A Complex World

“Howard, I couldn’t figure out how to turn it off. All I got was menu after menu. But there’s no off switch.” Today’s beef is with today’s world. It is a world of so many labor-saving devices that we must work night and day to keep up with them. They must be bought. Then serviced. Then repaired. Then replaced with something more up-to-date, which is to say, something that is an even bigger nuisance. It is true in almost all aspects of life. Finance as well as car maintenance. Things become more sophisticated and more complex. Risk goes up. And costs. And fragility. Is it worth it? The answer is usually no.


It is a complex world. There is a solution to every problem (even problems that don’t really exist). And every solution comes with more new problems. Joseph Tainter was right. Society becomes more and more complex. Complexity sucks up resources. Eventually society goes broke. In today’s installment, your editor returns to his farmhouse in rural Maryland, only a couple of miles from where he was born. His house has just been remodeled. It is so completely improved that it is almost unbearable. Howard, the builder, attempts to explain. Here’s how our conversation went:

“Yes, it is a little more sophisticated than what you had before.”

“I don’t understand why the AC system can’t have a simple off switch.”

“Well, you should never turn it off.”

“Why not?”

“Because, this house has a lot of fine woodwork and carpeting and so forth. You can’t let it get too humid or the wood will swell up and crack and you’ll get mold.”

“Can’t we just open the windows?”

“You don’t have to open the windows any more.”

“Why not?”

“Because this is an energy efficient house. It’s state-of-the-art. We replaced all the insulation with foam. The windows are super tight. And the temperature and humidity are automatically regulated.”

“But if it is so energy efficient, why is the AC system on all the time?”

“That’s probably not the AC you hear.”

“Then, what is it?”

“It’s the air-exchanger.”

“Air exchanger? What’s that?”

“Well, the house is so tight that it doesn’t get enough fresh air. So, we have an air-exchanger to bring in air from the outside.”

“Then why go to the trouble of insulating so much? Why not just leave the leaky windows?”

“Well, the air exchanger doesn’t use much energy.”

“How about the humidifier?”

“No, that doesn’t use much either.”

“And the de-humidifier?”

“Same thing. Very low energy use. All of this uses less energy than standard AC.”

“Sounds like they will use a lot more of my energy… more bother… more machines … another control system… another thing I have to figure out… more manuals and service contracts that I have to keep … another thing that will break down.”

“Hold on. These are very efficient and reliable systems. They shouldn’t need too much maintenance.”

“I just want to turn them off and open the window. But I can’t open the window, not with the AC running.”

“You don’t need to open the window. This system allows you to control the flow of air.”

“But that’s just the point. I can’t control anything. It’s all automatic. I can’t even turn it off.”

“Well, your air temperature and humidity are controlled for you. And you also get fresh air when you need it. It’s all state-of-the-art in home interior climate control.

“When it’s too cold outside, the system keeps you warm. When it’s hot outside, it keeps you cool. When your humidity rises above 60%, the dehumidifier comes into service. When the humidity falls below 40%, the humidifier activates. And when the air gets stale, the air-exchanger turns on.”

“Why not just open the window?”

“Mr. Bonner, I’m afraid you’re out of touch with modern home technology.”





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One Response to “A Complex World”

  • SavvyGuy:

    This is what happens when too-cheap money starts chasing non-problems. This level of unnecessary complexity would have been laughed at when mortgage rates were around 25%, as in the early 1980s.

    Now the joke is on us poor shmucks, caught up in today’s world of monetary insanity!

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