On complexity, realized


Last week I had a computer glitch; nothing major, and in the end, everything came out OK.   Interesting enough, some other devices and machines were having problems as well; everything from the office coffee machine to the transmission on a car.  What kept showing up in these problems was that complex systems could fail in so many ways.  Yes, this is something we all should intellectually know, but in our hearts, for most of the time, the tendency is to let these systems continue to run, until that day arrives when they don’t work.   Complexity can easily allow complacency to set in, as we let things go on “automagically” in the background.

One piece of equipment that kind of exemplifies this is the local office coffeemaker.  The complex one we have grinds the beans on command, can do all sorts of drinks, and even has a 2×16 character display that shows menus on coffee strength, type, and so on.  Perhaps when it was new, it made good coffee, but as it got older, the uptime and upkeep of this coffee making beast became intolerable.  Quite literally, you had to reboot the coffee machine on some days.  To add insult to injury, it didn’t make good coffee either.   After a bit of nudging the appropriate parties, we got one of those regular coffee machines, with a simple reusable filter.   Everyone likes the new coffee, and the old gee-whiz machine sits in a corner, half apart until someone decides to come and try and fix it again.

This simpler machine may not be as efficient, as sometimes people don’t drink all of the coffee (although generally unlikely), and you might get a half a cup at the end that isn’t as quite as wonderful as the just brewed coffee.   “Of course,” you might say, “the more complex machine is more ‘efficient’, because the coffee is made via a ‘just in time’ method, and everyone gets what they want.”  Yet the complexities that make this machine efficient make it not very resilient.  It has more parts, more can go wrong, and if one particular part fails, the whole operation comes to a grinding halt (yes, a bad pun).   This tradeoff between resiliency and efficiency isn’t new.  This has been mentioned by a few others; JMG wrote about this years ago, as well as Nicholas Taleb, though some take a different tack and respectfully disagree.

What is the striking thing about this efficiency-resiliency bit is that as our modern lives have become more ‘efficient’, they have also become more individualized, and more custom made, and almost to the point of ridiculousness.   Even more revealing, is that this efficiency/individualization has made it possible to everyone to get what they want (as far as goods and services are concerned).   We all, of course, want what we want.    What might be a problem, however, is that if you start getting what you want (coffee on demand, with a wide variety of options, a personalized device of any kind), you might begin to expect it.  And that’s where the real problem lies.

As efficiency/individualization has increased, our tolerance for not getting what we want has gone down, and that probably has more of an impact than we like to think.  Our consumer tastes have become more hyper-individualized, and correspondingly our civic outlook can become more narrow as well.

Going back to the coffee example – if a few pots of coffee are made a day, there are some that are going to be stronger than others, and others that are weaker, or the bean chosen for that particular brew may not be your ideal.  In the modern world, this is unacceptable; “I want what I want!” may be the refrain.    In previous times, when an amazing resource/delicacy like coffee showed up, people might have griped about the particular blend or strength, but they drank the coffee, and learned to live with it.   Yes, it is a small point, but if people learn to handle small inconveniences, they will more likely be able to learn to barter a bit socially, and discuss things with their neighbours and colleagues.   If you have twenty choices of snacks with coffee, it is going to be harder to stock all of them, and people will expect those twenty choices.

One of the commentaries above made the point that ‘efficiency does not mean the opposite of resiliency’, and in the technical sense, that viewpoint may be correct.  A more efficient house burns less fuel, and therefore, our lives are more resilient, as we need less resources to get what we want.  The part that is forgotten is that Jevon’s Paradox takes over, as soon as you make your world more efficient.   If the temperature of a house is at 72 F, with a modern, hyper-efficient house, there will always be someone who wants to run it at 73 F, or 74F.   Or, they may want to make their house have more open space, more glass, or even larger.    If all cars got 100 MPG, and were self-driving (all complexities!), they would be hyper-efficient, but it is almost a guarantee that they’d get more use.    When engines are less efficient, and costly, you make the most of them (people ride buses together, for example).

From personal music machines (everything from the Walkman to the latest iPod), to coffee, to cars, to the chips and drinks in the supermarket, to video (Netflix and Youtube) the range of choices we have (through efficiency) makes us ‘get what we want’, but reduces our social cohesion.


  • What “efficiencies” do you think we can do without?
  • What complex machines have failed on you?  Did you accept the failures and continue on,or did you regress to older technologies?
  • Can we ever escape the clutches of Jevon’s Paradox?  What would it take for us to recognize this in future technologies?



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