Approaching the limits of our understanding

Joi Ito posted about the cognitive limits of organizations at the MIT Media Lab blog.

Ito posts a thought provoking slide by Cesar Hidalgo. The slide shows the interaction between the total stock of information in the world and time/history. Human beings, as civilization has evolved, have grown the total stock of information in the world and over time have reached various cognitive limits. It’s not hard to reach the cognitive limit of the individual. Our individual limits are often painfully obvious.

Hidalgo and Ito suggest that we’ve reached another limit, the cognitive limit of the organization. Ito says that “Our world, is less and less about the single pieces of intellectual property and more and more about the networks that help connect these pieces. The total stock of information used in these ecosystems exceeds the capacity of single organizations because doubling the size of huge organizations does not double the capacity of that organization to hold knowledge and put it into productive use.”

One place where the problem of cognitive limits has been particularly damaging is with the problem of collective action. Over the past few months I’ve been trying to find a way to express the idea that the persistent scientific tendency to reduce a phenomenon to the simplest possible explanation is dangerous. The danger reaches its peak when the social sciences take on the positivist scientific ideology too enthusiastically. The result is a bunch of academic disciplines that are always on the lookout the foundations that will explain the phenomenon of the world. Foundationalism isn’t a complete fool’s bargain but it does imply a fundamental simplification of the world. I have yet to encounter an argument for foundationalism that doesn’t ignore a portion of the world. I think that the cognitive limits suggested by Ito and Hidalgo may be a major cause for why reductionism and foundationalism hold such a powerful appeal.