The storm of simple
By Steven Martinovich
Back in the days when we all still owned VCRs, a popular routine amongst comics was how many of them still had the clock flashing 12:00am. Although the machine itself could be complex – at least viewed by people of a certain age – the act of setting a clock should be simple. And yet, as many parents illustrated, millions of VCRs around the world flashed that same testimony to something simple made overly complicated.
Time Magazine reporter Jeffrey Kluger's Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) examines our world from a populist perspective, wondering why our lives are so complicated after technology promised to simplify everything. The central premise which animates his book is simple: Simple things are often times more complex than they seem, while complex things are often times more simple than they appear.
As anyone who has bought consumer electronics in the last few years can relate, that concept isn't merely theory. The VCR of the 1980s that opened this review was, despite befuddling adults, a relatively simple device. It played and recorded television programs broadcast to standard televisions, typically over cable. Other than programming it to one-time or regularly record programs, it was essentially feature limited. Wanted to watch a movie? Turn the TV to channel 3 or 4, turn on the VCR and press play.
Gaze now at the audio/video equipment gracing many living rooms today. VCR's have given way to DVDHDD recorders/PVRs which have a myriad of controls, options and modes available to them. The advent of home theatre means many people are using receivers and multi-speaker setups, meaning the right options must be chosen in order to watch television in 5.1 surround sound and theatre mode. The humble television set has transformed itself into either LCD or plasma and needs to boot up before the viewer has to figure out which aspect ratio to use and what input to set the television on.
The living room of today is watching its movies in high definition with gorgeous surround sound, a set up we barely dreamt of two decades ago. The essential act, however, hasn't changed; in both cases we're watching a movie. The manuals and remote controls that come with our equipment, however, speak to the jump in complexity that such a simple act has grown to. It's no wonder electronic retailers are making increasing amounts of money setting it all up for you after they sell you the equipment.
Simplexity, however, isn't a book that focuses its attention on technology. Kluger investigates all manner of simple/complex issues which includes arguing houseplants are more complex than manufacturing plants, why the stock market behaves the way it does, why cell phones are becoming harder to use, and in one particularly fascinating chapter, even why it takes people as long as it does to exit many burning buildings. Much of Simplexity addresses human behavior, guaranteed to make anything that was simple complex.
It is often human demand, argues Kluger, that is making our simple acts more complicated. By demanding flexibility, whether from our cell phones or from government, we turn reasonably simple things into complicated systems. The creators of these systems must imbue them with the ability to do many different things and if the system is designed poorly, as many cell phone operating systems or government programs are, they can take a complicated situation and turn it into a nightmare.
But can we turn the complex simple, as the book's title promises? Although he cites a few situations which seem to show just that happening, it would appear that Simplexity argues that the trend is inexorably going the other way. Although technology continues to promise to make our lives simpler – by making technology itself simpler – it appears that future is a long way off. Especially if we continue to demand everything around us meet our every whim.
Kluger's effort is hardly perfect. The eleven chapters which make up the book aren't connected in any meaningful way. Simplexity can also occasionally engage in hyperbole and a "gee whiz" attitude towards the subject matter. That said, Kluger has written an accessible guide for the layperson which raises a number of interesting questions for the reader to answer for themselves – notably whether we should be worrying about the things that we are. Simplexity is an interesting jumping off point for helping people understand why the world is as complicated as it is and the assumptions have that have gone in to making it so.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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