Posted: July 09, 2009
The simplification mandate
Surpassing the complexity thresholdBy Thomas Frey and Raymond Alvarez
"Our life is frittered away by detail .... Simplify, simplify." -- Henry David Thoreau
Ever have one of those days?
Run a day late on a credit card payment, and you’re dinged a $39 late fee.
Miss a traffic sign on our way across town – right in front of a cop – and get dinged another $150.
There are ways to compound your grief, too. Park under the red no parking sign for that lesson. Let’s not even go to a conversation about the IRS.
Is it me, or does it seem like we’re rowing with the slaves on a ship of some Egyptian taskmaster. We are constantly being whipped. Lash! Penalty for early withdrawal. Lash! Fine for driving while dialing a cellphone. Lash! Ding for this. Lash! Ding for that.
Physical abuse may no longer seem to be part of the equation, but I clutched my heart the last time I received a letter from the IRS.
The sheer number of potential landmines being strewn in our paths must number in the millions.
How do we cope? How many details can we possibly attend to?
A recent Internet cartoon depicts God handing down the Ten Commandments. Moses: "Only 10? The lawyers will be very disappointed."
The United States leads the world in incarcerations. According to a March 2009 study by the Pew Center on the States, a staggering 7.3 million or 1 in 31 people are under control of the U.S. prison system, with 2.3 million actually behind bars.
The U.S. also has the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history. In fact, no one really knows how many laws, ordinances, regulations and mandates are in existence. But it’s a safe bet that it’s in the millions.
Every state, city, county, township, parish and special taxing district has been blessed with its own authority to enforce the rules. When driving across the country, the invisible rule of law changes on a moment-by-moment basis as district lines are crossed. In the blink of an eye, with no awareness of the changing “lawscape,” people pass innocently from one cloud of laws into the next, until something happens to go wrong.
Complexity in the universe is infinite. However, needless complexity creates an invisible energy-zapping toll on society.
Here are some examples of systems that often confound the mind as well as the flow of progress:
Half-implemented metric system – Isn't it about time to complete this transition? Still clinging to our old standards, we have muddied the waters with half-English and half-metric cars, planes, tractors, lawn mowers and snowmobiles. Speedometers show both miles and kilometers. Pop comes in two liter bottles; beer is sold in quarts. Some athletic events have a 100-yard dash; others have a 100-meter dash. Car engines are rated in liters; oil for them is sold in quarts.
Daylight savings time - Two times a year we are forced to adjust our clocks forward or backward one hour for daylight savings time. A rather bizarre concept if you think about it. Some people like it, some hate it and others think it's meaningless.
Our calendar - Several aspects of the current solar/lunar calendar are clumsy. Specifically, not all months are the same length. Thus, there is no correlation between the date of the month and the day of the week. People who are paid by the month earn more per hour in February than they do in March.
Ethics & morality - Our ability to distinguish between right and wrong in this country seems lost. Blurring of ethics and morality tends to be a natural byproduct of an ultra-complex society. There is a cynical dismissal of taking the higher road among our most prestigious university graduates. Why apply all those skills to anything other than stacking up more millions on Wall Street?
Our money - Money is the lubrication that keeps our economy flowing. But money is becoming increasingly too complicated for average people to manage.
The tax code – The actual tax code coupled with all the legal documents that define it is estimated at over 64,000 pages in length.
The laws of complexity
As complexity increases, the cost of managing the complexity increases at an exponential rate until the system finally collapses. At some point, everyone throws up their hands.
Complexity itself is morally neutral. On one hand, complexity is necessary because it brings with it added functionality. However, complex systems are created by people for use by other people. And it is the interface with people that causes the problems.
As with the rest of life, systems are never static. Therefore, system-related complexity is never static. Systems are always evolving. With people at the heart of any complex system, there is always a propensity for adding features, adding functionality and adding coverage to the domain of the system. This desire to complicate the complicated is what I refer to as the exponential nature of complexity.
The recently introduced "Cash for Clunkers" legislation is a perfect example. "Eligible vehicles for trade-in must be less than 25 years old and insured and registered for at least a year. Cars have to have a combined EPA fuel rating of 18 miles per gallon or less. The buyer will get a $3,500 credit if the new vehicle gets between 4 and 9 miles per gallon more than the trade-in and the full $4,500 credit if the new vehicle gets at least 10 miles more per gallon.“
Another consequence of our ultra-complex society is that it heavily favors detail-oriented people. "Detail people" or left-brainers, as some would call them, function well in a world where pinpoint accuracy reigns supreme. Those at a major disadvantage are the creative, free-spirited, artistic crowd. People who either do not have the capacity to deal with these demands, or simply have no desire to occupy their brain with such minutiae, are being taken advantage of by the "game players" who make a living by splitting hairs over points of law.
The simplification mandate
When I worked as a design engineer at IBM, one key project required compliance with a federal usability standard. I had to design specialty workstations physically compatible with 95 percent of all users. By using standard anthropometric tables listing the size and dimensions of various ranges of humans, we built systems that would fit users ranging from a 5th percentile female to a 95th percentile male. This covered roughly 95 percent of the American population.
To give you a better understanding of what this means, the height of a 5th percentile female is 4’ 11’ and the height of a 95th percentile male is 6’ 2”.
Using this same logic, if the government required that all of the laws, regulations and ordinances be understandable by 95 percent of the general population, they would look vastly different than they do today.
The system is not friendly. Imagine what a tax code that is understandable by 95 percent of the population would look like?
Laws are generally written by and for the system’s powerful – lawyers, legislators and opportunists. The general public is expected to abide by these laws despite possessing few clues as to what actually exists in print. And the courts tell us that if we can't understand the laws, it is our problem.
Much like the aftermath of an epic battle, we look around and see giant businesses collapsing before our eyes. The mighty have fallen and the carnage is breathtaking.
Staggering portions of society are finding themselves ill-suited to function in our emerging new world.
Unlike most battlefield scenes where the opposing forces are visible and obvious, our chief enemy today is complexity, and it comes from within.
Much like a cancer on society, complexity is sending the livelihood of countless millions to an early grave.
As a form of preventative medicine for counties, any nation that is able to master its own complexity is a nation well-positioned to compete in this highly competitive global economy.
Simplification can no longer be relegated to “just another good idea,” it has to be a mandate.
Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker. At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities.Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.
Raymond Alvarez is a journalist, microblogger and emerging expert in social media. He is president and owner of Nextwave Communications, which provides cutting edge communication services to the Colorado business community. The Boulder County firm offers research, writing, strategic planning and analysis.