“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” ~ E.F. Schumacher(?)
In discussion with a colleague, I mentioned that WordPress.org was able to provide very nice functionality with excellent usability through php, mySQL, and Apache. She said these were simpler technologies not particularly suitable for today’s complex corporate environment where more complete frameworks are required to satisfy all of the business requirements. I challenged her by saying that some of the blogs get millions of daily hits with this simple architecture while some corporate systems stall after a few hundred users. She told me that the data model in a blog is much simpler than in any corporate system. I know. I am just not willing to take this man-made complexity for granted. Call me obsessive compulsive when it comes to keeping the world simple but what I have seen and continue to see is simply excessive complexity.
In addition to the computer on which I’m typing this text, many structures around us are systems of varying complexities. Some of the complex systems make the computer seem like a basic child’s toy. Everything can be viewed as a system (often with many nested sub-systems) but here are some examples.
- The human body is perhaps one of the most complex systems with interlinked sub-systems made up of cell-structures, interfaces, etc.
- A corporation is a human system that can be as simple as a piece of paper and as complex as today’s multinationals are.
- Software, the Internet and all other computer systems are built up from many sub-components which further rely on sub-systems to carry out their tasks.
- Banks and markets are also systems playing their part in a larger global exchange, transfer, and conversion system.
- Houses with their electrical, plumbing and other sub-systems can be user-friendly, complex, with interfaces, inputs and outputs.
- Government is a complex multipurpose human system with impacts on all other systems.
- Universal health care initiatives are also systems with many participants.
I could list endless examples but just like an average gasoline engine, I hypothesize that systems built, managed, operated, maintained by humans operate at some very low level of efficiency. I am not just talking about productivity and other similar measures. I am suggesting that in aggregate we build inefficient systems and structures. I see this in computer systems all the time. I would further suggest the larger the system, the higher its complexity, and the lower its efficiency. If I had multiple lives, I would devote one to the study of this subject with hopes of finding a set of principles to guide new efficient system architecture and construction. Why do we need to do this? With the amount of inefficiency growing with complexity, we may find ourselves at a point where the maintenance of the system takes more effort (human lives) than the value of the system warrants (Soviet government). We may find ourselves unable to properly regulate (think AIG) and maintain the system. We may find ourselves challenged with enforcing ethical principles (Madoff) in the system. We may find ourselves slaves to these suboptimal systems that we have imposed on ourselves. When the systems choke us, we end up with a revolution. When the systems clash, we end up with wars.
Could the fundamental source be our insecurities and yearning to appear more intelligent, more capable, stronger… strong enough to handle complexity? Or is it that we are the inefficient, ineffective ones who are capable of creating nothing more than a highly ineffecient system? Is it our methods of education? Or perhaps for our systems to be efficient, we would need to become machines, losing all creativity. Could it be that each time we step into a system, we feel the need to make changes thus destabilizing the entire structure?