The secret behind the power of the things we make is that they aren’t single things. The cheapest no-brand MP3 player is millions of times more complex than the most sophisticated mechanical clock ever built. At this level of complexity our perceptions and intuitions break down, and it’s only through the utmost efforts at abstraction and modularity that engineers are able to conceive and build our everyday consumer items.
Designers have taken upon themselves to hide this complexity, and their efforts have arguably made possible the widespread use of information technology. Apple is perhaps the most famous example of mastery in this area. By elegantly and ruthlessly blocking, by technical and legal means, every connection between the user and the astronomical complexity of their devices, they sell the illusion of them being simple. Like a magical mirror that shows you the most beautiful woman in a kingdom (or like a magical gadget that can play any song you want it to), “simple” doesn’t mean “lacking capabilities.” It just means that its owner understands or believes to understand what it does, even if they don’t know how.
Herein lies the danger, as, by a well-known mathematical theorem at the foundations of computer science, every modern electronic gadget (from supercomputers to the performance monitoring processors inside your car) can do pretty much everything any other modern gadget can do. Faster or more slowly, with more or less limitations, any computer, no matter how small, can do anything that any other computer can do.
This means we are building a pervasive infrastructure of immense power, but, because of the way in which our devices are packaged, sold, and used, we only realize a fraction of its potential. The uncluttered aesthetic simplicity of modern gadgets houses unsuspected depths of complexity that imply both potential dangers and missed opportunities. Your car could be programmed to disable its brakes only when you are driving at high speed in a country road one month after your murderer has left the city. Your cellphone could lower the volume of the music it’s playing when the airport PA system announces your flight. Your TV could realize that you’re bored and zapping, and alert telemarketers that you’d be more likely to take a call than if you were engrossed in your favorite series.
Psychologically, socially, and even philosophically, we are completely unprepared for a world in which most things are really computers, which means they are programmable, which means they can do pretty much anything they are physically capable of. Any strong relationship between what a thing “is” and how it is likely to behave is meaningless for computers, and it’s being maintained in our everyday environment only by the efforts of designers and marketers. And even this fragile veil is torn with every new hacking trick, invasion of privacy, or previously unthought of feature.
The simplicity of things might be a necessary illusion, but it’s also a dangerous one.Taking the fullest advantage of contemporary technology (and defending from the worst of its potential), requires us to look straight into the complexity that surrounds us, and figure out a way of dealing with it without pretending it’s not there.