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Margaret Wente

Complexity will destroy us all Add to ...

I'm worrying about our new oven, even though we don't have it yet.

The oven is included with our condo, which may eventually be finished (or not). It is German, very sleek, and has lots of advanced features.

"That oven is too complicated," says my friend Virginia, who already has one. She showed it to me the other day. It's scary. It has a database, a programmable interface, a Navitronic touch control pad, and more settings and functions than the cockpit of a Boeing. It has two kinds of heat, regular and convection. It has 15 different operating modes, including Intensive Bake and Sabbath.

"If only it had knobs," Virginia said. If only it had knobs, it would be easier to turn on. She also thinks the temperature is wonky. When she complained, they sent out a technician who said the temperature controls were fine, and told her she can take a course to learn how to use her oven. Evidently lots of people do.

Not long ago, I was smart enough to operate an oven without a PhD. No more. Now I'm too stupid for my appliances. A while back, we replaced our old washing machine with a brand-new front-loader. It has a dazzling array of settings, plus a bunch of different drawers for detergent, bleach, and fabric softener. I was thrilled when it arrived because my undies were piling up. The first time I tried to use it, I discovered that I needed a new kind of specialty detergent. The second time, I whizzed through the instruction book and filled up all the little drawers with just the right amounts of different stuff. No problem!

Then I tried to turn it on. I was stumped. It would have been easier to find a stream and pound my undies with a rock.

"The complexity of modern life is killing us," says Scott Adams, the incomparable creator of the Dilbert cartoons. "Complexity turns the simple into the impossible." He has many funny stories about this on his blog. He wants you to raise your hand if you know how to program your thermostat.

Many of the goods and services designed to make our life easier and more convenient just make it harder and more stressful. The computers that my husband and I use at home crash with distressing regularity. Whenever this happens, he turns off all the boxes that are wired up to each other and unplugs all the bit and pieces. Then he plugs them in again and we hold our breath. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. If not, we call the nerd. Sometimes we can't find the nerd for days, in which case we have a nervous breakdown.

Complexity means that many of life's central tasks and obligations are now beyond the ability of ordinary people to manage on their own. Consider the task of saving for retirement. It used to be a simple matter. You'd put your savings in a savings bond, or maybe in a sock. You might have a modest pension plan. You'd retire, and six years later you would die. But now, you're supposed to start saving when you're 25. You face a stupefying array of investment options. At the very least, you will need to have a decent grasp of asset allocation principles, tax effects and actuarial tables, to say nothing of a talent for deferred gratification. You can either manage your savings for yourself (risky), or hire an expert (risky and expensive). Then you can retire and pray your money lasts for another 30 years. Good luck!

Complexity also makes it harder than ever to have informed opinions about the most vital issues of the day. Is American health care reform a good thing? Of course as a Canadian, I've got to think so, but honestly I'm darned if I know. What should we do about global warming? How do we regulate the world financial system so that it doesn't crash again? Beats me. I'm too busy changing over all the stuff that gets automatically billed to my credit card every month because it's so convenient. I have to change it to another card, because the first credit card expired and all the automatic payments bounced, and now they've cancelled our newspaper and our house insurance.

The trouble is that as systems get more complex, the more likely they are to fail, sooner or later. It doesn't matter whether it's the world financial system, a NASA space ship or a German oven. The failure often starts with something no one could foresee. Somebody defaults on a loan, or an O-ring gives out, and then it all goes kablooey. The complexity itself creates the risks. As one engineer said, "We cannot know the exact path of failure, but we can make one solid prediction for the future: The system will fail."

I can't do much about the big things. But I can do something about the little ones. For years, I've tried without success to program a succession of clock radios. It never works. The alarm goes off at midnight, or 5:30 in the afternoon, or not at all. So now I have a little wind-up clock that cost $9.98. You point the alarm hand where you want, and pop the button up before you go to sleep. It works great.


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