Why high school geometry teachers feel compelled to tell hormone crazed teen-agers that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line is beyond me. Talk about preaching to the choir. I guess if all you want out of life is a teen-ager’s intensity of experience (Damn, DUDE, that HURT! Let’s go do it AGAIN!) then the two point – straight line philosophy is probably good enough and you can quit reading right now. However, if high school didn’t turn out to be the peak of your intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development, then it’s probably worth asking why not.
It may be a gross oversimplification to suggest that all moral philosophy, religious teaching and psychological theory can be boiled down to the thought that the physical world is the only place where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And yet we live most of our lives, most of our professional days, all our digital existence as if that little high-school theorem can be picked up and neatly laid over the most intricate and complex of our experiences and decisions. Just listen to the latest business pep-rally cheers of simplification, specialization, and sourcing.
Am I banging the drum for gratuitous complexity? Of course not. We humans have this tendency to under learn and over apply good lessons. Am I worried that we’ll under learn and over apply the value of editing, compression, and acceleration that the digital age relies on? Well, yes, I am.
When Simple Enough is Too Much
There’s always another studiously blasé teen-ager who’s sure they can handle it (whatever “it” is), or the energetic new VP from the coast who’s six-sigma sure they can fix it (whatever “it” is). The rising digital age, with its editing, compression and acceleration, has brought many good things to our front doors (usually via the Fed-Ex guy), but like a little gas on a good fire, it’s very difficult to know when enough is enough, though usually its pretty easy to tell when enough is too much. Melting the aluminum siding behind the bar-b-que grill is one reliable, if trailing, indicator, as are the toasted third quarter financial results.
This would be an easy place to ask Mr. Einstein up to the stage for a brief homily around his oft quoted statement that we should strive to make things as simple as possible but no simplier. What’s not so easy is keeping folks on point as he speaks.
First off, he’s usually invited into the room by some legacy lauding Luddite prattling on about how complex their particular business-critical system is and consequently how it can’t even be explained much less retired. An exec I respect says that when people tell him something is very complex, that usually just means they don’t understand it well enough to manage it. We need to know what we’re up to before we whip out the digital scalpel and start nipping here and tucking there on some bit of unpleasant analog reality, trying to get it into a more presentable and manageable representation. Otherwise the end result is less your favorite lithe super-model and more stumbling, roaring Franken-reality.
I’m guessing the brain that could wrap itself around relativity and purr like a kitten also understood the logical consequence of our 2-point-shortest-distance proclivities. Even as the last syllable of “as possible” was reverberating into the corners of the this auditorium we call life, Einstein could see the look of panic rising in our eyes as we threw up our arms and ran screaming from the monsters of complexity, straight into the razor claws of over-simplification.
Like the fat guy wheezing into McDonalds, we just know we’re hungry. We don’t want to hear about trans-fats, or industrial meat processing, or what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about inability to productively digest the long-carbon strings that are the signature of corn based pseudo-foods. Oh yeah, and if you could fix our soaring healthcare costs while you’re getting me those fries, that would be great.
The Winding Path
So what’s a professional to do, faced with ever expanding pricing pressures, accelerating schedules and rising expectations? Or every-parent faced with Soccer Super Mommy in all the advertisements, the realities of two jobs, a stretched budget and an almost feral instinct to ensure some kind of future for their kids? Or anyone looking for something as basic, common and seemingly elusive as a few strong friendships and maybe, please God, one sweet partnership that can’t be explained but only lived.
There are no obvious answers. If there were, we wouldn’t keep asking the same questions. And interestingly enough, for this forum, it’s probably not just an Analog/Digital thing. Yeah, Digital tends to accelerate and amplify the results of any experiment we make out there, bringing the results home with amazing and sometimes stunning velocity. But Digital doesn’t give us a pass on all the wonders and frailties of being human.
Inevitably, as we trim and edit, reduce and re-factor the analog world to shoe-horn it into some digital representation that we can easily replicate, transport, and execute, we end up discovering something about the analog reality we didn’t know or fully understand. Despite the project plans and budget meetings, the QA review and user training, the methodologies and the tools, or whatever equivalents we create in our personal lives, most of us find out what we don’t know by doing rather than analyzing.
We are almost always forced to take that first step of any meaningful journey before all the maps are drawn and understood, all the required resources marshaled. We are forced to begin without all that we need, living off the land as we travel, following the realities we encounter to whatever good end they can afford in an always less than linear passage.