People are confusing simplicity with convenience. The average person has less and less understanding of how things work today than they did even 5–10 years ago. When a new piece of technology or business process makes something simpler it should be easier to replicate and create from scratch. A user-centric view of simplicity that ignores the underlying mechanisms that make a process or technology work opens us up to moving into a world we don’t fully understand. Think about something like a cell phone. Many people would say that cell phones are an essential part of their lives. They would say that cell phones make their lives simpler, allowing them to change plans and access vast information at the touch of a button. However, I’d argue cell phones have introduced an added layer of complexity into our lives merely hidden behind pretty applications and clever programming. Would most modern societies around the world be able to function without access to high speed internet and cell phones? Think about the chaos that ensues when Google or aws go down.
Importantly, compare the skills needed to recreate older telephone infrastructure from the 80s and 90s. Probably a couple of electrical and mechanical engineers were needed to put up poles and string wire to build simple circuits that respond to different frequencies. In order to recreate a modern cell phone network you would need a computer programmer to create the application that tells the phone what to do, a wireless network engineer to design the wireless coverage network, a rocket scientist to place satellites into orbit to relay and beam signals the list goes on and on (not to mention the electric and mechanical engineers mentioned before). In fact, I’m unsure that you’d be able to make a modern working cell phone without electronic computer-aided design.
As the rate of change of technology and innovation has increased, our understanding of what these devices mean to our lives has not kept pace. For example, one of the potential consequences of the 2008 financial crisis is that the technological innovation fueled by low interest rates caused new technologies and companies to expand and advance at a pace that significantly exceeded our ability to understand or regulate this innovation (i.e. Facebook causing depression and us just understanding why). Consider for a second companies like Uber or AirBnB which, in just six years, have surpassed valuations of their traditional counterparts. Local governments are having trouble dealing with and creating new regulation for both of these companies because of how quickly and rapidly they have captured market share while avoiding regulations currently in place. As another example of the rate of change, we should look at an emerging field like data science. Data science is a field where, according to McKinsey, we are expected to have a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 employees I would caution those who are considering getting a degree in it to consider the fact that just the other day, scientists at MIT stated that they are close to taking people out of data science. Something that a few years ago when the McKinsey survey was released, seemed 10–20 years in the future (the same thing happened with the shortage of cyber security experts).
The best way to understand the difference between simplicity and convenience is to grapple with the questions posed by various end of the world scenarios similar to those core to USA’s new hit show Mr. Robot. If all electronics were wiped out, how difficult would it be to recreate our current way of life? Could it even be done given how much information is stored digitally? This will be an important concept to consider as technology becomes more and more complex while luring us into a false sense of simplicity. As I’ve mentioned before, we must consider what skills we are losing in this process. Look at Tesla’s ‘auto-pilot’ where there are already concerns over people practicing unsafe behavior behind the wheel. Will their driving skills become rusty in the event of an auto pilot shut down?
Often times in business, people view technology and innovation as the be-all and end-all, when in reality the focus should be on finding the simplest approach that will lead to the most effective solution, whether or not that is driven by technological advancements. In this rush to use technology and innovate to make or lives simpler and or more convenient, many investors and companies haven’t thought about whether or not certain aspects of our lives need or want simplification and extra convenience. Adding technology rarely makes things simpler because technology tends to just generate more data that needs to be corralled and analyzed (not to mention that the marketing for new technologies and innovations is often way ahead of the functionality). That added complexity may be worth it to make things more convenient and increase the efficiency of employees, but it’s important to stop for a second and think about the simplicity we’re losing and our ability to understand what’s going on in the background. While I’m not advocating that we become Luddites, technology does improve our lives tremendously, I am saying be aware of unintended consequences. Technology and convenience should be viewed with cautious excited optimism (as an aside my favorite examples of unintended consequences are the correlation between malaria nets and over fishing and donating clothes and food to harming developing economies). People and business leaders who use and implement these complex solutions that make our lives more convenient should slow down a bit. They should try their best to understand how these solutions work, and try to understand how these new innovations, technologies, and solutions connect with other technologies before they become to ingrained in the day to day.