The High Price We Pay for The Illusion of Simplicity

During a conversation about a particularly troublesome computer issue recently, a friend commented; “I just want to use it; I don’t need or want to know how it works!”

Well, yeah. I think all of us feel that way a lot of the time. That’s why Staples’ “Easy Button” commercial is so memorable. We want things to be easy so we can just get our work done, get on with our lives, and perhaps even have enough time left at the end of the day to have a a little fun.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re all paying an inordinately high price for the illusion of simplicity, and that it is in our best interests to start demanding that products and services we buy and use every day are easier to understand.
One step in the right direction is the new federal law that is designed to make credit card agreements easier to understand. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
As author Matt Taibi makes very clear in his book, Griftopia, on the meltdown of the US economy in 2008, part of the reason it happened is that very few people really understood exactly how complex financial instruments such as credit default swaps actually worked; yet they bought and sold them anyway. 
One person who actually did understand how dangerous they could be, and who sounded an early alarm that unfortunately went unheeded, is Warren Buffett. He warned back in 2003 that investments sold in the financial derivatives market were “financial weapons of mass destruction“. The political, financial, and social repercussions of the “mass destruction” those investment schemes wrought can be seen worldwide today, as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement continues. 
But what brought all this to mind for me recently is much smaller, and much closer to home. It’s as close as your laptop, or the mobile phone you carry with you everywhere you go. What I have found is that no matter how much you study, how much you learn, and how much you think you know; you’re really in the dark about exactly how the electronics upon which you depend every day actually work.
Have you ever called technical support about a particular issue and found that even they don’t know the answer? I have, and it’s very unsettling. It’s easy to get frustrated in such a situation, because tech support folks are just working with the information they’ve been given to help you solve your problem. But really–they don’t have all the answers, and sometimes–that’s by design.
I keep forgetting that when I actually worked in a tech support position, there were times when I simply could not give my clients the information they needed, because my company either didn’t have a solution for the problem, or wasn’t willing to spend the time and money to find one. The company line was essentially “Just find a way to keep the customer happy and move on”.

At a different company, my boss told me about the “90-10 rule”. He explained that in general 90% of all problems in a business could be resolved, and that 10% could not. “Focus on the 90%”, he advised.

But what if your customer has an issue that falls in the 10% that can’t be resolved? Simple. Find a way to make them happy an move on. You don’t actually have to resolve their issue–you just have to find a solution that will work for them.
“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Hey, if it worked for the Wizard of Oz; it can work for you. And when it doesn’t–we all pay. We pay in time, energy, money, and sometimes–even with our lives. Ralph Nader made that point in his now legendary book “Unsafe at Any Speed” about the safety issues involving the Chevrolet Corvair. 
More recently, there have been reports that China used computer hacking to compromise US Government satellites. There have been many examples of crimes connected to online scams involving Facebook, and even murders connected to Craigslist. The federal government is trying to help combat cyber bullying among school children. Law enforcement officials are investigating mobile phone hacking.

I cite these examples as some reasons that we, both as a society collectively and as individuals, should start expecting and demanding that the technology we use every day be more accessible; more understandable; and more easily controlled by the people who actually own it.

We shouldn’t be distracted with smoke and mirrors. Yeah, I understand the “90-10 Rule”, but here’s what I also understand. We–the consumers are the 90, and they–the tech companies, are the 10.

Occupy Silicon Valley? Maybe we should.


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