What is the Entanglement?

Updated 2018-11-24

For me, it started with the feeling that the internet wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that something has gone wrong somewhere. In time I realised that many of the problems I could see unfolding were united by a common thread – a far bigger trend, covering much more than just the internet. It’s elusive, and I don’t think a coherent and elegant definition that encompasses it all even exists yet.

I’ll start with an attempt to define the Entanglement as I understand it:

  • ‘The Entanglement is the trend towards more interconnected and less comprehensible technological surroundings.’1
  • Furthermore, as complexity increases – not just the complexity of our technology, but of our economy, politics, and much more – things that were once comprehensible by human intellect move into the realms of being completely incomprehensible. We rely on abstractions and simplifications to tease any meaning from them at all – and, increasingly, on machines.
  • Humans are increasingly controlled by their technology rather than the other way around.
  • As a consequence of this complexity and incomprehensibility, we live in a world filled with new and often terrifying problems that are ever more difficult to solve: bugs, glitches, security breaches.
  • ‘Improvements in communication make for increased difficulties of understanding.’ —Harold Innis (1950)
  • The tech we rely upon is increasingly used to mine our data for corporations. A side-effect of the broader Entanglement is that tech users are increasingly controlled by the corporations who exploit their data.
  • A key aspect of the Entanglement that interests me is social media reform. Social media is a dominant force in our time, yet (in late 2018) its ability to cause harm on both an individual and societal level is only just starting to become understood.

Sources

The term ‘Entanglement’ was coined in this context by computer scientist Danny Hillis. In his essay ‘The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement’, Hillis states that:

As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.

The power (physical, political, and social) has shifted from comprehensible hierarchies to less-intelligible networks. We can no longer understand how the world works by breaking it down into loosely-connected parts that reflect the hierarchy of physical space or deliberate design.

In a more recent essay, ‘The Deliberate Awfulness of Social Media’ for The New Yorker, Mark O’Connell examined some recent Entanglement literature and made some key points that add more to a potential definition of the Entanglement:

Bridle argues that the Enlightenment-era equation of knowledge and power has collapsed under the sheer tonnage of information> – data, news, opinion, political spectacle, fact, falsehood – mobilized by contemporary technology. Not only is knowledge no longer power, it isn’t even really knowledge anymore. It is a strange fact, verifiable by people still living, that the Internet was once thought of as a grand superstructure by which all of us would be elevated to a state of technological enlightenment. This is not how things have panned out.

To be alive and online in our time is to feel at once incensed and stultified by the onrush of information, helpless against the rising tide of bad news and worse opinions. Nobody understands anything: not the global economy governed by the unknowable whims of algorithms, not our increasingly volatile and fragile political systems, not the implications of the impending climate catastrophe that forms the backdrop of it all. We have created a world that defies our capacity to understand it – though not, of course, the capacity of a small number of people to profit from it.


  1. Emphasis mine, but this is a quote from the essay ‘It’s complicated’ by Samuel Arbesman, which provides a useful introduction.  ↩