the art of complexity
SIMPLICITY—the pipedream of a society dominated by technical revolutions, global networks and inundations of information from mass media? The mantra of a new generation of user-centered information designers? Dogma of technophobic naysayers to progress? Or merely the—as yet unfulfilled—promise of IT companies?
There has been hardly a concept of late that has been laid claim to in so many different quarters, and none that delivers such a trenchant reading of the vital signs of our times.
So then: just how are we to cope with the increasing degree of complexity in the reality we inhabit? How can we tap and utilize the potential of global communication and realtime-access to information and ideas, to people and markets in an efficient as well as responsible way?
How can we develop flexible, adaptable systems, devices and programs that are responsive to our strengths and intuitive capabilities, to support our activities in complex contexts?
Which options and features could we possibly do without? And which would we be only too glad to dispense with?
SIMPLICITY is not the opposite of complexity; rather, it is its complementary key, the formula that permits us to access and utilize the polyvalencies of virtual realities and global knowledge networks.
Simplicity is a complex topic that has no single, simple answer. We live in an increasingly complex technological world where nothing works like it is supposed to, and at the end of the day makes all of us hunger for simplicity to some degree. Yet ironically when given the choice of more or less, we are programmed at the genetic level to want more. “Would you like the big cookie or the smaller cookie?” or “Would you like the computer with ten processors or just one?” The choice is simple really, or is it?
For the Ars Electronica Symposium on Simplicity we think together about what simplicity (and complexity) means in politics, life, art, and technology. Expect more than you can ever imagine, and less.
Isn’t it odd that we are incessantly at work developing new technologies meant to simplify our lives and labours, and yet in the final analysis we are left with the impression that everything’s gotten a lot more complicated?
An investigation of the essence of simplicity must necessarily get involved with the psychology of human-machine interaction. Why do we display such a strong proclivity to regarding technology as an externally imposed authority, to condemning or venerating it? Why is it so hard to maintain a dis-passionate working relationship with high tech? Isn’t it rather the case that complexity (supposed or actual) is often just a convenient excuse for delegating responsibility?
Our highest-priority need is not technological competence but rather the social competence that’s called for in making the decisions about deploying technologies. We have to make an active effort to acquire this competence.
Simplicity begins, of course, with usability. The wish for user-friendly devices and programs is fervent and widespread. We will realize how justified it is when we inspect the plethora of shabbily designed user interfaces that hit the retail shelves in ever-shorter marketing cycles. So even as the writers of advertising-copy are busy ballyhooing the latest results of their company’s purported fixation on user experience and user-centered design, the reality that we, the ones who have actually purchased these applications, are familiar with is, sadly, a different one. How very often we wish that industrial designers would pay more frequent courtesy calls on media artists and soak up a bit of the ambient inspiration during their visits!
Among the things in which human beings identify consummate artistry are the highly complex elements of nature. For centuries, models based on this elegant simplicity have been the objective and the standard of measurement for scientific as well as artistic achievement.
If we merely equate simplicity with simplification and reduction, simply let the technology become “invisible”, we not only manifest our inability to even recognize the type and extent of the technological deployment, but we also relinquish the ability to perceive its consequences and side effects. In doing so, we cheat ourselves out of not only our capacity for self-determination, but also the possibility of fully utilizing technology’s capabilities. But simplicity is significantly more than that. If this truly is a matter of technology suitable for use by human beings, then this also involves a cultural attitude and political stance towards technology, towards the issue of our autonomy and self-determination in dealing with technology and in designing the conditions of our interaction with technological systems. In large portions of our planet’s surface, though, simplicity is also a matter of technology that’s affordable, that can withstand some punishment, can stay on the job even at 105 degrees in the shade, and that doesn’t need to make a pit stop at an electrical outlet every two hours.
Technology is not a force of nature. It has been made to work by humankind—so it should also be possible to make it work for humankind.
The interfaces and front lines between human and machine are the domain of artistic work that reflects the framework conditions of this liaison: in that artists create their own tools to translate between the languages of the arts and those of the machines; in that they reject industry norms and their closed systems and adopt the practices of open source and the creative commons instead; in that they defend free zones, set up portals, and create alternative models and prototypes. The strategies that result from these activities and approaches to dealing with complexity will be presented at this year’s Ars Electronica Festival by artists, industrial and software designers and scientists in symposia and addresses, exhibitions and installations, concerts and performances, workshops and seminars, and artistic interventions in public spaces throughout the city.
Don’t be afraid, upgrade to simplicity!