The Myth of Simple Technologies

Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash

Technology companies and platforms have been selling simplicity for decades. But we know, deep inside, that things are never as simple as they seem. So we add more and more technologies, tools. A new tool comes along and we think that now things will be easier. We’ve been doing this since we banged some stones together and created an exe nearly two million years ago.

Why do we tend to do this? We seek to simplify. We end up making it messier. First I look at how we got to this in our current technological era, then why we avoid complexity and what we might do to figure it out. And why Artificial Intelligence (AI) could play a major role.

When Artificial Intelligence came along, especially Generative AI (GAI) like ChatGPT it was the end of writers, marketers, designers, lawyers, doctors. Instead, GAI tools are proving to be most useful as sidekicks, or the term preferred by Microsoft, co-pilots. So far, despite periods of significant advancements in AI, not one job has been replaced.

AI has in fact, come face to face with a world of increasing sociocultural and systems complexity. Companies now spend more time considering ethical implications (rightly so), copyright and trade mark issues, cleaning up their data messiness and reconfiguring workflows and the related tools for information technology management. AI is not a simplifier, it is a complicator. But it can help use move forward.

If people really knew just how messy and bad the majority of companies and governments data and data management systems were, they’d probably be shocked. Hollywood may have you thinking everything is slick and smooth. It is exactly the opposite.

All of this is largely to do with most digital technologies, from so-called productivity tools like Slack, Teams, Monday, Click-Up, Notion to eCommerce sites like Shopify and Amazon being seen in the singular view of “solving for a problem” the mantra of Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists and startup accelerators.

The favoured response to any sense of complexity is building APIs (Application Protocol Interfaces), those bits of software that let one app connect with another app and all is well. When the API works, or is designed with cybersecurity in mind. Zapier is a company that has thrived in this space, helping apps and products interconnect. In effect all Zapier does is act like a pressure valve in a complex system. APIs help, are in fact, critical components of complex digital systems, but they are not the answer.

Humans have a hard time with complex systems. We tend toward simplifying because of cognitive capabilities. It takes a lot more energy for our brains to think about complex issues. It is one of the reasons that internet memes are so popular. They dumb down complex issues. And often create more problems, such as political divisions in society.

Even though our brains do incredibly complex things, far more complex than any existing AI tool comes near to. Our senses are constantly bombarded with more data than they can process. We are continually measuring and assessing our reality, from where we are to where we’re going.

Amplify this over an entire planet of 8 billion sentient beings and the vast amounts of technologies from simple tools like a hammer to global air traffic control systems and we see how fast things become incredibly complex.

And we keep interconnecting systems. We interconnect them, through tools like the Internet-of-Things IoT), the Industrial-Internet-of-Things (IIoT), different types of databases, energy grids, water systems and tools that run our cities and so on.

Over many thousands of years as we began to build and live in cities, we’ve developed ways to deal with such complexities. These have been a constant set of experiments we’ve been running all this time. Such as different political (e.g. monarchies to democracies) systems and economic systems (e.g. feudalism to capitalism), rule of law, city by-laws and so on. All are elements of culture.

Culture (which is way more than music and art) is, as I’ve written before, is humanity’s operating system and plays a vital role in helping us manage complexity.

While there are inherent dangers in AI and we’re having a wonderful debate on these issues, AI may be the technology our brains need to help us function in a world that is becoming more, not less complex.

We may seek to simplify our own lives, such as the minimalist movement and tiny homes, but at a global scale, we are not simplifying our world. As we learn more about and begin to understand the complexity of our environment and nature, as we seek to reduce our carbon footprint, we will evolve more complex technologies and have to advance our sociocultural systems in lockstep. AI may well be the critical tool that helps us do this.

If you’re keen on thinking about figuring out our path forward, the first step is to stop over-simplifying and “solving for a problem” and instead think of solving for complex systems issues. Our history with technological development shows that inventing a new technology often leads to new, unexpected problems. Not less. This also tends to beget new jobs.

We will need to think in terms of sociocultural systems at scale. We will need more systems thinkers, the evolution of design thinking and bringing together hard sciences and social sciences.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.