Boy do we love complexity…
Look at the new iPad. I haven’t yet, but I can just imagine the smug inner glow and shortness of breath as I lift one for the first time. Echoing anyone else who has laid hands on the legendary beast, I will no doubt coo in hushed tones: “It’s so light! So easy! So quick! So…errr…intuitive!!”
Yet of course a simple pad and pencil would outscore the iPad on all these measures, and that’s just one reason why I am still a fan of old-tech.
The real attraction of the iPad is that to get it to perform (almost) as well as a pad and pencil, it has taken billions in investment and large armies of pale chino-clad techies, for that is what you really need to pack it full of such complex technology.
That’s the part that we really, really love. The iPad, to give Apple designers due credit, is almost weapons-grade in this respect. Every leading watchmaker worth its five-figure pricetags now boasts a “complication” model. Even my daughters’ rucksacks (IKEA of course) are festooned with a bewildering array of pockets, tags, hooks, zips, and straps. I think they’ve managed to divine the function of about half of them, and probably use about half again of those.
This isn’t new. We have always been fascinated by the manner in which hugely complicated artefacts can miraculously produce ever simpler outputs. Think of the LHC in Geneva, mankind’s largest ever single machine, built to take a closer look at one particularly small molecule. And it even works ! Sometimes.
Or your new car, if you’re lucky enough to own one. Don’t tell me you weren’t influenced in your purchase by the complex multi-limbed drinks holder that calmly unfolds itself from a discreet slot in the dashboard, rather like that disturbing final scene in Aliens Resurrection.
This is all harmless fun, you might argue, but beware of the danger when our ceaseless addiction to complicated technology and piano-black gadgets spills over into the human world. We’re long used to describing recruits as having a fine set of “core competencies”, or working happily within a context built upon “matrix management with mutiple reports”. But for all this imitation of machines, we should never forget that at heart we are actually fairly simple and predictable organisms, operating largely through basic instincts.
I wa reminded of this at a business meeting the other day, when the group around the table slowly atrophied into an inert group of individuals displaying every sign of being on “stand-by” mode. The subject under discussion had become so tortuous, bedecked by jargon and meaningless phrases, that everyone realised, all at once, that in fact nothing of any real meaning was actually being communicated.
Then someone cracked a joke. We all breathed out, made a lot of rapid eye-contact, and quickly made a decision. Phew.
There’s a lot to be said for simplicity in our fast-moving world. Problems usually have a very simple solution, for instance.
And of course, as we all know from experience, the simplest pleasures are always the best.