are messy, and you may never understand everything.

It’s not a bad book, but spends a long, long time proving its point, then only offering vague solutions.
Sep 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
The book argues that we should, indeed need to, acknowledge that even the technological, besides natural, reality that currently surrounds us is only partially understandable. The author is not the first nor the only to support this claim, which in a way seals that the evolution of complexity in the products of men make the products no longer fully understood in their full spectrum of behaviors and phenomenology by the creators. That is, we are far beyond the Renaissance men that could still gra ...more
Akhil Jain
Dec 04, 2016 rated it liked it
My fav quotes:
• Finally, the similarities between biology and technology can be seen in the concept of highly optimized tolerance, mentioned in the previous chapter. Technologies can appear robust until they are confronted with some minor disturbance, causing a catastrophe. The same thing can happen to living things. For example, humans can adapt incredibly well to a large array of environments, but a tiny change in a person’s genome can cause dwarfism, and two copies of that mutation invariably
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