Public Comment

Commentary: The Complexity of Everyday Things

Harry Weininger
Tuesday September 05, 2006

It’s a lazy summer afternoon. I am dozing in my easy chair trying to avoid being woken up by one of the myriad of gizmos in the house that beep, buzz, or chime. But I am also appreciative for the many new tools saving me and others much menial, repetitive work.  

I look at my new watch, but it’s tricky to tell what time it is. It’s not an expensive watch, but its extraordinary complexity is confusing. This little instrument on my wrist gives hours, minutes, and seconds precisely; it’s a stop watch, a calendar, a timer, and an alarm; it can tell the phases of the moon; it has its own illumination; and it’s solar-powered so its battery lasts forever. I reach for the instructions, 72 pages of them, trying to deconstruct the information on the face, just to know the time.  

I reach for instructions more and more frequently, not waiting until “all else has failed.”  

A watch used to just tell time. It had a single stem and you wound it up. If you forgot to wind it, it stopped. If you dropped it, it broke. No one thought to ask for an instruction book for a watch.  

There was a time when life was simple, or at least simpler. But in my lifetime, not very long in historical time, not only watches but every part of every component seems to have gotten more complex. Even opening a package without hurting yourself is a feat, and starting to use a new item before reading all the directions is risky.  

I look around the house, and I see just how complex things have become. At one time, I could fix a typewriter or a bicycle, or even a car. I may not have had the skill to do it, but I understood what needed to be done. The sequence of construction was apparent, and I could determine the quality of the work or repairs.  

Today one cannot do much without detailed guides. I’ve received letters that needed to be opened by tearing the edges in a given sequence. In my office, it’s expected that there are manuals for the computer, printer, and digital telephone/answering system. But now we also need manuals for ergonomically correct desks, chairs, and lamps—and those for kitchen appliances, household gizmos, and garden tools need a place all their own. And then there’s the car, for which you must study how to unlock the doors, fasten your seat belt, read dashboard gauges, open windows, release the brake, and find the defroster.  

Our shrinking globe adds yet another wrinkle. Today a product might be conceived in Paris, manufactured in Chicago, and distributed from Rio, with a user guide written in Bangalore. Such items may not be as transparent as when created by a team from your own milieu. And with instruction booklets in multiple languages—and often mystifying in your native language—assembling and using products can be tricky even if you do read instructions.  

This complexity can interfere with being a good neighbor. Fifty years ago, you could loan a friend a typewriter or a lawnmower—no explanation necessary. It was intuitive—easy to use and even to fix. Today, the sharing of equipment, even a simple tool, becomes burdensome. I can’t just drop the thing off. I’ve got to train my neighbor to use it appropriately.  

It’s chic to complain that things are too complex. But what is hard for me is easy for my daughters. A couple of centuries ago a cell phone would have been strange and magical. Most gadgets that are intuitive today were not even a gleam in Aristotle’s eye.  

Complexity and simplicity ebb and flow. Before long our computer programs will be obsolete, and new things on the horizon will be magical and strange.  

Is all this complexity necessary? It’s unavoidable—if we are to benefit from the new power generated. Each generation owns its own periods of befuddlement, and we do our best to cope without too much exasperation. If we want to retain our pleasure in the simple and the beautiful, we read the instructions, use the features, invent new ones, contemplate, compose, and play. The key is to find a balance and to go with the flow, for tomorrow’s complexities are already calling.  


Harry Weininger is a long-time  

community leader.