Can We Have our Technology and Eat It Too?

In Kevin Kelly’s deep, dense work What Technology Wants, he argues that technology has always and will always continue to grow more complex. If you want to look into the depths of his argument, here’s a peek:  

Gravitational clumping supplies the raw material necessary for generating complexity, which in turn generates new levels of effective complexity in the form of self-regulating atmospheric planets, life, mind and technology. In terms of complexity, each successive revolution inherits virtually all the logical and thermodynamic depth of the previous revolution.  This ratcheting process keeps upping the effective complexity over deep time.

See what I mean by “dense and deep”? But Kelly supports the theory with some pretty compelling examples, like the increasing number of parts in the stuff that transports us – from horse buggy to bike to car to plane to jet. Or even the evolution of the hand gun or remote control follows the same rules. Over time, the guts of the technologies we use – from websites to cars to computers to social networks – are destined to become more complex.

On the other hand, we learned from the Heath brothers just how much we humans like it simple. Simple ideas spread, and simple ideas stick. One of my favorite examples of a simple idea from their book Made to Stick: deer kill more people in the USA than sharks. That single sentence has made me more watchful as I drive on the rural roads of North Carolina at night.

So it turns out that technology wants something different than we do. We (humans) come from a different perspective. Just make it work. Increasing complexity even makes us angry: Keep it simple, stupid!

But in the world of technology, keeping it simple takes a genius. The winners in the technology race seem to be the companies that can allow technology to keep getting more and more complex, yet create an interface that delivers that complexity in a pleasingly simple way.

Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra at the start of Facebook: make it easy for people to register. In the 1980s, users could opt for the “best in breed” office application – Lotus 123 for spreadsheets and Word Perfect for word processers. But instead they chose Microsoft Office. Buy a single suite that does everything through one interface, even if some performance is traded off in the process.

From GroupOn to Four Square to Twitter to Salesforce.com, the winners in the technology game have brilliant engineers who embrace technology’s inherent complexity. Yet these winning techies seem to define their purpose in life as finding the simplicity beyond the complexity. They want to build a bridge from a technologically rich inside to a beautiful interface accessible by the masses.

It’s impossible to talk about the topic of interface innovation without mentioning Apple. Steve Jobs and friends don’t merely let technology become more complex – they encourage it. Apple pushes the envelope on the possible, stretching some of the world’s best engineers to deliver more and more features and capabilities. Yet simultaneously, they have true reverence for respecting and honoring the user’s need for elegance and simplicity.

Technology craves complexity. Humans crave simplicity. Perhaps if we can be at peace with this tension we can profit from it.