How Complexity Obscured the World
From Donald Trump to GameStop, how do you look beyond a system that boasts infinite complexity?
It’s the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, and Facebook engineer Wael Goenhim has just created his infamous “We are all Khaled Saidis” Facebook page to protest against the rising police brutality and financial corruption within the Egyptian government. Suddenly, within hours of posting, thousands of citizens assemble in Liberation Square demanding the resignation of President Mubarak. He concedes, fleeing to Sharm El-Sheikh, and the people experience a rare victory.
Meanwhile, the world watched on in amazement, but it hadn’t realized yet that Mubarak’s defeat was about to change the world. How Goenhim managed to create a powerful citizen-led movement — by simply typing a few words into a computer and clicking send — transformed the way we protest in the modern era, not just against corrupt regimes, but against any form of social or political tyranny we perceived to be unjust. And since social media platforms had begun to eat the digital world, this new modern style of protest spread like wildfire.
Two months later in the western world, the Occupy movement descended on Wall Street to oppose the vast network of corruption between the megabanks and the U.S. government. The group formed because politicians and central bankers had bailed out the banking elites instead of jailing them because the collapse of the banks threatened to destabilize the system. And to rub further salt into the wound, they left taxpayers to pick up the bill.
The protesters occupied Wall Street for days, yet nothing happened. They failed to separate big finance and state, which still plagues society today, only in a much bigger way. It became clear that nobody at the protest possessed any power or the ultimate catalyst to spur the American population into pursuing a financial revolution. They also did not understand that the Federal Reserve and Washington D.C. were the real sources of the corruption, not the banks. While most stood outside Wall Street, some made the correct move, marching on the senate building, however, they also achieved nothing.
Despite Mubarak’s resignation and Occupy’s protests, the system prevailed, and both movements failed to accomplish any of its long-term goals. Mubarak’s successor grew to be just as corrupt, and the criminal bond between Wall Street and the state has remained stronger than ever— as Americans found out during COVID-19. But they failed, not because their ideas were bad or ill-thought-out. Their goals were logical, rational, and just. Instead, they had succumbed to a new unseen enemy, a new phenomenon that would come to dominate the modern world: Unfathomable complexity.
From then till now, complex forces have obscured reality so much that it’s now impossible to comprehend it. Social media algorithms have created echo chambers while feeding users a constant supply of disinformation and misinformation. Big government has made it impossible for the elites to manage the system and identify its faults, let alone improve it. But what made it worse was that some elites realized they could weaponize the system’s complexity and use it to both gain and maintain power.
The first elite to use this new psychological weapon was Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Vladislav Surkov. Using his background in the arts, he turned public relations into a “constantly shapeshifting theatre” to create a state of perpetual confusion in Russian society. To do this, Surkov backed radical activist groups on both sides of the political spectrum, from Neo-Nazis to anti-fascist groups, so it would be impossible to tell Putin’s enemies and allies apart. It became impracticable for anti-government movements to instigate a revolution because it was unclear who they were fighting against. Who were their enemies, and who were their friends?
Surkov’s strategy became so effective that not only did Putin’s enemies fail to form a valid reason to revolt against his regime, but Surkov could announce to the rest of the world that this was what he was doing, without provoking any backlash. He became an evil genius in the minds of many elites worldwide by securing Putin’s reign using theatrical perception management.
But instead of condemning Surkov’s actions, western world elites joined in and began to use his methods to preserve their ever-increasing power and wealth. One elite who knew how to yield this new power was Donald J. Trump. Though many perceived him as an idiot, he realized, before anyone else, how to assume power through complexity. He ran for President on the assumption that politicians had no idea what they were doing, and although he didn’t present the best plan for America, solely pointing out that his opposition had no clue how the real world worked was enough to win. Trump became the most powerful person in the world, and it was all down to weaponized complexity.
Though, since it was not in anyone else’s best interests, it was up to filmmaker Adam Curtis to cover how Trump became president in his ground-breaking documentary HyperNormalization. In it, Curtis also gave a brief history of the USSR in the 1980s, which eerily depicts 21st-century reality: “The Soviet Union became a society where everyone knewthat what their leaders said was not real because they could see with their own eyes that the economy was falling apart. But everyone had to play along and pretend that it was real because no one could imagine any alternative.” As a Russian science fiction writer in Curtis’s documentary describes it, our world has become “hyper normal”.
And while this hyper-normalcy persists, every revolution attempt will fail as no individual or group has the ability to improve or see beyond it, not even a machine — and if Isaac Asimov’s iRobot is anything to go by, that won’t end well. To cope with this, we have oversimplified the world by creating a range of conjectures, with the most powerful being the “Deep State”. Except the deep state does not exist. Instead, it’s merely a coping mechanism to deal with the vast number of injustices the system creates depending on our political views.
On the 6th January 2021, Trump supporters and QAnon members stormed the United States Capitol building, but what was their aim? Who were they revolting against? Yet again, the coup failed and the system prevailed because protesters (or rioters depending on your point of view) had no idea who they were really fighting against or what to do if, by some miracle, they assumed power — which, for some, reinforced the notion that a deep state exists.
Instead of a revolution, regime change, or coup, now and then, we witness small episodes of instability then the system recovers. The latest “meme-stock” drama was the latest tremor. This mini-crisis showed that millions of private investors were waiting for an opportunity to fight back against the financial elites.
The “Reddit version of Occupy” formed to take down Wall Street by bankrupting hedge funds through “gamma short squeezes”: jargon for excessive buying of call options that force short-sellers out of their positions. Yet they also became victims of weaponized complexity. They forgot that the major shareholders of stocks they were pumping were also hedge funds and that all the hype and publicity would fuel further profits for most of Wall Street’s proponents: the brokers, the index funds, the exchanges, the financial media, and the prime brokers: most of the “Suits”.
But despite this not posing any real threat, the chance that it could destabilize the system sprung its administrators into action via (what the WallStreetBets users called) censorship. Government officials notified President Biden of the situation, Discord banned WSB’s channel, and Robinhood disabled trading of meme stocks such as AMC and GameStop.
The WSB Reddit fiasco showed that parts of the system remain exploitable, but as a whole, the system has become impenetrable. This means the future is now so unpredictable, obscure, and uncertain, nobody, no elite, politician, or thought leader, can create any viable blueprint for the future. Even those who helped create the system or have inherited responsibility have lost control of its fundamentals. All we know is that the system will continue to bend and mutate reality.
Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election illustrated this. Even someone who had mastered the art of weaponized complexity could succumb to it. Like an Alien vs. Predator-esque pyramid, like the film plot of Triangle, like Brownian motion, the system kept rearranging itself, taking on new complex forms.
Now that Trump has become the latest victim of the constantly shape-shifting system, it’s about to transform once again. The mantle has been passed over to Joe Biden, the new leader of the free world, who will undoubtedly have to submit to the unfathomable complexity of this strange new reality, one that all his predecessors failed to comprehend, let alone, control.