Don't Simplify

There is a mantra — a meme, perhaps, but meme has become such a meme that writing it here makes me feel, well, uncomfortably self-conscious  — so, yes, there is this memetic mantra afoot, and that's been afoot for years now, that simple is better. Get rid of the noise, we say, reduce the clutter, eliminate the extraneous.

No doubt, there is something alluring, something seductive, about simplicity. The word itself is enticing, skipping down the tongue with a playful, dulcet tone that seems to get to the point without being corporate or cold. Simplicity, in word and deed, is ready for consumption. And, best of all, it's true — by razing the forests of complexity, we can focus on the heart of the matter. With all that, what's not to like?

But the so called noise of life is, to me, the good part — or at least as tasty as any truth you're offering. An underlying premise of simplicity is that there is a heart of the matter, a nugget that sits within, an essence. The will to simplicity is theological, Platonic, if not downright Christian — although this is because the complexity of both Plato and Christianity have been simplified. I've read the Gospels a few times as well as a handful of Platonic dialogues and, man, they both contradict themselves and shift tone, register, and argument often. I mean, the Gospels give us four different version of Jesus' life! And Plato, well, he gives us irony — irony! Meaning two things at once! Still, the will to simplicity suggests that we might shed the body to get to the soul, sift the dirt to get to the clean, reduce the noise to hear the truth.

Now, it's obvious that life today is harried. We have tasks and information that scream and bleep and blip at us all day, everyday, even in our dreams. The interweb has not streamlined life. So certainly there is a justifiable desire to reduce these hassles, this ceaseless barrage, very little of which actually matters.

What's wrong, then, with just getting rid of it? Whats' wrong with simplifying?

Well, the problem is that these are two different questions that have become conflated. Getting rid of irritating noise seems, well, not really a matter of simplification but of simple manners — or, at least, self-maintenance. It seems to me to have little to do with simplicity. 

In my day job — I admit it: I earn my keep doing brand strategy and writing for enormous global corporations — I am tasked with creating corporate communications (that word sounds so officious and scientific). Usually, these communications are a mess as my client wants to say everything to everyone: We do this! And this! And this! Oh, and this too! The result is people hear too many different things and get confused.

I can't blame these clients for wanting to say everything. This is what they do and think about everyday. They don't realize that all the little things that eat up their time and brain and energy don't matter much to anyone else. People just wanna know if what you're selling is worth having. So my job is to eliminate some of these finer, more pedantic points of a given business or product and just focus on a few things.

In the design world, a world of which I am a part, this is often referred to as simplification. We are simplifying our clients' communications, or so we say.

But that is not simplifying. It's organzing.  My job is not just to eliminate things. My job is weave all these different things into a cogent and compelling argument. This doesn't simplify; it clarifies. It prioritizes, creates area of focus, weaves the disparate elements together.

The result may be simple. But more often it's actually quite complex. After all, arguments that stitch different elements together into a whole that has areas of focus and relative weight is, well, complex. In any case, my job is not to simplify: it's to articulate complexity in a compelling manner. 

Often, the so called noise of life, all that excess stuff, is juicy and delectable. I, for one — and perhaps not unsurprisingly — like my prose purple — Nabokov and Melville and Nicholson Baker and Junot Diaz and all those who let the words flow unabashedly for their own sake, for the sake of the world, for the sake of you. I like Gehry and Gaudi, too.

Now, I tend not to like buildings or spaces that are too ornate. But Gehry and Gaudi are not ornate. Their flourishes are constitutive of the building, just as Nabokov's prose is not ornament to the plot. Nabokov's words don't tell the story; his words are the story. And Gehry's curves don't dress up the wall; they are the wall.

Take food. You're eating some kind something and there's a lot of flavor; in fact, you want to say there is too much.  Which might mean there are too many flavors or that the flavors that are there are too strong — too much garlic, say, or fenugreek.

But when I reduce the number of spices or the amount of garlic, have I necessarily simplified my dish? The dish, at first, was excessive but not necessarily complex. In fact, by reducing the number of flavors or quantity of one flavor, I may have made the dish more complex as the flavors interact in more ways — rather than being lost in a drone of flavors, like words playing too long in an echo chamber and become a monotone slur.

Back to my client, for a moment, the one that wants so say everything every time. That, it seems to me, is the simple solution.  What does my product do? Here's a big ol' list.  The complex thing to do is to edit and weave all those elements into a whole that remains nonetheless multiple.  Now, I want to distinguish between the doing — which may be complex — and the product. Yes, making an argument is a complex task. But the argument, in the end, may be complex, as well. So much so that I want to say that a good meal or a good brand present complex matters in a compelling way.

Complexity is tricky as it demands both quantity and quality. That is, to be complex is to have a lot of something. But it is not just the amount — I don't say, "I love ice cream! Gimme a complex!" No, complexity is the qualitative state of a certain quantity — the quantity of relationships between things; the quantity of divergent resonances; the infinite movement that belies ready description. In any case, complexity is not just a lot of something. Nor is it a synonym for confusion. It entails a certain intricacy of arrangement, as the Wikipedia says.  And that, often, is a good thing. 

Life is complex. It has an infinite number of shifting relationships. And it never stops changing. It can't just be said once and for all; it can't be summed up. Why would we want to?

I know life has become loud and harried; but let's not confuse that with complexity. In fact, we are so distracted that our lives are not complex. They're reactive and robotic: answer the beep, answer the beep, answer the beep. So many beeps does not complexity make. That's annoyance, not complexity.

And so we want quiet; we want peace. But let's not confuse these things with simplicity. Because life can't be simplified as it runneth over with itself. And that's how I want it, "in its true, knotted, clotted, viny multifariousness, with all of the colorful streamers of intelligence still taped on and flapping in the wind" (N Baker).


drwatson said...

This is more of a related tangent than a direct response. But in David Foster Wallace's - who I obviously like a whole lot - commencement address to students at Kenyon College he made a move that surprised me: he embraced the cliche. The entire speech is based around the theme that the cliche, when thought about in a certain - what I'd want to call phenomenological way, is actually incredibly complex: it reveals the ordinary in its most essential. And when you reveal the ordinary - the boring - and start really getting into the implications: ontological, epistemological, theological - all of a sudden it can become incredibly complex.

Not sure if you've read that piece - it used to be possible to find it on the internet, but since it's gotten published as bathroom reading - which feels both terrifying and appropriate (what's more ordinary than reading on the toilet) it's been harder to locate.

drwatson said...

Here's a link to the commencement address I was referring to.


You'll obviously be able to find the part II.

Anonymous said...

Where do you think this "will to needless complexity" usually comes from? I see it in a lot of places, especially in education. It's almost as though people (and I'm guilty at times too) feel that saying more implies seeing more, when in fact the sense of seeing here is different than "verboasters" would like to think. There's the sense of seeing as mere observation, and there's the sense of seeing as attributing success to the viewer — a seeing into rather than merely scraping over the surface. And of course this second sort of seeing involves far more than sight — or, at least, in-sight.

It sort of reminds me of this part of Deleuze's _Bergsonism_ when he writes that "we mix recollection and perception; but we do not know how to recognize what goes back to perception and what goes back to recollection. We no longer distinguish the two pure presences of matter and memory in representation, and we no longer see anything but differences in degree between perception-recollections and recollection-perceptions. In short, we measure the mixtures with a unit that is itself impure and already mixed. We have lost the ground of composites. The obsession with the pure in Bergson goes back to this restoration of differences in kind."

So if you think of a company's sales pitch as this weird sort of linguistic-thermodynamic system that a bunch of different people have added heat and work to [throwing more and more things in to ensure completeness], it's just like the way that you cannot go backward from internal energy and see "which parts" were heat and "which parts" were work: the things when initially added as apparent unities become irrecoverably dissolved in the multiplicity if they are added without care and reference to the rest of the system.

If when you "admit" you mean that in any sense of hesitation/slight embarrassment or something, I don't think that's warranted: you not only have to redefine the contours of this entirely foreign communication, but also you then have to parcel it out, trim the fat, and then re-assemble them all together in such a way that it will be likely to produce an affect in people you've never met (and whom perhaps the company is not even yet aware of), and you not only have to produce an affect, but you do it in a way that it does not seem affected — at least if I understand your work correctly.

So, it seems like you do a lot of things that "should" be impossible, and the fact that you not only can do these things but that you make a career out it says quite a lot about your rhetorical prowess...

Anonymous said...

Or, the CliffsNotes version of the above: meaning mining is far from mindless.

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