Complexity is to Difference as Simplicity is to…?


Today continues the discussion about the role of simplicity in relation to complexity with my look at the work of John Maeda and his Laws of Simplicity. I this Maeda’s on to something, but I also disagree with some of his Laws and today I look at the 5th Law: Differences.

Differences: Simplicity and complexity need each other.

Some have argued that differences create. Keith Sawyer addressed this issue in his recent blog post looking at the various commentaries published over the years on ideas around innovation, self-organization and diversity and particularly the recent work of Matt Ridley and his work on the Rational Optimist. In his review of a review, Sawyer writes:

the new portion is Ridley’s emphasis on archeology and the fossil record, to support his claim that human advancement always happens where trade brings together more ideas from more people. (That reminds me of another recent similar book, The Medici Effect, where Johansson calls it “the intersection”.) Ridley argues that the key innovation in history was trade, and when humans started trading about 45,000 years ago, history and cultural change suddenly accelerated.  He rejects previous explanations of this sudden burst that appeal to individual-focused explanations, like a sudden genetic mutation that resulted in greater individual creativity, and argues that individuals didn’t change at all–what changed was social organization.

I agree completely, but that idea isn’t really new either. It’s long been a fundamental tenet of economics that trade makes everyone better off and accelerates innovation.

The above quote might be a long way of getting to the point that differences matter and exposure and interaction of diversity is what creates innovation and complexity in complex systems. Maeda’s comments about simplicity and complexity needing each other might be partly true, but like my previous critique, it is problematic enough to be questioned as a Law and explored more fully.

In The Laws of Simplicity, Maeda deftly illustrates that:

The more complexity there is in a market, the more something simpler stands out.

While I agree, the idea that simplicity is gained by adding more complexity tells me that we have more complexity — and that’s problematic when you’re trying to make sense of something. True, it makes those efforts to simply things more noticed, but those efforts must be affixed to the most useful things (which is no guarantee) otherwise one has a lot of simple things that are less useful and complex things that are confusing.

It also somewhat reduces the potential benefit that diversity brings, despite the challenges it also brings. For a great analysis of the role of diversity in complex systems, I suggest you look at my Library Section to find the reference for Scott Page’s excellent work The Difference.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: