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Complexifiers and Simplifiers: some necessary nuance

Scott Berkun writes that there are two kinds of people in the world: simplifiers and complexifiers.

Complexifiers are averse to reduction. Their instincts are to turn simple assignments into quagmires, and to reject simple ideas until they’re buried (or asphyxiated) in layers of abstraction. […] They take pride in consuming more bandwidth, time, and patience than needed, and expect rewards for it.

Simplifiers thrive on concision. They look for the 6x=6y in the world, and happily turn it into x=y. They never let their ego get in the way of the short path. When you give them seemingly complicated tasks they simplify, consolidate and re-interpret on instinct, naturally seeking the simplest way to achieve what needs to be done. They find ways to communicate complex ideas in simple terms without losing the idea’s essence or power.

Anybody who’s talked to me in person (especially in the past 6 months) will have no trouble whatsoever guessing which of these two groups I identify with.

This reminds me of a really interesting segment of Iain McGilchrist’s RSAnimate talk about our misconceptions about our left and right brains. Specifically, a section when he describes how both brains doing what they do best in parallel for a completely ordinary situation as being evolutionarily beneficial. (The whole video is fantastic, by the way — well worth the eleven minutes.)

I would argue that favouring simplicity at all times is not only overly reductionist, but that the dominance of that worldview — that complexity and people who respect or attend to it are problematic and negative — has led us to our current quandary when it comes to the unsustainability of humanity’s relationship with its natural environment. At root, it comes down to hundreds (if not thousands) of systems, all pursuing isolated definitions of simple, elegant objectives, preferring to eschew the complexity of the whole in favour of washed hands and patted backs. Only those who cannot afford the going market rate for staying out of the messy “details” — like, oh, much of what we don’t price in the economy, such as women and animals — bear the consequences. Until that rapidly becomes everybody.

The way I see it, a disdain for complexity — particularly in the urban planning domain where I grapple with it most often — is wishful thinking. Oh, if only life weren’t path dependent. If only we were able to pursue system optimal without penalty, switching costs, or the messiness of your legacy system. The world I know doesn’t work that way.

Don’t get me wrong. Simplicity is absolutely essential — when the endeavour is at the scale of how we act upon the world, seeing as boiling the ocean has a poor rate of return. Big fan of user-centered design, right here, and that’s (supposedly?) all about not making me think.

Deploy this mindfully, however, when the project at hand is understanding the world in its wicked, interdependent glory. We very soon will be living the limitations of yesterday’s methods, for those of us who aren’t knee-deep in those endgames already. Something tells me the thinking that got us into this isn’t going to be the stuff that gets us out. Maybe those simplifiers would get something out of figuring out how to play nice with those pesky complexifiers after all. (And the converse: that complexifiers get better at articulating their value in ways the simplifiers can grasp, or, at very least, can’t write off completely.)

What I get out of McGilchrist’s video is that we need to be skillful in deploying, and recognize, the roles and necessity of each mode. Berkun’s post neatly demonstrates McGilchrist’s point that the reductionistic brain is very good at being self-consistent and arguing on its own behalf. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. So, more appreciation, less blanket judgment of the complexifiers, capiche?

I will give Berkun credit for thing: he did manage to get me to write a succinct blog post with a clear point.

One Comment

  1. See also Ribbonfarm on literacy: exposition and condensation.

    Posted May 15, 2012 at 10:56 am | Permalink

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