Amateur archaeologists are fond of referring to the three ages of human civilisation.
They begin with the Stone Age, a period where early humans applied their intellect to the natural environment and fashioned tools from stone. Gathering flint and using wood and animal gut to craft handles, early humans developed axes, knives, and other tools with which to increase the comfort in their lives and accelerate their development.
Then came the Bronze Age, the period where early civilisations across the Mediterranean and Asia forged copper alloys into sculptures, coins, and even musical instruments. Culture flourished and the same creations that were erected in city squares as monuments to victorious generals can be seen in museums today millennia after anyone who might have known the general had passed into history.
Third was the Iron Age and the global forging of everything from arrowheads and armour to living spaces, art, and any number of defensive and offensive weapons for the armies fighting the inter-civilisational conflicts that marked the age. While the oxidation and rust that in time spells death for impure iron alloys meant much of what was forged has been lost to time, the advances that the Iron Age represented for humanity remained.
The world moved through the Industrial Revolution and, eventually, to a new age: the Information Age. If the defining element of the Stone Age was the flint axe head then the defining element of the Information Age is the computer. The ability of what would eventually be a small, portable machine to compute, calculate, analyze, and share huge amounts of data is changing the way that humans around the world do business, relate to friends and family, understand their existence, and go about even the most mundane tasks in daily life.
In the Information Age data is the currency and it is being printed with almost reckless abandon. As recently as the year 2000 only 25% of data was stored in digital form. Just a few years later that percentage has skyrocketed to 94% and it continues to rise. So explosive has the growth in information and data been that 90% of the world’s digital data has been generated in just the last two years, and all of this has led to a world that is easier to understand and control than a Stone Age tool-maker could ever envisage.
Or so we thought.
In fact, while on the surface the Information Age has led to a world where many tasks are simpler than before it has also revealed a world that is entirely more complex than any which has existed before. The digital transformations that businesses, industries, and entire countries have undergone have generated incredible amounts of data and new technologies like digital twins and the internet of things (IoT) add to that ocean of data daily and without relief. Yet analysing this data, seeking out correlations and patterns and seeking to extrapolate the future from them, all of this has failed to provide the sorts of advances that the advent of bronze did in a world of stone, or the introduction of hard iron did in a world of soft bronze.
It’s for this reason that I think we are approaching the end of the Information Age and entering a new, radically different Complex Systems Age.
Just as all the knowledge of crafting stone tools was rendered largely useless in the Bronze Age, the simple fact that a person, business, or country has access to mountains of data and can generate more data every year than they have ever generated in all past years combined is of little use in a world that has moved on. In today’s world, what is required is not the data of the Information Age but the models that allow a savvy individual or company to navigate the age of Complexity.
Without a model through which to understand all of the data that is being collected, it is impossible for anyone to succeed in extracting value from that data, or from the underlying system where that data was generated.
Models of a system – social, financial, political, or industrial – don’t rely on the massive amounts of data (quantity) generated in the Information Age to add value but instead identify what data is required, why, and to what end (quality).
Modeling and simulating systems in the age of Complexity is really the only way to navigate the interconnected global world, and without such a model many businesses – like the Bronze Age statues before them – will soon find themselves little more than a museum curiosity from another age.