In the book “Mostly Harmless” an Earthman finds himself stranded on a distant planet with a primitive level of technology.
He had been extremely chastened to realise that although he originally came from a world which had cars and computers and ballet and Armagnac he didn’t, by himself, know how any of it worked. He couldn’t do it. Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it. There was not a lot of demand for his services.
This is the world we live in. None of us know how the world works. We may think we have a deep understanding of our particular specialism – but we know more and more about less and less.
I know how to use a computer. I can program it. I could build one from pre-fabricated parts. But further than that… Could I build a CPU? I think it is fair to say that no individual on the planet has a complete understanding of how a modern CPU works. Isn’t that ridiculous? These tiny silicon brains control our lives, but no one know how they work.
The stock market determines our financial future. We collectively pay people billions to understand the emergent behaviour of a complex system – but it is a Sisyphean task.
The NASDAQ drops and your employer lays you off. Who caused that? Who is responsible? Why did it happen? All unanswerable other than to say “that’s the way the system works.”
In his seminal essay “I, Pencil“, Leonard E. Read discusses what it takes to create a pencil and how there is no man…
… including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.
I disagree with some of Read’s conclusions (not least due to his shocking ignorance of US petrochemical subsidies) but he is right that we are now, fundamentally, a gestalt intelligence. We are like ants and bees – none of us can possibly know everything about society, but as a swarm we have enough specialised workers to allow our tribe to flourish.
This is distressing to most of us. We are the top of the food chain! We are experts in our own domains! We understand mechanics both quantum and celestial! How could we not understand something as simple as… (insert your favourite political topic here)
Paradoxically, it is easier to create something complicated than simple. Producing baroque and superfluous verbiage is infinitely easier than judiciously reducing a paragraph or sentence down to the bare essentials necessary for understanding.
Simplicity takes work.
As Mark Twain said:
I’m sorry this letter is so long, I did not have time to make it shorter.
Whether you’re writing code, designing a bureaucracy, or composing an email – do the hard work to make things simple. Simplicity is the only way we can comprehend the world.