Complexity and Its Cult

The world seems to be getting increasingly complicated. For some people, however, that's just fine and dandy. You see, these people actually want things to be complicated. They celebrate complexity. They have a fetish for complexity. They think that if something is complex, it's good. They are congregants in the Cult of Complexity.

Many complexity cultists are progressives. Notice how progressives often try to score points in a debate (or shut it down) by saying that their opponent's idea is "too simplistic." The truth has got to be complex for such people. Many celebrities also have a fixation on complexity. Notice how celebs often drop that oh-so-chic word: "complex." Here's celebrity Matt Damon speaking at an education rally:

That's the thing, see, you take this MBA-style thinking, right, it's the problem with Ed. policy right now. It's this intrinsically paternalistic view of problems that are much more complex than that. [Video]

Right on, dude! You tell 'em, Matty boy.

The website seems to be all about youth culture, including rap music. (Let me hasten to add: I don't follow such things.) In the website's banner, we read: "Buy. Collect. Obsess." Here's what their about page says:

At the center of the Complex Media platform, our flagship site,, thrives as the online incarnation of the influential Complex Magazine. Proven the voice of the people that matter --- Complex has become the go-to resource for the people that matter in an ever-evolving lifestyle. is a consumer portal into the complex lifestyle, and gives users access to the most definitive and unique content by allowing them to deep dive into their passion points and obsessions.

Why would young people obsess about complexity? Do the young have boring lives? Perhaps complexity is just a way to sell them stuff. If young folks were a little more complex (i.e. sophisticated), they'd see that they're being manipulated.

In John Irving's 2012 novel In One Person (page 212), we read: "In Borkman's opinion, not only was Miss Frost an Ibsen woman --- to Nils, this meant that Miss Frost was both the best and most complicated kind of woman imaginable..." (Actually, Miss Frost was probably too complicated even for most complexity fetishists, although Matt Damon would probably appreciate her).

Truly sophisticated people don't seek complexity; they seek simplicity. They seek a unified field theory; unified, as in one. The principle of Occam's Razor says that the simplest explanation that covers all the data is the correct one. Actually, it can take a rather complex mind to come up with a simple explanation. E = MC2 may seem simple, even Matt Damon might be able to recite it, but complexity fetishists aren't likely to think it up. Al Einstein himself said: "If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself."

Truth is: we can't escape complexity; complexity is all about us. Indeed, the world is a howling maelstrom of complexity. The only way we can negotiate this complex world of ours is by blocking out most of it. We simply can't be aware of everything about us; we shouldn't even try to be aware of it. If we were aware of all the complexity around us, we'd go mad. So to remain sane, we become like a sniffer dog on a scent; we're focused on just one thing, (if we're really adept at multi-tasking, maybe two).

For some human endeavors, complexity is unavoidable. If you're going into space on a voyage to the Moon, your vehicle will, perforce, be rather complicated. You'll even have the extra, added complexity of having to take your own air with you. Here on Earth when we drive somewhere in our cars, we depend on air being at our destination, (and at all points in between if our car has an internal combustion engine).

Many of us seek "a quiet, simple country life." We try to avoid entanglements. Some might even forego marriage and kids simply because they don't want the extra, added complexity. (It's difficult to come up with the Unified Field Theory with a bunch of squalling kids running about the house.) But we are thwarted in our quest for a simple life because the government is deliberately making our lives more complicated.

Complexity is the means by which Big Government controls us. We see this in the legislation coming out of Congress. ObamaCare is so complex that some think it can never work. So that average citizens can negotiate the complexity of the "choices" in ObamaCare, armies of "navigators" are being hired.

The tax code is one of the more hated places where government complexity resides. No one, not even IRS agents, completely understands the tax code. Compliance with the tax code costs Americans untold billions of dollars. The main reason for the complexity in the tax code is the vast array of exceptions (exemptions and such) designed for those willing to jump through the government's hoops so that they will owe less to the IRS.

The federal government also makes our lives more complicated (and miserable) with its blizzard of regulations. On August 21 in the Wall Street Journal, Thomas G. Stemberg reported: "In 2010, the Small Business Administration pegged the annual cost of complying with regulations at $1.75 trillion." This "complexity premium" is due to the "46,758 pages of rules to live by in the Federal Register." The federal government keeps cramming more and more complexity down our maws, and they expect us to be grateful.

There are many areas where just about everybody, including complexity theorists, hate complexity. When we're suffering from a disease or have undergone surgery, none of us appreciate "complications." When we're closing a real estate deal, none of us want there to be a snag, something unforeseen to pop up, like a lien on the property we didn't know about. When travelling, especially abroad, we try to foresee any complication that might arise; we want things to go swimmingly, without a hitch.

Sure, an explanation can be "too simplistic," but an explanation can be too complex, too. If the solution to a problem is complex, that's not something to celebrate, it's something to correct. The world is complex enough without deliberately trying to make it more so. Complexity cultists don't seem to appreciate the wisdom of KISS: keep it simple, stupid.

Those who celebrate complexity are often the very people least capable of handling complexity. I've tried to find a way to simplify this essay, but I'm not smart enough to do that, (it is what it is, he said, tautologically).

Sophisticated people love simplicity. Those who go in for complexity (or who visit are too unsophisticated to know that. It's simply ironic that the Cult of Complexity consists of rather simple people who suffer from some psychological complex, probably insecurity about their intellects.

People glom onto complexity because they think that it makes them look smarter. People invoke complexity to set themselves apart... and above. The unspoken message is that they understand things that you don't. You're not complicated enough to understand this complex stuff; leave the thinking to us. So, when you're in a contentious debate with some dreary progressive who contends that "it's more complex than that," immediately ask him: Then how could you understand it?

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. 

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