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Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)

by Jeffrey Kluger

      What consumes your thoughts? What situations frustrate or confuse you? Do you worry about the latest E. coli produce contamination? Why are new cell phones so complicated? Author Jeffrey Kluger dissects societal actions, products, and norms to determine their true simplicity or complexity in Simplexity.

Humans usually react and worry about things representing mere possibilities. Many of us will stop buying whatever produce or meat appears under the latest contamination scare, while we continue to pile those sugary and salt-laden snacks in our cupboards. The threat of E. coli infection is real but is a minor possibility compared to the highly probable health issues from diets with excessive sugar and salt. What makes us ignore the probable risk?

Humans determine risk through an automatic system (which signals our fear and other feelings) and one of thought (which allows us to analyze beyond the flight-or-fight response). Perceived risk involves our feelings about the risk, with the feeling of dread coming up high on the scale of perceived risk. In protecting ourselves against the multitude of daily risks, we tend to worry about those things or illnesses which cause greater pain or suffering. We worry more about the litany of things which may cause cancer, and therefore would cause greater suffering, than real probabilities of car crashes, which normally present a quicker death. Mix our fear with our distorted perception of odds, and we worry about the wrong things.

We may celebrate the inventions of the flat screen TV, digital camcorder, and combination computer-MP3-player-camera-cell-phone, but the advances complicate our lives. Complex directions, multiple buttons, and various screen menus plague even mundane devices from dishwashers to coffee pots. Why does this technology produce more complex devices rather than simplifying our lives? The answer lies in a combination of the maker’s abilities and the consumer’s desires. New devices work on hidden computers, which lend themselves to greater flexibility and also, greater confusion. Beyond the machines of the industrial age, electronics are invented by the morphed position of a designer and an engineer. It might take you a while to program your cell phone by rumbling through many screen menus, but you can’t go back to the same simplicity of a pay phone and change. The design engineer knows how to make the device more advanced, and despite our complaints, we want the latest device with-all-the-buttons-and-bells that acts similar to our last one.

Kluger scrutinizes difficult topics with clear writing, light humor, and expert interviews. Chapters start with serious and sometimes, seemingly trivial questions, such as ‘How Does a Single Bullet Start a World War?’, and ‘Why do Bad Teams Win So Many Games and Good Teams Lose So Many?’ With my Sociology background, I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration in human behavior. Readers will enjoy the apt-titled Simplexity and use the thought-provoking book to re-evaluate their actions and lives.

The Book

June 3, 2008
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The Reviewer

Jennifer Akers
Reviewed 2008
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