Technology promises to make life simpler. So why does everything keep getting more complicated?
Steve Jobs was a fan of the KISS principle. So too is Tony Hoare, the noted British computer pioneer.
KISS stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid!”, a design edict that’s been popular in technology circles for decades.
Hoare once explained: “There are two methods in software design. One is to make the program so simple, there are obviously no errors. The other is to make it so complicated, there are no obvious errors.”
Needless to say, Hoare favoured the former, not the latter.
No inventor strives to make their creations so complex that it confounds users, just as no rational person sets out to deliberately complicate their own life: life-skills courses preach minimalism and there are no marketing tricks for mystifying mechanics.
So, if KISS is such a universal dictum, why do many of us end up in entanglements of our own making? And why are television remote controls so complicated?
Keeping it simple, it seems, is far more complicated than you might imagine. But the solution lies in a better understanding of the complexities of simplicity.
Acknowledge the problem
Canadian tech entrepreneur Dan DeMers is frustrated: the devices we use aren’t just putting more functions in our way, they’re consuming more of our time.
He bemoans the fact that every new piece of technology comes with a plethora of functions or apps that almost no-one has the time — or the inclination — to use.
“There’s this pattern that I see over and over and over again. It’s easier for vendors to offer additive solutions, to offer workarounds, band-aids, to add and not take away.
“New technology adds complexity,” he says.
He says the quintessential example is the smart phone.
“Every year a new model comes out with a few new features, and every year the media and the market work themselves into a frenzy over it … cramming in more and more, without really thinking about what is essential.
“Seriously, there’s a phone out there with 16 cameras in it.
“That is not the promise of technology. That’s not why we get excited about it. It’s supposed to make life easier; it’s supposed to take away.”
DeMers says there’s an urgent need to rethink how innovation is prioritised and acknowledge the fact that any growth in capabilities only adds benefits up to a certain point.
After that, you hit what he calls the “peak of complexity” and the returns begin to diminish.
“The other side of that peak is collapse, meaning it’s either such that we’re heading towards a massive societal collapse, or we’re on the early beginnings of the simplification revolution.”
He attributes part of the problem to hype cycles and ever-rising expectations — the need to constantly dazzle customers and show that your technology is the brightest and the best.
Instead, he’d like technology to go the other way — to adopt a reductive approach. To embrace the adage that less is more.
“There’s lots of new technologies that allow you to do things that you couldn’t do before,” he says.
“But the ones that are actually exciting, the ones that are transformational are the ones that make it such that you no longer need to do what you did before.”
Know when to stop
So, simplification is a worthy goal, regardless of whether you’re developing a new contraption or tidying up your personal affairs, but it isn’t a virtue in and of itself.
Go too far in trying to simplify and you can inadvertently reintroduce confusion and complexity. Go even further, and things become simplistic to the point of being unintelligible.
Design expert Michael Lissack says it’s important to take a step back and adopt an objective, dispassionate perspective.
“The way you determine where the right point is, is by asking yourself if asking more questions might make a difference,” he says.
In other words, if someone is left asking questions about what you’ve attempted to simplify, then you’ve obviously gone too far and need to add more detail.
It’s also important, he says, to understand that every simplification involves a trade-off.
“The trade-off is what you are choosing to pay attention to, and what you are ignoring.
“If you simplify, you’re focusing on some small number of elements and saying, ‘that’s where the attention should be’, which is great if they’re the right ones.
“And it’s horrible if they’re the wrong ones.”
But beware the analogy trap
Lissack also warns of the danger that comes from relying too heavily on assumptions, and drawing easy, simplistic comparisons.
Many of us rely on analogies to make sense of the world and to provide a simple explanation for what’s going on as a kind of shorthand. We use them all the time, even if we often don’t consciously realise it. We’re forever looking to past events and actions to try and decipher current issues.
But Lissack warns lazy analogies could lead people to focus exclusively on similarities, which can cloud perspective.
“By definition, if you have identified a set of similarities, everything else is a difference,” he says.
“We don’t talk about the differences; we just talk about the similarities. And it may be that the differences are more important.
“Similarly, if we see things that agree with our general sense of how the world works, we may not bother to question whether there’s some differences, [or] some context specificity that matters.
“Or whether there’s an underlying assumption that everything remains the same.”
Take cultural, ethnic and urban sensibilities.
For example, while Australia and Japan are close allies — both prosperous, modern, urban democracies — our manners, racial makeup and style of housing are all remarkably different.
It’s something Sarah Percy often observes in the way political theorists and pundits view international developments, particularly during times of conflict.
The associate professor teaches international history at the University of Queensland. She says analogies are increasingly used to match contemporary figures and events against an historic record.
A recent prime example was comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.
“So typically, when we get an international crisis [like the current war in Ukraine], you will often see people saying this crisis is just like Munich in 1938 [for example], and if we don’t deal with Vladimir Putin, then we are going to experience the same problem that we saw in Munich in 1938,” she says.
But such simplifications can mislead and distort.
“The problem with using analogies for historical crisis is that historical crises tend to be quite different from each other, and just because something involves a strongman dictator doesn’t mean that we’re in Munich in 1938,” she says.
“Putin is definitely not Hitler.
“And I think that the lesson that people draw from Munich is that appeasing a strongman is bad. But we might have some scenarios where actually appeasing a strongman isn’t a terrible idea.
“And we might have some scenarios where a strongman is appeasable. We might have others where a strongman is not appeasable.”
In other words, analogous thinking is highly subjective and should be avoided at all costs, Dr Percy says, unless the user clearly understands and acknowledges the limitations of the comparison they’re employing.
“At least two or three times in a semester, I’m able to come into class and say, ‘Did you see on the news last night, somebody made this analogy?’ And that’s how often it happens.
“I often say to my students, do we really think that this is like Munich in 1938? In what ways is it similar, and in what ways is it different?”
Which is probably just as good a design edict as keep it simple.
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