The Adams Complexity Threshold is the point at which something is so complicated it no longer works.
The Gulf oil spill is probably a case of complexity reaching the threshold. It was literally impossible for anyone to know if the oil rig was safe or not. The engineering was too complex. I’m sure management thought it was safe, or hoped it was safe, or hallucinated that it was safe. It wasn’t possible to know for sure.
Maybe someday we’ll learn there was one person who skipped a safety step, but that’s exactly the sort of thing you can’t get away with in a less complex world, where everyone understands the whole process and can notice a mistake. It’s our nature to blame a specific person for a specific screw-up, but complexity is what guarantees mistakes will happen and won’t be caught.
Enron is another case of complexity crossing the threshold. No one really understood what Enron was doing, except for a few crooks, and they intentionally used complexity to conceal their treachery. I lived in California when Enron literally made the lights go out, and even the Governor didn’t know why.
The financial meltdown, health care, defense spending, our tax code, problems in the Middle East – you name it. They have all become unsolvable because of their complexity. We want to blame individuals for being stubborn or corrupt or even stupid. But the real enemy is complexity.
Complexity is often a natural outgrowth of success. Man-made complexity is simply a combination of things that we figured out how to do right, one layered on top of the other, until failure is achieved.
Try leaving the house with the family. It used to be as simple as getting in the car and driving away. Lately it has become more complicated than the Normandy invasion. You need cell phones, car chargers, iPods, sunglasses, address for the navigation unit, and sweaters, if not layers. Someone needs a snack, and someone needs an Advil. There’s something you need to drop off along the way. Remember to stop at a mailbox, then pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, and get gas. Then remember that the iron might be plugged in, and drive back home to check. Repeat.
Recently I got a very cool Garmin watch/GPS device for running. It can do so many things that the interface is unfathomable to me when considered in the context of my busy life. To be clear, I am completely capable of figuring out how to use the device, given enough time and attention, but the complexity of the rest of my life guarantees that this happy day of understanding will never come. So I wore the watch to a party and asked a friend how to activate the distance tracking function. I’ll stop my learning there, since that’s the main thing I wanted the device for. I have comics to draw and blog posts to write. No more time for Garmin.
It’s not an accident that the recent leaders of China have been trained engineers. They’ve done a great job in an immensely complicated situation. Engineers are trained to deal with complexity.
I wonder if we should start requiring in our leaders a background that shows they can deal with complexity. Lawyers and engineers have that training. I assume that doctors and economists have what it takes. Ironically, a degree in political science alone is probably a red flag that a person might not be suited for the complexities of holding office. Taking it a step further, if your elected representative majored in English, he’s probably relying on reflex, polls, superstition or bribery to make his decisions. Good luck with that.
[On another topic, check out my article for the Wall Street Journal that grew out of this blog. It’s getting a lot of attention.]