COMPLEXITY

COMPLEXITY

Far-reaching conversations with a worldwide network of scientists and mathematicians, philosophers and artists developing new frameworks to explain our universe's deepest mysteries. Join host Michael Garfield at the Santa Fe Institute each week to learn about your world and the people who have dedicated their lives to exploring its emergent order: their stories, research, and insights…

Episodes

May 21, 2022 80 min

As our world knits together, economic interdependencies change in both shape and nature. Supply chains, finance, labor, technological innovation, and geography interact in puzzling nonlinear ways. Can we step back far enough and see clearly enough to make sense of these interactions? Can we map the landscape of capability across scales? And what insights emerge by layering networks of people, firms, states, markets, regions? We’re ...

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In the digital era, data is practically the air we breathe. So why does everybody treat it like a product to be hoarded and sold at profit? How would our world change if Big Tech operated on assumptions and incentives more aligned with the needs of a healthy society? Are more data — or are bigger models — really better? As human beings scamper around like prehistoric mammals under the proverbial feet of the new enormous digital mon...

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The world is unfair — but how much of that unfairness is inevitable, and how much is just contingency? After centuries of efforts to arrive at formal theories of history, society, and economics, most of us still believe and act on what amounts to myth. Our predecessors can’t be faulted for their lack of data, but in 2022 we have superior resources we’re only starting to appreciate and use. In honor of the Santa Fe Institute’s new r...

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Context is king: whether in language, ecology, culture, history, economics, or chemistry. One of the core teachings of complexity science is that nothing exists in isolation — especially when it comes to systems in which learning, memory, or emergent behaviors play a part. Even though this (paradoxically) limits the universality of scientific claims, it also lets us draw analogies between the context-dependency of one phenomenon an...

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As fictional Santa Fe Institute chaos mathematician Ian Malcolm famously put it, “Life finds a way” — and this is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than by roots: seeking out every opportunity, improving in their ability to access and harness nutrients as they’ve evolved over the last 400 million years. Roots also exemplify another maxim for living systems: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As the Earth’s climate has tr...

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Autonomous vehicles hardly live up to their name. The goal of true “driverlessness” was originally hyped in the 1930s but keeps getting kicked further and further into the future as the true complexity of driving comes into ever-sharper and more daunting focus. In 2022, even the most capable robotic cars aren’t self-determining agents but linked into swarms and acting as the tips of a vast and hidden web of design, programming, leg...

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Irrespective of your values, if you’re listening to this, you live in a pecking order. Dominance hierarchies, as they’re called by animal behaviorists, define the lives of social creatures. The society itself is a kind of individual that gathers information and adapts to its surroundings by encoding stable environmental features in the power relationships between its members. But what works for the society at large often results in...

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As a careful study of the world, science is reflective and reactive — it constrains our flights of fancy, anchors us in hard-won fact. By contrast, science fiction is a speculative world-building exercise that guides imagination and foresight by marrying the known with the unknown. The field is vast; some sci-fi writers pay less tribute to the line between the possible and the impossible. Others, though, adopt a far more sober tact...

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COVID has exposed and possibly amplified the polarization of society. What can we learn from taking a multiscale approach to crisis response? There are latencies in economies of scale, inequality of access and supply chain problems. The virus evolves faster than peer review. Science is politicized. But thinking across scales offers answers, insights, better questions…

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Insti...

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Some people say we’re all in the same boat; others say no, but we’re all in the same storm. Wherever you choose to focus the granularity of your inquiry, one thing is certain: we are all embedded in, acting on, and being acted upon by the same nested networks. Our fates are intertwined, but our destinies diverge like weather forecasts, hingeing on small variations in contingency: the circumstances of our birth, the changing context...

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If you’re honest with yourself, you’re likely asking of the last two years: What happened? The COVID-19 pandemic is a prism through which our stories and predictions have refracted…or perhaps it’s a kaleidoscope, through which we can infer relationships and causes, but the pieces all keep shifting. One way to think about humankind’s response to COVID is as a collision between predictive power and understanding, highlighting how far...

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Democracy is a quintessential complex system: citizens’ decisions shape each other’s in nonlinear and often unpredictable ways; the emergent institutions exert top-down regulation on the individuals and orgs that live together in a polity; feedback loops and tipping points abound. And so perhaps it comes as no surprise in our times of turbulence and risk that democratic processes are under extraordinary pressure from the unanticipa...

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What makes a satisfying explanation? Understanding and prediction are two different goals at odds with one another — think fundamental physics versus artificial neural networks — and even what defines a “simple” explanation varies from one person to another. Held in a kind of ecosystemic balance, these diverse approaches to seeking knowledge keep each other honest…but the use of one kind of knowledge to the exclusion of all others ...

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Where does cultural innovation come from? Histories often simplify the complex, shared work of creation into tales of Great Men and their visionary genius — but ideas have precedents, and moments, and it takes two different kinds of person to have and to hype them. The popularity of “influencers” past and present obscures the collaborative social processes by which ideas are born and spread. What can new tools for the study of hist...

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When British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow described the sciences and humanities as “two cultures” in 1959, it wasn’t a statement of what could or should be, but a lament over the sorry state of western society’s fractured intellectual life. Over sixty years later the costs of this fragmentation are even more pronounced and dangerous. But advances in computing now make it possible for historians and engineers to speak in one ano...

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Can you write a novel using only nouns? Well, maybe…but it won’t be very good, nor easy, nor will it tell a story. Verbs link events, allow for narrative, communicate becoming. So why, in telling stories of our economic lives, have people settled into using algebraic theory ill-suited to the task of capturing the fundamentally uncertain, open and evolving processes of innovation and exchange?

Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podc...

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What is the economy?  People used to tell stories about the exchange of goods and services in terms of flows and processes — but over the last few hundred years, economic theory veered toward measuring discrete amounts of objects.  Why?  The change has less to do with the objective nature of economies and more to do with what tools theorists had available.  And scientific instruments — be they material technologies or concepts — do...

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Whether in an ecosystem, an economy, a jazz ensemble, or a lone scholar thinking through a problem, critical transitions — breakdowns and breakthroughs — appear to follow universal patterns. Creative leaps that take place in how mathematicians “think out loud” with body, chalk, and board look much like changes in the movement through “music-space” traced by groups of improvisers. Society itself appears to have an “aha moment” when ...

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We are all investors: we all make choices, all the time, about our allocation of time, calories, attention… Even our bodies, our behavior and anatomy, represent investment in specific strategies for navigating an evolving world. And yet most people treat the world of finance as if it is somehow separate from the rest of life — including people who design the tools of finance, or who come up with economic theories. Many of the human...

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The popular conception of ants is that “anatomy is destiny”: an ant’s body type determines its role in the colony, for once and ever. But this is not the case; rather than forming rigid castes, ants act like a distributed computer in which tasks are re-allocated as the situation changes. “Division of labor” implies a constant “assembly line” environment, not fluid adaptation to evolving conditions. But ants do not just “graduate” f...

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