What We Talked About At ISA: The Decline of Cognitive Mapping (Part II)

This is the second of a three-part series on ‘what we talked about at ISA’. The first part on technology in International Relations can be found here. This section examines a particular effect of technology that has largely gone unacknowledged by IR.


If the major crises of the modern world are symptomatic of anything today, it is the banality that our world is complex. Compared to previous periods of history our world is more interconnected (spreading crises further and less predictably), more dynamic (diffusing risks at a quicker pace), and more fragmented (with experts becoming specialized in solving local problems rather than systemic problems). This complexity involves a massive amount of elements, non-linear dynamics, unintended effects, and feedback loops. These features of complex systems strain the limits of the human mind’s finite and embodied capacities. The 2008 financial crisis, the ongoing climate change crisis, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2003 North American electrical blackout – all of these point to massively complex systems which already surpass human capacities to cognize. Moreover, if rational action is premised upon the capacity to represent the problems to be confronted, then the complex systems of today’s world are threatening to undermine the cognitive basis of political action.

The relationship between the world and our capacities to think it and act in it are not entirely asymmetrical though. While the world has become increasingly complex, our capacities to work in it have also expanded.

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