Demystifying the Digital World – Part I

In the last few years, our digital lifestyles have become a major part of modern living. For example, getting a message online used to mean email and “Instant Messages” (aka IMs). Now they flood in through email, text messages, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and many other sources. These messages used to be accessed from a desktop computer, but not any more. Today most of us have at least a computer and a smartphone while some are “lucky enough” to have a computer, laptop, smartphone, tablet, and maybe even a smart watch.

Digital photos are another good example. While valuable, they end up stored on computers old and new, hard drives, smartphones, The Cloud, and sometimes combinations of these, creating messy duplicates and lost photos. Other examples include music, digital calendars, digital receipts, bank statements, and the classic problem of keeping track of important digital files. Most of these activities require software, website access, and also have apps for phones, all of which have different user interfaces.

Even when well organized, complexity can lead to things going wrong from time to time. Devices fail, software gets updated, passwords are forgotten, hackers can wreck havoc, or we can simply forget how a certain device works, especially if it is not used often. I’ll bet that 90% of homes have the WiFi password on a sticky note somewhere near the router.

Still not convinced, how about these nagging questions?

  • Television: Why are remotes so complex? Why do we need a list of procedures that looks like the checklist from Boeing 747 to use them? 
  • Computers: Why are they updated so frequently, often “automatically,” and often right when some critical task needs to be done? (Smart phones and tablets fall into the same category.)
  • Printers: Why do they beg for ink for weeks, but keep printing? Or they stop printing for no apparent reason, then spew dozens of pages of gibberish. Ours has a particularly endearing habit waiting ten minutes, then making a loud noise when it “goes to sleep,” scaring us every time.
  • Internet: Why can’t we stay online reliably? WiFi has been around for almost 20 years and routers still look like alien spacecraft.  Here’s an interesting side-note, the term WiFi actually stands for absolutely nothing (which might explain a few things). Other issues include malware and the fact we now need to keep track of passwords for dozens of websites.

After millions of years of evolution during which the most complicated problems humans wrestled with involved agriculture and animal husbandry, how have we so quickly transitioned into a world where complexity seems to be spiraling out of control?

However, grappling with complexity is not new. Confucius was quoted in the 1st century as saying “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” The famous concept of Occam’s Razor is the basis for the “preference for simplicity” in the scientific method. This sounds modern but is actually attributed to William of Ockham, a 14th century Franciscan friar. Some people like to quote Einstein as saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” because it sounds like something he would say. It’s a great quote, but it’s not from Einstein (and the source is much more complex). Even the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid) was coined by Kelly Johnson, the lead engineer who helped create some of the most complex aircraft ever built such as Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes, among others.

Of course, reasonable complexity is welcome, but too much can be crippling. Therefore this series of posts will focus on providing suggestions for resolving common problems quickly and efficiently by balancing complexity and simplicity. Along the way, there will be discussions about a variety of topics from the complexity inherent in modern technology systems (for example, what is “The Cloud”) to the scholarly work being done in the field by groups such as Santa Fe Institute’s “Complexity Explorer.”

If you have a particular topic of interest, please let me know. In the meantime as a teaser, the next post will start with a couple of “digital housecleaning tips” that will help you get a jump start on doing some Spring cleaning in your digital life. Until then, if you are not backing up your computer, your homework is to read this article and do it! Remember, “To Go Forward You Must Backup!”