Wonder and Complexity

Have you ever yelled at your compiler? I have. Heck I have even flipped the machine the bird, even though it couldn’t possibly care. Even though I knew perfectly well that it couldn’t care.

Why do we do this? Because we get frustrated when it doesn’t understand us. After all what we are trying to do is so simple, right?

Actually what we are doing is the most complex thing humans have ever done. You may not feel like that when you are just trying to fix the CSS for some bespoke Rails site, but it is true. To actually be able to render HTML styled with CSS requires a parsers for both languages, a browser to understand, mix and render them, a window system to run the browser in, an operation system to run the browser in, firmware for half a dozen devices, a BIOS to tie those together, a bunch of compilers to build all of these things, build tools to run the compilers, IDEs to write software in (those require, naturally, also compilers, build tools, assemblers, etc). This doesn’t include all the work to build the chip factories, to run the globe-spanning supply networks that means those factories actually have something to build, the machines that make the chips, etc.

In fact it is fair to say that what we do is so complex that if we ever had to restart the process (say after a world wide EM blast) we would have to bootstrap from mainframes, punchcards and vaccumtubes.

That isn’t something new, in fact Milton Friedman explained how complex and interwoven the world has to be to produce something as simple as a standard #2 pencil (and the world has only gotten more complex since then):

When was the last time you considered that? I know it sounds totally new-aging bullshit, but if you do take time to reflect on this you will be much more happy.

We live in a world where I can sit in my living room, writing on a blog hosted thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, on a different continent, in a country that I have never been to; for a sum measured in pocket change my potential audience is the approximately one billion people on the internet who speak English (my actual audience is, regrettably, somewhat smaller than that).

If I wanted to have a life video-chat with any person – no matter where on earth they were – I could do so by downloading a free program and just calling them. Other than the internet connection that would cost nothing at all.

You don’t even have to physically connected to anything anymore: you can get a 3G modem and write a blog entry as you are zooming down the highway (just please not when you are the driver).

Did I mention that we have a search engine that will allow you query the collected public information of the entire world?

Also, and much more fundamentally, you no longer have to worry about being able to get access to food. We live in such abundances that you can buy apples in April, potatoes in June and pineapple (grown and transported across half the world) any time you want – and all very cheap. Almost any supermarket will sell you any cut of any type of meat you want, at any time of the year. In terms of human history that is completely unheard of.

So the next time you complain that you can’t do something that you feel should be completely simple, please remember how incredibly complex the world really is; you will be much more happy for it.