Simple Always Wins

In this essay I'm going to show you why simple solutions will always be the ones that rise to the top and stay there for the longest time.

Simplicity in Mathematics

Mathematics is a good place to start because it's the most elegant way humans have invented to describe the universe. You've probably heard a mathematician or two assert that an equation is beautiful and wondered how they got there.

When Einstein invented the theory of special relativity, and what is probably the most famous equation ever, e=mc², it was expressed in the most simple form it could be in with our current knowledge.

If Einstein had expressed e=mc² in a more complicated way, then "Einstein" might not be the name that people remember. Instead we would remember the name of the person that came up with the more elegant solution.

I was surprised to learn that this seems to be close to what really happened with e=mc². It's clear that physicists around at the time of Einstein's discovery were converging on a theory of special relativity anyway. The second favourite for making the discovery was Austrian physicist Hasenöhrl.

Did Einstein know of Hasenöhrl's work? "I can't prove it, but I am reasonably certain that Einstein must have done, and just decided to do it better", says [Tony Rothman of Princeton University]. But failure to cite it was not inconsistent with the conventions of the time.

Did Einstein discover E = mc2?, physicsworld.com

Simplicity in Writing

Writing that takes too long to say what its trying to say is more effort and not at all enjoyable to read. Writing that uses as few words as possible–without losing its essence—is enjoyable to read.

For this reason the best writers in the world all possess the ability to transmit ideas and emotion in as little writing as possible.

There's an old meme amongst writers that one shouldn't be scared of writing their "shitty first draft". The rationale being that the first draft is like fertile soil that the finished piece will emerge from.

After a first draft is finished, warts and all, the magic of editing can begin. While editing, writers rework and chop into their draft, gradually hammering it into a form that is more of a delight to consume. Editing is no easy task because, as Stephen King says, it's the time to kill your darlings.

Simplicity in Product Design

Modern product design can be viewed as following a kind of darwinian process. With little to no regulation, products developed in a healthy capitalist system are formed by the pushes and pulls of what the market wants.

Smartphones are a good case study of this process in action because they've changed a lot in a short time. Back when the iPhone was released in 2007, it was nowhere near perfect. But it didn't need to be perfect. It just had to be better than everything else in the areas that mattered to people.

As the years passed, each subsequent iteration of the iPhone has been pulled towards the wants and needs of the market. This will happen regardless of whether or not the "market" is aware of what it wants or needs.

Just by observing the iPhone's form change over time, it's empirically clear that people desire large screens, sleek forms, and a few necessary hardware buttons.

The pursuit of simplicity is why short iteration times are becoming a trend for tech companies. The faster they can iterate, the faster they can adapt the product to the market, removing anything that isn't absolutely necessary.

Through this iterative process, any unnecessary deviation towards complexity will usually be left unvalidated. Of course, when something isn't validated under capitalism, it usually means operating at a loss. The incentive of the business is thus kept aligned with the incentives of the market.

As far as I'm aware, the only exception to this rule applies to monopoly products. Monopolies can afford to be more ignorant to the pull of the market because customers have no choice but to use their product.

A good example of a monopoly product growing complex through complacency is Ebay. After a certain point Ebay thought it pointless to make any changes the product because there was nothing to make them do it. They realised that if they just kept the product afloat customers would still use it. And they were right.

Why do our brains like simplicity?

Given that we are, for the most part, single threaded thinkers, humans are bound by the speed that we can contemplate the world. Looked at in a different way, humans need to be able to make sense of the world in the most efficient way possible.

The need for us to explain things without the hardware for it leaves us open to some rather large floors. Floors like ideological or religious possession, which short circuits the need for us to think by turning to the ideology for answers.

Evolutionarily it makes sense that humans developed a bias towards things that are easy to understand, and a bias against things that are complex or chaotic. When we interface with the world, this bias manifests as a preference for things that are just within or just outside our map of the world. Too simple and its boring; too complex and we feel uncomfortable.