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Kitchen-​Sink Complexity

The Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada de­fines men­tal health as fol­lows:

The ca­pac­ity of each of us to feel, think, and act in ways that en­hance our abil­ity to enjoy life and deal with the chal­lenges we face. It is a pos­i­tive sense of emo­tional and spir­i­tual well-​being that re­spects the im­por­tance of cul­ture, eq­uity, so­cial jus­tice, in­ter­con­nec­tions, and per­sonal dig­nity.

This is over­com­pli­cated. It’s also wrong. How does men­tal health “re­spect the im­por­tance of so­cial jus­tice”? This de­f­i­n­i­tion does not match what peo­ple mean when they use the term “men­tal health”. A bet­ter, sim­pler de­f­i­n­i­tion could be:

A pat­tern of pos­i­tive emo­tion and func­tional cog­ni­tion.

Dic­tio­nary.com gives an even bet­ter sim­ple de­f­i­n­i­tion than my at­tempt:

Psy­cho­log­i­cal well-​being and sat­is­fac­tory ad­just­ment to so­ci­ety and to the or­di­nary de­mands of life.

Why do we do this? I think it’s be­cause it is easy to jus­tify adding com­plex­ity, but hard to jus­tify re­mov­ing it un­less you specif­i­cally value con­ci­sion. If I was a mem­ber of the Pub­lic Health Agency of Canada, and I sug­gested my sim­pler de­f­i­n­i­tion, peo­ple would cry, “But what about cul­ture?” “But shouldn’t we in­clude so­cial jus­tice?” “What about per­sonal dig­nity?” “What about spir­i­tu­alty?” And for me to argue against these in­clu­sions, I would be viewed as anti-​multiculturalism, anti-​dignity, and so on. I would be seen as using sim­plic­ity as an ex­cuse for ex­clud­ing im­por­tant con­cepts.

But de­f­i­n­i­tions are not where we de­cide what con­cepts we find im­por­tant! De­f­i­n­i­tions are de­scrip­tions of the mean­ing of a word. That’s it. If you want to em­pha­size so­cial jus­tice and eq­uity, fine, do it in a mis­sion state­ment. But in­clud­ing them in a de­f­i­n­i­tion is over­com­pli­cat­ing some­thing which is sup­posed to be sim­ple. Don’t in­clude every­thing; only in­clude the stuff you need. Only in­clude the good stuff.

Fail­ure to ad­here to this prin­ci­ple is a form of con­cep­tual hoard­ing which makes so­ci­ety harder to un­der­stand for every­one, as we have to al­lo­cate more of our cog­ni­tive re­sources to pars­ing un­nec­es­sary com­plex­ity. It also makes it im­pos­si­ble for peo­ple with low IQ (in­clud­ing those with an in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity) or low ed­u­ca­tion (in­clud­ing peo­ple of The term “so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus” seems like the same kind of kitchen-​sink com­plex­ity to me. Name some­one with rel­a­tively high eco­nomic sta­tus, but who still has low so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus. The ‘socio’ is re­dun­dant, and only in­cluded be­cause it’s hard to jus­tify ex­clud­ing it.low eco­nomic sta­tus to un­der­stand or re­mem­ber cer­tain con­cepts. Some­one with cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment from Alzheimer’s dis­ease might have a hard time re­mem­ber­ing the name of the Alzheimer’s Dis­ease and Re­lated Dis­or­ders As­so­ci­a­tion, but can more eas­ily re­mem­ber the new name of that or­ga­ni­za­tion: the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion.

I com­mend the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion on sim­pli­fy­ing their name, but the gen­eral trend seems to be going in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. Look­ing through the de­part­ments of the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment, you can see there are many names which are clearly too com­plex:

Agri­cul­ture and Agri-​Food Canada should just be Agri­cul­ture Canada. Cana­dian Radio-​Television and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion should just be Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Canada. Cana­dian Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Forces Com­mand should just be the Cana­dian Spe­cial Forces. The Fi­nan­cial Trans­ac­tions and Re­ports Analy­sis Cen­ter of Canada should just be Fi­nan­cial Analy­sis Canada. Why can’t they all be like Jus­tice Canada and Fi­nance Canada?

Part of me thinks that if the Gov­ern­ment of Canada it­self was named today, it would be called some­thing like the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for the Bet­ter­ment of Cana­dian Well-​Being and Dig­nity and the Im­prove­ment of So­ci­ety for all Cana­di­ans, both First Na­tions and non-​First Na­tions.

The Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment seems just as bad:

The Di­vi­sion for At-​Risk In­di­vid­u­als, Be­hav­ioral Health & Com­mu­nity Re­silience could just be the Na­tional Com­mu­nity Di­vi­sion. The Na­tional In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter on Health Ser­vices Re­search and Health Care Tech­nol­ogy should just be the Na­tional Health In­for­ma­tion Cen­tre. And I have given up when it comes to the Alaska Native-​Serving and Na­tive Hawaiian-​Serving In­sti­tu­tions Ed­u­ca­tion Com­pet­i­tive Grants Pro­gram.

And they’re not just com­pli­cated in name, but in struc­ture. The United States has hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent agen­cies. No human being has a hope of un­der­stand­ing them all, though they pay for them all. Why do we have so many agen­cies? Is it sim­ply be­cause it‘s eas­ier to jus­tify adding a new agency than it is to jus­tify cut­ting one?

The law can be sim­i­larly over­com­pli­cated. And yet we all have to fol­low it. How can we fol­low rules that most of us are not even ed­u­cated enough to un­der­stand? Laws which apply to every­one (non-​corporate etc.) should be writ­ten in plain Eng­lish.

I found an ar­ti­cle from the Michegan Bar Jour­nal sham­ing some ex­am­ples of legalese. Here is one of the ex­am­ples:

EX­EC­U­TIVE ORDER No. 1994-22

RESCIS­SION OF EX­EC­U­TIVE ORDER No. 1994-19

WHEREAS, Ar­ti­cle V Sec­tion 2, of the Con­sti­tu­tion of the State of Michi­gan of 1963 em­pow­ers the Gov­er­nor to make changes in the or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Ex­ec­u­tive Branch or in the as­sign­ment of func­tions among its units which he con­sid­ers nec­es­sary for ef­fi­cient ad­min­is­tra­tion; and

WHEREAS, such a pro­ce­dure can­not be ef­fected through Ex­ec­u­tive Order, but only through amend­ment of the Michi­gan Elec­tion Law, a course of ac­tion which I in­tend to seek forth­with.

NOW, THERE­FORE, I, John En­gler, Gov­er­nor of the State of Michi­gan, pur­suant to the pow­ers vested in me by the Con­sti­tu­tion of the State of Michi­gan of 1963 and the laws of the State of Michi­gan, do hereby order that Ex­ec­u­tive Order No. 1994-19 is hereby re­scinded. The pro­vi­sions of this Ex­ec­u­tive Order shall be­come ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately upon fil­ing. Given under my hand and the Great Seal of the State of Michi­gan this 25th day of Au­gust, in the Year of our Lord, One Thou­sand Nine Hun­dred Ninety-​Four, and of the Com­mon­wealth, One Hun­dred Fifty-​Eight.

Here is my at­tempt at sim­pli­fy­ing this:

Ex­ec­u­tive Order No. 1994-22

Au­gust 25th, 1994

By the au­thor­ity vested in my as Gov­er­nor by Ar­ti­cle V Sec­tion 2 of the Con­sti­tu­tion of the State of Michegan, I order that Ex­ec­u­tive Order No. 1994-19 is re­scinded, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately.

I’m no lawyer, so maybe I ex­cluded some­thing that needed to be in­cluded. But I def­i­nitely re­moved a lot of repi­ti­tion and un­nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion. The fact that the orig­i­nal wrote “1994” as “the Year of our Lord, One Thou­sand Nine Hun­dred Ninety-​Four, and of the Com­mon­wealth, One Hun­dred Fifty-​Eight” is lu­di­crous. But I guess if you’re Gov­er­nor, you need to fill your ex­ec­u­tive or­ders with lan­guage that’s all official-​like so peo­ple don’t re­al­ize you’re just a human and you don’t re­ally know what you’re doing. Or maybe you just don’t want peo­ple to be able to un­der­stand when you’re screw­ing them over.

Also, the United States has over 4000 fed­eral crimes on the books, some of them clear, and some of them not. How can a per­son be ex­pected to fol­low these laws if they are un­e­d­u­cated or they have an in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity? How can any­one?

There are plenty of other areas where I have no­ticed this type of vac­u­ous com­plex­ity caused by the dif­fi­culty in jus­ti­fy­ing sim­plic­ity. Many text­books are information-​sparse and you have to skim a lot to read them. I think this is be­cause it is easy to jus­tify sell­ing a long text­book, but hard to jus­tify sell­ing a short text­book. It’s also hard to jus­tify in­clud­ing a 2-page chap­ter, so all chap­ters are padded out to the same length, as if every topic has the same amount of in­for­ma­tion known about it.

I’ve also no­ticed a trend on the in­ter­net where writ­ers pad out their writ­ing and then use ital­ics and bold to re­as­sure their reader that this sen­tence, at least, won’t be a waste of their time. There is no re­quired word count for an ar­ti­cle, and yet there aren’t many two-​paragraph ar­ti­cles. Is every idea worth pub­lish­ing in an ar­ti­cle so com­plex that it can’t be ren­dered in two para­graphs? Or is it just that writ­ers feel that ar­ti­cles are sup­posed to be a cer­tain length?

Code rot and the growth of com­plex­ity of soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tions over time is also an ex­am­ple of a broader sim­plic­ity rot. It’s easy to jus­tify adding a new fea­ture un­less you ex­plic­itly com­pare the value added by the new fea­ture with the value sub­tracted due to a loss of sim­plic­ity. Good vi­sual de­sign can sim­plify a clut­tered user-​interface, but a truly good de­sign will re­duce the num­ber of fea­tures of a pro­gram in the first place.

No mat­ter how much we re­mind our­selves to “Keep It Sim­ple, Stu­pid”, we nev­er­the­less con­tinue to clut­ter our speech, our laws, our tech­nolo­gies, and our so­ci­ety as a whole. And I’m not re­ally sure how to fight it, be­sides say­ing, “this is sim­plic­ity rot and I won’t allow it.” We need a cul­ture of sim­plic­ity, where in­stead of over­com­pli­cat­ing things to show how smart we are, we sim­plify things to show how smart we are. I see no al­ter­na­tive.