Simplify me, Captain!

February 23rd, 2012

When the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer was turned on in 1947, it was the first general purpose computer. It took up 1,800 square feet of space and was made of millions of parts. Indubitably, it was the most3 intensely complex machine to ever exist. Its purpose was to ease and simplify the solving of problems and equations.

For millennia, ease has been sought through simplicity. To better understand something we ask that it be explained more simply. There are the eternal questions for which simple answers are sought. The thing is, the reason they are eternal is because in their most reduced form, they still cannot definitively be proven and typically require an extensive justification. Without complex elaboration it is very easy to be misunderstood or appear to have foundation-less thoughts, beliefs or actions.

Commonly, people are questioned about their religion. Do you believe in God? Are you Catholic? Very often, the answer is not simple. You might be a cafeteria Catholic (you pick and choose what aspects to follow). Then you would have to explain which pieces you ascribe to and elaborate on them individually.

There is no problem with wanting simplicity. Living simply is, personally, the most desirable lifestyle. The trouble lies in the manner we hope to attain simplicity. Like mostly everything, the majority of people want things to be easily achievable. Somewhat ironically, it is a difficult and complex road to simplicity.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” It’s funny that a quote about simplicity is so difficult to decipher. But, in a way, that difficulty parallels the meaning of the quote.

What Holmes meant is that the world we live in is intricate. We must understand the complexity of things before we can simplify them. We must break down things as much as we can. Once every piece of a complex whole is extracted, the simple idea can be identified.

Contemporary culture approaches the goal of simplicity correctly. Using the ENIC was very complicated and inefficient. To improve computers the technology had to advance more, i.e. get more complicated. This new technology, which now resides in our laptops and smartphones, has made the use of such devices much simpler and easier. This hasn’t come without a price, though.

Since it has become so much easier to be reachable at any time by anyone, have access to any bit of information up to the minute and even do work while on the go, we have created conditions that allow our lives to become even more complex! Our multitasking capabilities have been heightened.  The “simple” technologies of today are able to do much more than the ENIC could.

This is where another part of Holmes’ quote comes into play. The simplicity of today’s complexity is much more stressful than before. The other end of complexity is that composed of problems of natural origin, like the complexities of emotions and human interaction. These simplicities compose the true joys of life.

Finding and embracing the simplicities of the world is a life-long journey. It must be understood the universe is made of complexities. Rarely are there easy or simple answers to anything. But, all complexities are made of simplicities. Perhaps the most difficult thing to grasp is the unity between the two.

It’s strenuous to not have the immediate gratification of a simple answer or the ability to pinpoint a singular cause of a problem so it can be solved. However, if this fact of life is accepted, one will be less displeased with such inconveniences and much more efficient at dealing with complexities by reducing them to their simplest forms.