David Bouchier: Complicated

May 21, 2018

Our old television set faded away and died. Its replacement was lighter, sleeker, and even cheaper, but that was the end of the good news. The back panel presented us with a baffling array of about ten different connections with incomprehensible labels. The so-called instruction book consisted of half a dozen pages of flimsy paper, almost entirely safety warnings, with a couple of Zen-like mystical diagrams that could have been anything. The sketchy website instructions were obviously composed by a man of few words, very few of them English.

None of this was surprising. We've come to expect that any equipment purchase more sophisticated than a paper clip will involve a steep learning curve and a lot of wasted time. After twenty-four hours of struggle and some inappropriate language, the television was working, and the picture was admittedly sharper and brighter than on the old one. But the programs were just as bad as before. Technical improvement is one thing, quality entertainment is something else entirely. 

The complexification of ordinary life makes everything more aggravating, slower, and more expensive. I’m sure I'm not alone in noticing that, whenever a product or service is advertised as “New and Improved,” the truth is exactly the opposite. There’s even a name for this in England: Hutber’s Law, which states succinctly that improvement equals deterioration. Even the geekiest geek quails at the prospect of a new and improved computer operating system. He knows it will take months to get back to where he was before with the old, unimproved system, by which time another improvement will already be in the pipeline.

This process of perpetual reverse improvement has been going on for a long time. When my family first had a telephone at home we simply picked up the receiver and asked for the number. If we didn’t know it the operator would find it for us. Now a simple call involves a so-called smartphone, an expensive fragile gadget the size of a matchbox with about a hundred tiny buttons and no instruction book, no phone book, and no helpful operator—so unless you already know the number you are out of luck. Half the time it doesn’t work at all, or sounds like somebody calling from a deep cave on Mars. This annoying gadget has also unleashed a hurricane of semi-literate Tweets on the world, with what may turn out to be catastrophic consequences for the English language, democracy, and common sense.

On the economic front we must deal with the explosion of criminal activities created by using credit cards instead of money: security issues, identity theft, simple theft, firewalls, virus protection, and ever-changing passwords—none of which even existed for the first half of my life, and we managed to live quite well without any of them.

There may be deep biological reasons for all this. Complexity is one of the main mechanisms of evolution. We had our origin as single-celled organisms that divided and divided until they became highly evolved and sophisticated creatures impossible to understand, like the Tweeter in Chief. The urge to make simple things more complicated, may be, literally, in our genes.

Copyright: David Bouchier