Post 3042: No, it’s really not that simple.


My father is continuously angry. As he ages, his outward expressions of this have mellowed, but he still rants pretty much all the time, about everything. His main complaint is that everything and everyone is stupid, and he knows how to do it better. No matter what it is – medical system, fisheries notifications, the sale on at Canadian Tire – it’s all been set up by people who have no clue, and he knows how to fix it because he is an engineer and it’s all very simple. It’s just common sense that’s needed.

Dear old dad is not alone in this, as I’m sure you’ve noticed out in the world these days. That attitude is pretty prevalent, and to some degree it’s what got Donald Trump in power. The world is simple, and all it takes is one smart person (and no, I’m not calling Trump smart – but he sure thinks he is) to repair the damage done by intellectuals and overthinkers, etc.

Now, as someone who works in web development and user experience – I do know that there are a ton of design fixes that can happen to our websites, to our products, and to our physical and digital architectures – that do in fact, help make the world a more user-friendly place. Read Gerry McGovern, or pick up A Pattern Language, and there is no doubt that an array of well thought-out fixes is out there for governments and businesses who want to spend the money to do things right in the design phase (spoiler: no one wants to spend the money).

But go out in the real world, and it suddenly gets a lot more complex. Take fisheries management, for example. It’s true that in BC, fisheries management is incredibly complex, and to the end user – the fisherman – it’s a frustration. I hear from users all the time who have suggestions for how we could make the regs easier to understand. “Just post open or closed for a fishing area – see simple!” I might hear. But no. Because of changes over the past couple of decades to the way fisheries management is done , it is rare that in the south coast of BC a whole area is open or closed at the same time. More often we have micro-openings or closures which help with stock management while allowing for fishing opportunities. Also, in the last fifteen years we have implemented marine protected areas, sponge reef protection zones, and national marine conservation areas that impede some or all fishing activities in specific spots that are being more heavily monitored and managed. Additional to that, there is the chance of toxic algae bloom, or sanitary contamination events which impact some species and not others. Plus, on an annual basis, stocks are managed according to how they are actually doing, not how they were predicted to do – so for people trying to plan their fishing trip a year in advance (and they are legion), our refusal to post solid predictions is a regular source of complaint.

You get the idea. Managing a dynamic system has a number of inputs and many challenges. There is nothing simple about it. And while managing for all those inputs, the government still aims to give conservation high priority, and then allow for opportunities in all fishing communities – many of whom rely on fishery openings for their sustenance and survival. Simple would actually be closing all the fisheries. As long as we keep them open, the system is bound to be complex.

Even fixing the way we deliver information to the fishing communities by creating databases of decisions, a project I am currently working on, has proven to be an exercise in complex decision-making and design – way beyond my skill set. And because these types of information architecture skills are actually pretty rare (everyone thinks they know how to organize information, very few people actually do) – it costs quite of money to hire a consultant to work with us on a rational information design approach.

And then, to top all that off, there are all the internal systems of bureaucracy that are ostensibly there to eliminate graft and make things reasonable for the taxpayer. I’m not sure about how complex or simple it would be to fix those systems, but I’ll tell you that they make my job in resource management communications a lot more difficult to deliver on.

Anyhow – you get my point. Pick any large system that you think needs fixing and the same patterns will emerge:

  1. We live in a highly developed society so we are never starting from scratch. This means we are most often extracting information and processes out of legacy systems or hybridizing several systems rather than starting at zero.
  2. We’re in a risk averse business/government culture due to the potential for litigation – which means that every single thing we design or do has to be bomb-proof – security-tested, and threat-analyzed.
  3. In the last seventy years we’ve advanced our rights discourse to ensure that individuals and groups are protected in specific kinds of ways – which is why something like a BC-wide system of medical records, while it sounds simple, has yet to materialize.

Does this mean that I don’t believe that problems can be solved, systems can be better designed, and complex processes can’t be made simpler? No way! I am a great believer in better design, tearing things down and starting from scratch for robust builds, and the capacity of humans to think back through any set of problems and come up with different answers.

But what I also know is that to do this with any single system costs money, and it takes time – real time – in consultation with real humans to get it right. And as so often the fixing of one room of a house exposes the weaknesses of other rooms, or even the foundation – so does each process change beget a probing of all the supportive systems around it.

The danger in simplicity thinking is that it implies that any problem can be fixed cheaply and with little input from anyone. This is the message we’ve been hearing over and over in the last few months from America’s new overlord. The problems with Obamacare should be fixed by eliminating it all together. Worried about terrorism? Set up a registry for Muslims, who cares about the Bill of Rights?  Don’t like a particular group or country? Send in the bombs – that’ll teach em.

This type of thinking is of course, dangerous – but even when it’s not extreme, it aims at homogenizing complex personal experience by suggesting that the world is a single place, made up of a single people with the same desires and wants. It suggests that the people who want change, are in fact, always the problem (“why should I have to call that person by the pronoun of their choice? it’s not my issue”) because they add to the complexity. The result of this is of course erasure, alienation, and a false sense of majority thinking. Those who believe they have the answers, are pretty much all of a (white, male) type – the engineers of the world who believe that they should call the shots because they are rational thinkers, and who cares how you feel or what your experience of the world (and its many systems) is?

On an existential level –  this pretense additionally suggests that things are totally within our control – easy to fix. Which is of course not true on any objective level – but the suggestion is enough to calm us down isn’t it? That way we don’t have to confront the world the way it actually is, but as we would like it to be. That is, we get more and better designed service all the time without having to pay more taxes – oh, and climate change? Just put some technology on that would you?

So in case it’s not clear – I’m here to say it. The world is not that simple. Systems take more than a quick fix to get right, and everything you want (from better schools, roads, and hospitals to easier to understand government websites) costs money. The people running the show are not idiots, but fallible human beings running an ever-more-complex set of systems for a society that demands specificity and individual service but doesn’t want to pay for it. To think otherwise is dangerous, and it doesn’t advance us one whit towards the better world everyone wants – the one with full employment and good services for all. So let’s tackle those problems together, fixing the broken things bit by bit and ignoring the demagogues who lull us with a false sense of the simple (wrong) solutions they can sell us.

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
H. L. Mencken

2 thoughts on “Post 3042: No, it’s really not that simple.

  1. This is beautifully written, and I must say, good to read. I have had the same feeling lately, here in Europe more and more people seem to forget the lessons of history (WW2 wasn’t even that long ago but most people conveniently brush it away), and use simplistic answers as a cure-it-all. But we can’t fix things if we don’t get to the roots of it, and try to understand every aspect of it.

  2. Hi Megan, I posted this on FB the day I heard it on CBC. A statement made in response to a question of “civics” not being taught in schools any longer. This was said many years ago -(I haven’t looked when exactly) by the retired associate Supreme Court Judge David Souter. I thought you might like to read this.
    DAVID SOUTER: I don’t worry about our losing Republican government in the United States because I’m afraid of a foreign invasion. I don’t worry about it because I think there is going to be a coup by the military as has happened in some other places. What I worry about is that when problems are not addressed, people will not know who is responsible and when the problems get bad enough, as they might do for example with another serious terrorist attack, as they might do with another financial meltdown, some one person will come forward and say give me total power and I will solve this problem. That is how the Roman Republic fell. Augustus became emperor not because he arrested the Roman Senate. He became emperor because he promised that he would solve problems that were not being solved. If we know who is responsible, I have enough faith in the American people to demand performance from those responsible. If we don’t know, we will stay away from polls, we will not demand it. And the day will come when somebody will come forward, and we and the government will in effect say take the ball and run with it. Do what you have to do. That is the way democracy dies. That is what you should worry about at night.

    See you in a couple of weeks! Gassho Nirmal

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