You only need to look at any Apple product to understand our fascination with simplicity. The sleek lines, intuitive user interface and human centered design give us a feeling of power over our technology. You don’t need a complicated user manual to instruct you, you just pick it up and go.
Unfortunately though, that simplicity is mostly a mirage. Underneath it all lies complex technology that is vastly more powerful than a supercomputer was a generation ago. What’s more, many of its applications are mere conduits to the power of the cloud, which is exponentially more complex and powerful still.
The truth is, as Sam Arbesman points out in his new book, Overcomplicated, complexity in our modern world is all but unavoidable. It is one thing that we don’t fully understand the devices we use, the markets that drive our commerce and the body of laws that govern our activity, but experts don’t either. We need to find a way to make peace with complexity.
Simplicity Isn’t What You Think It Is
If you want to rail against any facet of the modern world, simply point to its complexity. Politicians are fond of holding up pieces of legislation and highlighting the thousands of pages they contain, because that kind of complexity is widely seen as a fatal flaw. After all, if it was thought through clearly, why couldn’t it have been devised more simply?
Yet while we yearn for simple rules, those rules are often lead us astray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein put it in his famous rule following paradox, “no course of action could be determined by a rule because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” Simple rules tend to be ineffective because they are necessarily vague.
Something similar happens when we try to tame complexity by summarizing it through identifying patterns. Random points of data, if there are enough of them, will always generate patterns as well, so we can never be quite sure if we are revealing an underlying truth or just creating a convincing illusion. To discern between the two is, unfortunately, complex.
The problem with rules and patterns, as Arbesman makes clear, is that there will always be “edge cases” that don’t fit. Sometimes these are evidence of a false pattern, but other times they are merely odd ducks that point the way to a more expansive rule. Much as Kurt Gödel pointed out long ago, we can make our systems consistent or complete, but not both.
The Roots of Complexity
What is perhaps most important to understand about complexity is that it is, to a large extent, unavoidable. The US Constitution is prized for its simplicity and elegance, but the current federal legal code we use to execute that initial document is millions upon millions of words long. People work their entire lives to become experts in just a narrow slice of it.
Arbesman gives two reasons why this is necessarily so. The first is accretion. We build initial systems, like the U.S. Constitution or the Internet, to perform a limited number of tasks. Yet to get those systems to scale, we need to build on top of them to expand their initial capabilities. As the system gets larger, it gets more complex.
The second force that leads to complexity is interaction. We may love the simplicity of our iPhones, but we don’t want to be restricted to its capabilities alone. So we increase its functionality by connecting it to millions of apps. Those apps, in turn, connect to each other as well as to other systems.
So while it’s natural to yearn for a simpler existence, we still want to connect to Yelp to find a nice place where we can have a quiet beer and contemplate our spartan values. Then we want the app to connect to Google Maps so we can find that island of tranquility without getting lost and to Uber so we can get there easily.
We like connecting to those things because it makes our lives simpler and more hassle free, but in the process of doing so we access a complicated ecosystem of algorithms, servers, satellites and other technology. As Alfred North Whitehead wisely advised, “Seek simplicity but distrust it.”
The Age Of Entanglement
Our modern age is, in many ways, the product of the enlightenment. Early scientists like Isaac Newton showed us that, rather than the whims of the gods, there are natural laws that govern our universe. Others, such as Adam Smith, showed that similar laws held sway over human activity.
It was natural laws that led us to engineer contraptions like the steam engine and later internal combustion and nuclear fission, just as they allowed us to build new social structures like corporations and open source communities. From a finite set of basic principles we have been able to grow prosperity, eradicate diseases and put a man on the moon.
Yet as Danny Hillis explains, we are now moving from the age of enlightenment to the age of the entanglement, in which all of those basic laws have accreted, interacted and recombined into something more like biological ecosystems than logical machines. Our creations have not only escaped our control, they largely defy our understanding.
That is our contemporary paradox. We have harnessed the powers of nature such as the wind and the sun, unlocked many secrets of the atom and the genetic code and have achieved what our ancestors would have considered godlike power. Yet when confronted with the incredibly complexity of our own creations our limitations become clear.
If it is true, as Martin Heidegger argued, that we don’t build technology as much as we uncover it, then the same must be true of complexity. It arises out of our pursuit of things we want, such as greater power over our environment and more functionality out of the technology and institutions that we invent. We build according to how we dwell.
The story of technology is one of the continuous embedding of simple truths. We lived for two millennia under the false promises of Euclidean geometry and Aristotelian logic. We took faith in the notion that the universe would abide by those seemingly timeless laws. So when those myths were shattered in the late 19th century, we tried desperately to plug the holes.
Yet it was not to be. Non-euclidean geometry helped lead to Einstein’s theories, quantum mechanics and a far stranger universe than we ever imagined. Broken logic led directly to Gödel, Turing and the machines we call computers. Those computers are now leading to something else, the strange biology of Hillis’s entanglement.
So what are we to do? Arbesman suggests that rather than yearning for a simpler, tamer world, we should take proud pleasure in the complexity we uncover with our creations, much as we would with a precocious child. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, we need to fill our hearts with the struggle, knowing that it is within that struggle that we find true purpose.
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Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.