Tag Archives: complex systems

Would you prefer simplicity or democracy?

I was inspired by a couple of tweets I saw recently from @CompSciFact to write this.

Computer scientists for many years have made a plea for simplicity.

Edsger Dijkstra, one of the most eminent, said “we have to keep it crisp, disentangled, and simple if we refuse to be crushed by the complexities of our own making” and Fernando Corbato, one of the developers of Multics (a 60s operating system which inspired Unix) said ““The general problem with ambitious systems is complexity. … it is important to emphasize the value of simplicity and elegance, for complexity has a way of compounding difficulties.”.

Throughout the years, there have been similar statements, with computer scientists telling the world that the answer was to simplify.

And, do you know what? The world paid them no attention at all. Systems have got (much) more complex not less. Why – it’s the price we pay for democracy? Our societies and our businesses and our governments and inherently complex because people make them that way. Every time you try to simplify something be it a tax system or a chemical plant, there will be losers. Some people have to pay more tax or have a chemical plant belching fumes in their backyard. And they vote against the people who caused these problems for them.

So, we invent complex systems so that we minimise the number of losers (or at least make sure the losers have as little political influence as possible). If you want simplicity, the price you will have to pay is dictatorship.

Personally, I’ll stick with complexity.

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