by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 30
April 2020

Will the pandemic simplify our lives?

by Peter Franklin
Large queues during lockdown outside Costco in Birmingham

Simplicity — that’s the answer. To get through the crisis and its aftermath we must let go of what we don’t need.

I see versions of this argument popping up all over the place. One of the best is made by Andreas Kluth for Bloomberg:

As a first sign of rapid simplification, global supply chains are dissolving, and often being reassembled in much more rudimentary ways… Closer to home, many of us have already begun to simplify. If we used to fear missing out, now there’s little to miss out on, which is the best excuse for staying home with the family… Prodigal and exotic travel is out, so nobody feels bad about ‘staycations.’ In everything from diet to medicine and fashion, ‘simple is the new black’.
- Andreas Kluth, Bloomberg

The rationale is that unnecessary complication is at best a luxury and at worst a liability — a house of cards waiting to tumble down. So, if the alternative is civilisational collapse, there’s certainly a case for achieving resilience through retrenchment.

However, I have my doubts as to whether our response to the current crisis really is one of simplification. In particular, I’d suggest that our accelerated reliance on digital technologies is compelling evidence to the contrary.

The online video conference is an obvious, glitchy and awkward example. I, for one, can’t wait to get back to screen-free office meetings — not only because I quite like my colleagues, but because real life is by far the easiest medium for communication.

However, in other domains, tech offers a much smoother user experience — and therein lies a trap. What might look like simplicity itself, cleverly conceals its true complexity.

Think about online retail, for instance. For millions of us, click-and-buy has become routine — an everyday miracle in which goods from around the world appear as if by magic on our doorsteps. But what lies behind each delivery is an intricate logistical operation — powered by tech that can only get more sophisticated as human labour is replaced with delivery drones and other machines.

From the consumer’s point of view, the traditional method of going to the shops to physically locate, pay for and bring back purchases may be a bigger effort, but organisationally it’s far less complicated. The individual components of the system (i.e. shoppers) don’t depend on one another. If one fails, for any reason, there’s no knock-on effect on the others. Compare that to an online delivery service with its deeply inter-connected components — a partial failure of which can bring the whole system crashing down.

Of course, infectious disease turns a human population into a system too — individuals co-opted into a complex network whose nodes can compromise their neighbours. Lockdown is about unplugging ourselves from these harmful connections.

The irony, though, is that in relying on technology to facilitate our social isolation we become dependent on systems where complexity is a feature, not a bug… until, that is, there is one.

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