There is nothing humans hate more than not knowing their place in the universe. We are continually looking at the world around us and demanding to understand our value within it. But that value is not easy to discern. Like a hurricane, there is no single root cause in a complex system. The harder one searches with the wrong perspective, the harder it becomes to find.
One of the reasons for this is our pursuit of finding a simple explanation in all things. As a society, we fetishise simplicity. We demand it from our governments, colleagues, friends and even family.
Simplicity provides a cognitive anchor. The perceived clarity it provides gives us the confidence to function in a complicated world. In many ways, that’s not a bad thing. I trust a system of electrics and plumbing will provide my morning tea. I trust brushing my teeth will prevent cavities without needing a knowledge of enamel decay. In these cases, you don’t need to understand complexity; you just need the tools to operate within it. A simple explanation is acceptable here because the impact is one of “cause and effect”.
On the other end of the spectrum, a simple explanation like stating the coronavirus was manufactured in a lab, also provides a cognitive anchor. If something is so easy to understand, how could it be wrong? Especially when the alternative requires an appreciation of complex interactions between the biological, psychological, social, and unknown.
Resisting such simple explanations for a complicated problem demands much more from us. It would force us to stop, zoom out of a situation, consider the level of complexity, and acknowledge the limits of our understanding — that’s scary. Accepting something as complicated is an act of humility in the recognition of the unknown.
Einstein is infamously misquoted for saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”. People often overlook that last part, “but no simpler”, or rather what he actually said, “the adequate representation of a single datum of experience”. I think what Einstein is trying to say is simplicity is not the goal; understanding is.
The work of simplification is an exercise in making information accessible. Those receiving it should be helped in making informed decisions. Simplification beyond that likely only serves the interests of the person delivering it. This is how people weaponise simplicity.
Suppose you want to communicate an agenda and limit debate in something like politics or a company strategy. It’s probably in your interest to strip away all entities that do not conform to your objectives. It’s a double punch to our autonomy. Reducing an idea to its soundbite is deceivingly seductive in its ease of understanding, and purposefully limits discussion parameters.
Chomsky and Herman are probably most famous for describing how techniques like this work in propaganda. They argue that by limiting the ‘parameters of the discussion’, we are effectively manufacturing a public’s ability to consent. Something I think is as real for societies as it is for organisations.
For example, by simplifying a complicated set of ideas into a catchphrase that is hard to disagree with like, “Make America great again”, “Hope”, “Change”, “Peace” etc. It makes us feel the conversation’s depth is akin to a kiddy pool; when actually its as deep as the ocean. Its “Do you support our troops?”, not “Do you support the policies connected to the war in which they’re fighting?”. Chomsky says you have to START by saying, “Well I don’t NOT support the troops”, but by then, you’ve already lost.
It’s an ugly cycle. As the barrier to a perceived understanding is lowered by removing conflicting information, it builds confidence in our newly found knowledge. The joy of grasping the concept serves to convince us of the validity of the abridged explanation. We have robbed people of the work to develop an informed opinion; which only further polarises rationalisation in society.
So what is wrong with living like this? If the person is happy, feels empowered and understands their value in society, what more could one ask for? The problem exists in the mismatch between perceived understanding and the thing to understand itself. When we decide that things need to change and try to apply “cause and effect” thinking to a complex problem, nothing will work. It’s only when things go wrong is our complacency revealed to us.
Now, you don’t need to fully understand a complicated system to change it. You start with appreciating that its individual components’ produce an effect more remarkable than the sum of its parts. That requires that humility I was on about earlier. Its a mentality shift in recognising the limits of our own knowledge. Or when you consider the perspectives of those with whom you disagree. It demands we do the work to have an opinion, including admitting what we don’t know. Take 5 minutes a day to do this for a single news story, and I guarantee the results will surprise you.
This is not to say we must now strive to make everything complicated to prove its validity. Like simplicity, complexity can be weaponised. But this time into scaring people away from engaging entirely. This produces an ironic situation. In desperation to regain control of the problem, we are drawn to engage more with those potentially misleading, simplified explanations.
Confused about how the finance-industrial-government complex works? Well, it’s simple really, it’s the Illuminati working to brainwash and control the will of the masses. Hopefully, you see the irony here. For a recent example look no further than the collapse of the QAnon movement in the United States.
Our goal in enabling others to operate in complexity is to facilitate understanding. To be in a position where people trust you to explain is a position of privilege. Start by considering the needs of the individual, and the risk and reversibility of the decisions likely to be made based on their understanding. The less reversible, the more time you should invest in their knowledge.
Our principles should be based on enabling peoples autonomy. I implore you to build a platform from which people can embrace a humility of unknowns and the space to develop different ontologies. Anti-simplicity for simplicities sake.
Acknowledge our condition with due humility, and since we are involved in a common darkness, and few of us stumble in it to much greater purpose than others (at least in the perspective of the whole of human history), we should practise understanding and charity. — Isaiah Berlin
If you are interested in learning more about complexity, how to break it down and how to work with it, I think you will find the following resources interesting: