Monday, January 13, 2014

Our Simplicity Fetish

Theo van Doesburg, Dessin Arithmétique IV, via Wikimedia Commons
You might not have noticed, what with all the other crazy shit going on in the world these days, but we humans seriously fetishize simplicity. It's like the whole idea that things are complicated is somehow suspect, like if you're thinking about things, then sorry, either you're some kind of evil obfuscator or YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

Everyone acts like they're the brilliant sword cutting through the Gordian Knot of everyone else's ignorance.

I'm sure it was always thus, but with the whole internet thing giving us so much more information about one another than we ever wanted, you get to see it all the time. I feel like every time I try to read a comment thread -- even a moderated one rising above the level of vicious abuse -- there's this relentless rhetoric where people think they're slicing through the bullshit with their brave and uncompromising pronouncements.

 If there's ever a tiny minority of poor souls raising relevant issues or pointing to aspects of a situation or, god forbid, asking questions -- there are always these voices of authority proclaiming some simple principle as the f-ing gospel.

"U Can't Do That Because Freedomz!"

"Was Ur Choice So No Can Complain."
"World Needz Moar Kindness Only."
"U R Too Negative"

and if these aren't relevant there's the always popular

"Why You Haz Opinion?"

"Who R U to Say?"

Good lord.

And now that "arts" have become "entertainment," just forget it. To be financially feasible, movies and TV shows have to appeal to vast numbers of people -- and so must not alienate or disturb even the stupidest viewers. The inevitable result is a cascade of moral simplicity: Look mom, there are Good Guys and there are Bad Guys! I think they're going to fight! [Gasp] I think the Good Guys are going to win!

I heard a movie director talking recently on a podcast about his love for a certain kind of science fiction movie and basically the whole explanation was that in those movies, there are Good Guys, and there are Bad Guys, and he found this kind of moral simplicity profoundly attractive.

I wanted to say: "Sure it's attractive." It's attractive in the same way as the Tooth Fairy or the The Secret. Like, "comfy, nice, but not true." Sorry, but normally we reserve those things for people under ten years old.

I wouldn't mind the desire for simplicity in fantasy-land, but I feel like engagement with simplicity influences how people deal with the actually complex world around them, so that complex decisions are treated as if of course there's some simple application of some simple principle, the question is just which one.

For instance, I think the fetish for simplicity has helped to prop up the "what could go wrong?" theory of foreign policy. It's like, "democracy is good" so ... we'll just send bombs and drones to weed out the problem people and then we'll run elections and poof!

Sometimes people make fun of economists for "physics envy," the idea being that they improperly modeled their science to mimic one with simple elegant mathematics and simple unifying equations when economic reality just can't be modeled that way.

As I see it, physics envy is way broader, and seems to infect the world at large. People already have a kind of natural love for the idea of deep harmony in the world, even when no such harmony really exists. The fact that physicists were able to come up with elegant simple equations just buttressed this already problematic way of thinking.

It's like everyone saw those equations and thought "OMG there really is deep harmony in the world! All we have to do is find the right simple thoughts and apply them! "World Needs Moar Kindness Only! U R Too Negative!!" Spread the gospel!

1 comment:

thefringthing said...

I think I have a terminal case of this one. My problem with De Stijl has always been that they didn't just cut blue and yellow too.

Simplicity falls apart pretty quickly in math and physics too, depending on what you think is simple. Elementary functions don't necessarily have elementary antiderivatives. Hardly any of the apparently important dimensionless physical constants look like integers, or even reasonable rational multiples of pi or anything like that.