Friday, May 07, 2010

Recognising Simplicity

'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free, 'tis a gift to come down where we ought to be. So runs the old Shaker song. But, simplicity, I think, is not so easily grasped and I'm therefore in agreement with George Whitesides, professor of chemistry at Harvard. Objects have their own simplicity of function, but not of form. A cellphone has a very simple function, easily recognisable but with a highly complex structure. Asking 'why does it work?' is not the same as asking 'how does it work?' The former can be answered by saying  'it works because I dial a friend's number', the latter by an initial discussion about microwave transceivers, all but unintelligible to anyone other than an expert in microelectronics. So, the complexity of the device is sufficiently intractable to obscure the simplicity of its function. A traffic flow system is at component level, a matter of interlocking straight lines, from journey beginning to end.  In a complex system, weird stuff happens if its components continue to be allowed to dissipate energy, which is why people are late for work. A paradigm emerges where chaos seems inevitable and simplicity is lost. We don't like this, as a species. We don't like imperfections in our systems, we prefer that each system that we build works perfectly and if it does we can overlay it with another one. Looking at the bitrate map across the world is phenomenally complex, but a Google front end, on the other hand is simple and reliable, it works because I type stuff into the box.
Cathedrals and pyramids are built out of stones, but if the stones do not fit perfectly, the stones become a pile of rubble and the function of the cathedral is lost. I sometimes delude myself into believing that human psychological systems rely on all the components fitting together perfectly. When they don't and mismatch occurs, a systematic dismantling may be preferable to a pile of rubble.
The image is of a Shaker chair.


  1. A friend once told me, "Anything that is systematized stagnates," and "In every system there are messy bits." (He was an eccentric, genius systems junkie)
    I am absolutely convinced that human beings are the "messy bits" in any system of which they are a part. Psychological 'mismatch' as you so elegantly put it is inevitable and it is the response of the individual that determines the rubble quotient.
    You have such a way with words.

  2. I remember visiting a shaker village-museum in Vermont (or was it Maine?). I was flabergasted by the obvious simplicity of every single object or tool designed in that autharkic community, from pegs to spinning wheel and sewing boxes to chairs.
    Visitors were thrilled to learn that the high 90° rigid chair back was meant to keep people straight up for prayer, so was the hard and narrow seat. There was also no doubt about how much they influenced nordic design...
    Here are 2 mottos every creative people should keep in mind :
    Mies van der Rohe : "Less is more"
    and also :
    KISS, the perfect acronym ("keep it simple (and) stupid)from Clarence Johnson.
    The summum of sophistication can actually be reached by things looking obvious and simple...but it takes a lot of work and experience...


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