Friday, December 06, 2013

Simplicity. (Against bureaucracy and red tape)

(I know this is not my usual area, but there are a few things occupying my mind. It seems best to go ahead and post this so that my mind is not occupied with it, and I can move along. By the way, do not think that the take-away message here is merely against the currently unpopular complicated health care system; that is just the latest example from a government that has long seemed enamored of complication.)


Most people try to figure out the simplest way to do things. In my line of work, "simple" and "elegant" are words that often come together as a pair. When you design a new system, simplicity is a good thing. Simple things are easy to use, hard to break. When things go wrong, simple things are easy to diagnose, easy to fix. If something is simple, anyone can use it without special training or special knowledge. Simplicity empowers the average person to take care of themselves. "Simple" is the main ingredient of "user-friendly". When something is meant to be used by lots of different people, simplicity is a goal of good design.

There's a problem with standing up for simplicity, though. People have mistaken "complicated" for "smart"; those two things are not the same. Maybe you have to be smart to understand something complicated. But you don't have to be smart to make things complicated. In fact, lots of people try to fake being smart by making things complicated. Long words are used as camouflage to cover up small ideas -- or mistaken ideas. In the movie The Wizard of Oz, one final scene with the scarecrow is something like that: he is given a diploma to make up for the fact that he has no brain, and instantly declares that "The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side." On the surface it sounds impressive because it is technical and complicated; it is also completely wrong. (He should have said that "The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the remaining sides", or words to that effect. That scene was a joke about how wrong he was.) That's another thing about complication: mistakes can get past millions of people. If simplicity is a goal of good design, then it's actually not smart to make things more complicated than they need to be.

When designing a system to be used by hundreds of millions people with different education levels, it is not smart to make it so complicated that its own designers make jokes about how they don't understand it or don't know what is in it. There is no such thing as a good law that the average person needs to understand but runs to hundreds on hundreds of pages. Our new national health care system is a Rube Goldberg device that has turned each and every one of us into a piece in that contraption -- whether we want to be in it or not. But our new health care system is just one example. Our tax system is also needlessly complicated. "Bureaucracy" is characterized by needless complexity, and our government often acts as though its goal is to create new bureaucracies. Every time the government wants to do something new, the general approach has been to create new agencies that are run through new bureaucracies. Many people frankly can't picture it working any other way.

At a high enough level, complication does a number of things:
  • It takes away the average person's ability to take care of themselves.
  • It makes the average person dependent on an expert.
  • It gives the expert a sort of status or power as a necessary piece in the system.
  • It makes the average person unable to tell whether the expert actually knows what he is talking about.
  • It gives the most benevolent experts an incentive not to question the system, since they see themselves as exercising their benevolence, and the average person couldn't understand the system without their help.
  • It gives the less benevolent experts a personal incentive to keep things complicated, in order to keep their status and power - and the accompanying financial security. 
That is, it makes most people unable to tell how well the system really works, and it makes many experts and designers unwilling to say if it doesn't.

Simple things take less time and energy. They are more efficient than their complicated counterparts. I do not say this because of some "anti-intellectual" objection to complexity. I say this because it is a fact about how energy and effort work. The more straightforward a thing is, the more efficiently it works. The more unnecessary complication you have, the more it wastes time and energy, by definition. A Rube Goldberg device is a joke -- a mechanical joke. Rube Goldberg devices are entertaining. It is fascinating to watch all the time and energy that can be wasted on a relatively simple task. But nobody wants their health care, their taxes, or the national economy to run that way. Nobody wants their own time and energy to be caught up in that kind of elaborate waste of time.

Most people try to figure out the simplest way to do things. We do that not because we are stupid but just the opposite: it is smart to want something that is efficient and works well.

4 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

While in graduate school, I attended lectures by a person who became a Nobel Prize winner. His lectures, as I recall, were a model of clarity and making fairly complex science simple enough to understand.

Weekend Fisher said...

Exactly. I've never understood that whole "baffled with bs" mentality where people think complicated is smart. "Complicated" is something that quickly gives diminishing returns. That is, maybe the first few "refinements" make things better, but after that every added complication makes things work *worse* than before.

Or from my own line of work: I've lost count of how many times I've had to update another person's program, started by cutting out 20%-30% of it before adding my own features. When it was done, it did *more* than when I started, despite being noticeably shorter and simpler.

Complicated systems are generally self-defeating.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Roy Pearson said...

You have a good point. We would all like life to be simple, but it seems to be complicated at times as we seek to understand what it means to be simple. Sometimes, in seeking simplicity, we make life complicated for we make generalizations and like to have principles that guide us. For some, that means a literal interpretation of the Bible, for others it means seeking to know God and to love God with all of our being and to love others as we love ourselves. Thanks for your blog that makes me think.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Roy

Complications tend make us lose sight of what's important. There are complications that are worth having. But there are far more that are not.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF