GOOGLE “simplify my life” and 17.7 million entries come up. The first item offers “a simplified approach to simplifying,” confirming this is anything but simple. We are embarking on an AA-style 12-step program, where success, disappointingly, is not a destination but a never-ending journey. We must de-clutter our homes, discard all but essential possessions, rid ourselves of those holding us back in life, stop taking on other people’s problems and learn to say no to everything. And if we want stress-free tacos we should heat the shells on an upturned muffin tray, which can also be used as for condiments and snacks at parties.
The only certain way to simplify life is to cop a long sentence in jail where the choices are limited to “top bunk or bottom” “life or death” and “soap-on-a-rope or disaster in the showers.” The rest of us are imprisoned in our freedom of choice.
After 50 000 years of “full behavioral modernity” homo sapiens have succeeded in creating a world that is arguably too complex for human beings. Futurist and Google research director Ray Kurzweil says we will need to augment our brains with neural implants to function normally in a high tech world. Kurzweil sees a future where it will be normal for the human brain to be hooked up to external devices. This will become even more critical as the human brain continues to shrink over time. Apparently we have lost a chunk of grey matter the size of a cricket ball since the Stone Age. We are being asked to do more than ever with less than ever, or at least since our hominid ancestors roamed the Earth.
The English language typifies this crisis of complexity. Every day nearly 15 new words, or one every 98 minutes, are added to the language.
According to the Global Language Monitor, the rapacious English language now boasts 1.02 million words and every day becomes more rich and complex. The average adult’s word store is still just 20,000 words, so clearly I am not alone in this gathering dumbness.
The graph of English’s increasing vocabulary looks like measures of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there’s a modest increase over the 20th century until 1950 when the line moves sharply towards the vertical. As life becomes ever more complex, with new technology re-shaping society, the need to create words to describe it has grown apace.
If you want simplicity go for French which has just 100 000 words, at least in part because of the iron grip on the language by the Academie Francaise. English’s rise as a global second language has been based on its history of creating new words and assimilating others’ words to describe new phenomena. No other tongue can boast English’s capacity to adapt to change.
The million word milestone in English was reached in 2009 and, controversially, it was “Web 2.0” to describe the next stage in the development of the worldwide web. The inclusion of Web 2.0 underlined a key change in the evolution of language, now letters and numerals were being combined to form words. English speakers are no longer confined to 26 letters of the alphabet but now have the exponential possibilities of numerals as well. Letter/number hybrids are creeping in.
For instance, “n00b” a term computer gamers apply to people who know little and have no will to learn any more, has now passed into common usage.
Robert Lucky was a geek before the word existed, working in Bell Laboratories from the 1960s as an engineer and inventor. At 77 and semi-retired in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, he’s happy to be known as a n00b, along with the vast majority of society.
Back in 1990, Lucky wrote that technology and simplicity were not mutually exclusive. He believed technology would free us “to focus on things more worthy of our human intellect, producing a world in which art religion music and philosophy co-exist with amazing technical advances.”
“The real solution to our frazzled lives lies not with rejecting technology but in harnessing it in new ways to manage information overload, quiet the beepers, and calm our nerves. We need to retain faith not so much in technology as in our own power to make it work for ourselves.”
Lucky admits that perhaps that was naïve, our lives are increasingly weighed down with stress and anxiety. So his solution to complexity has been to go n00b. He no longer wants to know what’s in the box, as long as it works. When it doesn’t he’s happy to throw it away, he says. Dealing with complexity requires a hierarchical approach to knowledge, he says. As long as one masters the higher levels, there will be people to handle the lower levels.
Don’t fret about the terms and conditions that come with every new gadget, he says. Just accept that it works and focus on the creativity it delivers.
Still it’s unsettling that the Apple’s T&Cs page warns its software is not for use in “the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communication systems, air traffic control systems, life support machines or other equipment in which the failure of the Apple software could lead to death, personal injury, or severe physical or environmental damage.” This must come as a blow to enterprising software engineers and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un but for the rest of us it’s irrelevant.
Yet still this creeping complexity is beyond the understanding of most. Surveys have shown that less than 10 per cent of people actually read T&Cs before clicking that they have. Animated comedy show South Park had Apple founder Steve Jobs inserting a clause in T&Cs that gave Apple the right to sew the mouths of users to the backsides of others to form the HUMANCENTiPAD. No real-life outcomes like this have been reported but the question remains why would someone agree to something they hadn’t read, especially when it was written by lawyers?
In On The Origin of the Species Charles Darwin wrote that “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
Dealing with complexity is likely to be the next stage of human evolution. A sixteen-year old in the mid-1970s had a cache of personal details and items consisting of a bank book, a home telephone number and a residential address. It was hard to go wrong. A sixteen year old today runs multiple accounts for email, social media and e-commerce each with its own unique passwords, PIN numbers and user names. They master new technology with ease, simply adapting what they need and rejecting the rest. Banishment to the bed room as a punishment is like sending Doctor Who into the Tardis. However for people born before 1990, technology’s promise of a better quality of life is off-set by the daunting challenge of learning how to use it.
Faced with this, it’s either neural implants or a retreat into our compartments to embrace our inner-n00b. It’s ironic that Facebook users have been in up in arms about changes to their privacy settings while US Government was creating a truly heinous secret surveillance state.
Bob Lucky says that one day in the distant future computers may be capable of common sense thinking but until then the shrinking human brain will have to suffice. And while complexity will continue, there will always be people with “the secret knowledge” to cut through, that produced outwardly “simple” solutions like Google, Facebook and ebay.
“Despite my demonstrated naivety, I believe there is a germ of truth in optimistic predictions,” he wrote in a recent paper.
“The continuous unravelling of nature’s mysteries and expansion of technology raise the level on which life, with all its ups and downs, floats. Science and technology, however, depend for their effect on the complex, chaotic, and resistant fabric of society. While they cannot in themselves make life better for everyone, they create a force that I believe has an intrinsic arrow-like time or entropy, pointing relentlessly in the direction of improvement in the quality of life.”