Keeping it complex….

–It’s easy to see why “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are taken to be opposites. That said, there is less a gradient between the two than a considerable overlap. “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are both admonitions; both are more complicated than they first appear. While they actually have the same caveats, hedges and qualifications, “Keep it complex!” has one saving virtue: It more easily accommodates, reflects and answers to the complications.

–Both admonitions prove more ambiguous, equivocal and murkier and we have a noun for such properties, that being obliquity. Michael Wood, literary and film critic, helps us with the implications.

His chapter, “Seven types of obliquity” is a prism through which “Keep it simple!” and other admonitions can be parsed into less straightforward warrants for action. Indeed, the entire point is that something important that looks like a direct affirmation, instruction or query, isn’t—and in respects that matter. I crib unabashedly from Wood:

  • When someone commends, “Keep it simple!,” you might respond by taking it more as sounding out about what you think than affirming you don’t have to think much further. Just what is the “it” and how “simple” is simple, you ask? You may feel your admonisher is on the whole more right than wrong, or at least not wrong enough to avoid your taking “Keep it simple!” seriously.
  • “Keep it simple!” is also one of those instructions that seems to know us without having to know each of us. In reality, our instructor is guessing about each of us by deferring to a matter of general knowledge. Sadly and in Wood’s words, s/he ends up “ask[ing] so much work of us, and scarcely tell us where to start”. “Keep it simple!” becomes the demand to decide without knowing if it is decidable.
  • “Keep it simple!” by transforming into “Keep it simple?” ends up looking more like speculation than an affirmation or instruction. Or to put it in preceding terms, “Keep it simple!” is active only when generalization is sought or general knowledge appealed to; the second we differentiate the exclamation point, “!,” is the second it becomes a case-by-case “?”.
  • None of these caveats will, however, stop those others insisting an unadorned “Keep it simple!” is the right view to take when starting to analyze a complex issue. I’m thinking here of some engineers and economists with whom I’ve worked.

But even these occasions are opportunities “to test the view not only against its chances of being true but against the whole structure of personality which would need to hold such a view, and against a time and a place in which the view might seem banal or original, striking or even desperate”.

This means testing “Keep it simple!” as one view within its wider contexts, recognizing of course that “Test!” is as subject to caveats. An infinite regress threatens (the context of the context of…), but that is the methodological point: “Keep it simple!” doesn’t even begin to approximate a closed argument, if only because we keep reopening what others want closed.

  • There is also a sense in which we respond to “Keep it simple!” as if it were a parable about how to act. Responding to the interjection, we try to think of first-hand scenarios in which it would hold for the kind of events we know and worlds we occupy. We often “find ourselves wanting to apply [a parable], and not just interpret it,” as Wood puts it. “Keep it simple!” makes seeking out exemplars irresistible.

–Of course, the very same bulleted reservations about “Keep it simple!” can be made for “Keep it complex!” Over-complexifying a mess is just as worrisome as its over-simplification. But what sets “Keep it complex!” apart is the performative nature of undertaking and thinking through the practical caveats, hedges and qualifications. In so doing, what is complex becomes more granular and open to differentiated scenarios so that they matter even more.

To sum up: “Keep it simple!” acts as if it wants to win the argument without further ado; “Keep it complex. . .” knows the long game is about finding complex arguments that stick, at least for a while even if indirectly.

–With that in mind, let me end with a passage from the economist, John Kay’s 2010 book named—surprise!—Obliquity:

It is hard to overstate the damage recently done by leaders who thought they knew more about the world than they really did. The managers and financiers who destroyed great businesses in the unsuccessful pursuit of shareholder value. The architects and planners who believed that cities could be designed from first principles, that vibrant cities could be drawn on a blank sheet of paper and that expressways should be driven through the hearts of communities. Acknowledging the complexity of the systems for which they were responsible and the multiple needs of the individuals who operated these systems would have avoided these errors.

Principal sources

Kay, J. (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. New York: Penguin Books

Stirling, A. (2010). ‘Keep It Complex!’, Nature Comment, 23/30 December, 468: 1029-1031

Wood, M. (2005). “Seven Types of Obliquity”. In Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (The Empson Lectures, pp. 95-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Related blog entries: “Keep it simple!,” “Complexity is the enemy of intractable,” “It’s better between the James Brothers”

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