Is Life Becoming Too Complex? The Devil Is in the Details….! Can We Keep Up?

Details matter in this life, and they demand our attention – increasingly so. It is becoming impossible to live under illusions such as, “Details are confined mainly to the realm of specialists, like the computer programmer and the watchmaker.” The need for “attention to detail” on the part of everyman has never been greater.


I’ve been around for a while, now – over seventy-six years. Given all those years and, with the detached attitude of an impartial observer, I have reached some general conclusions regarding technology, time, and our quality of life, today.

Conclusion #1:
The opportunity for living a comfortable, meaningful, and rewarding life has never been greater – especially in this United States of America. We have so many choices today in this society, for better or for worse.

Conclusion #2:
The veracity of conclusion #1 is due to the positive influence of science and technology on our lives. Today’s information age has delivered the world, indeed, the universe (and Amazon, too) to our desktops and living rooms.


It is true that computers and the internet are virtually indispensable, now.  However, the tools and the technology of the scientific/information age change continually, at an ever more rapid pace. Can we humans continue to keep pace with it all without making painful choices and sacrifices in our lives? Have computer problems ever driven you nuts? Do we have too many choices and opportunities now, thanks to the internet and stores like Walmart? How often have you shopped for something specific in the supermarket or on Amazon and been bewildered by the blizzard of choices which accost you thanks to high-tech marketing? Even choosing a hair shampoo poses a challenge for today’s shopper.

Conclusion #3:
Scientific knowledge and the rapid technological progress it spawns have become, universally, a 50/50 proposition for the human race. The reality suggests that for every positive gain in our lives brought about by our growing technology base, there is, unrelentingly, a negative factor to be overcome as well – a price to be paid. There is virtually a one-to-one correspondence at play – seemingly like an unspoken law of nature which always holds sway – much like the influence of gravitational attraction! In familiar parlance, “There is no free lunch in life: Rather, a price to paid for everything!”

The best example possible of this contention? Consider Einstein’s revelation in 1905 that mass and energy are interchangeable: e=mc2. This, the most famous equation in science, opened not only new frontiers in physics, but also the possibility of tremendous industrial power – at minimal cost. On the negative side, along with nuclear power plants, we now have nuclear weapons capable, in one day, of essentially ending life on this planet – thanks to that same simple equation. As for usable, nuclear-generated power, the potential price for such energy has been dramatically demonstrated in several notable cases around the globe over recent decades.

Need another example? How about the information technology which enables those handy credit cards which make purchasing “goodies” so quick and easy? On the negative side, how about the punishing cost of credit for account balances not promptly paid? More disturbing is the fact that such technology in the hands of internet criminals makes one’s private financial information so vulnerable, today. I found out the hard way, recently, that just changing your hacked credit card for a new one does not necessarily end your problems with unauthorized charges! The price in real money paid by society for foiling technology savvy ne-er do-wells is huge, in the billions of dollars every year.

Conclusion #4
Society, today, seems to discount the wisdom inherent in the old, familiar phrase, “The devil is in the details!” We are easily enticed by the lure of “user-friendly” computers and devices, and indeed, most are generally well-designed to be just that – considering what they can do for us. But today’s scientists and engineers fully understand the profundity of that “devil is in the details” contention as they burrow deeper and deeper into nature’s secrets. The lawyer and the business man fully understand the message conveyed given the importance of carefully reading “the fine print” embedded in today’s legal documents and agreements. How many of us take (or can even afford) the time to read all the paperwork/legalese which accompanies the purchase of a new automobile or a house! Increasingly, we seem unable/unwilling to keep up with the burgeoning demands imposed by the exponential growth of detail in our lives, and that is not a healthy trend.

I am convinced and concerned that many of us are in way over our heads when it comes to dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of today’s personal computers, and these systems are becoming increasingly necessary for families and seniors merely trying to getting by in today’s internet world. Even those of us with engineering/computer backgrounds have our hands full keeping up with the latest developments and devices: I can personally attest to that! The devil IS in the details, and the details involved in computer science are growing exponentially. Despite the frequently quoted phrase “user-friendly interface,” I can assure you that the complexity lurking just below that user-friendly, top onion-skin-layer of your computer or iPhone is very vast, indeed, and that is why life gets sticky and help-entities like the Geek Squad will never lack for stymied customers.

Make no mistake: It is not merely a question of “Can we handle the specific complexities of operating/maintaining our personal computers?” Rather, the real question is, “Can we handle all the complexities/choices which the vast capabilities of the computer/internet age have spawned?”  

Remember those “user manuals?” Given the rapid technological progress of recent decades, the degree of choice/complexity growth is easily reflected by the growing size of user manuals, those how-to instructions for operating our new autos, ovens, cooktops, washing machines, and, now, phones and computers. Note: The “manuals” for phones and computers are now so complex that printed versions cannot possibly come with these products. Ironically, there are virtually no instructions “in the box.” Rather, many hundreds of data megabytes now construct dozens of computer screens which demonstrate the devices’ intricacies on-line. These software “manuals” necessarily accommodate the bulk and the constantly changing nature of the product itself. Long gone are the old “plug it in and press this button to turn it on” product advisories. More “helpful” product options result in significantly more complexity! Also gone are the “take it in for repair” days. My grandfather ran a radio repair shop in Chicago seventy years ago. Today, it is much cheaper and infinitely more feasible to replace rather than repair anything electronic.

An appropriate phrase to describe today’s burgeoning technologies is “exponential complexity.” What does that really mean and what does it tell us about our future ability to deal with the coming “advantages” of technology which will rain down upon us? I can illustrate what I mean.

Let us suppose that over my seventy-six years, the complexity of living in our society has increased by 5% per year – a modest assumption given the rapid technological gains in recent decades. Using a very simple “exponential” math calculation, at that rate, life for me today is over 40 times more complex than it was for my parents the day I was born!

To summarize: Although many of the technological gains made over recent decades were intended to open new opportunities and to make life easier for us all, they have imposed upon us a very large burden in the form of the time, intelligence, and intellectual energy required to understand the technology and to use it both efficiently and wisely. Manual labor today is much minimized; the intellectual efforts required to cope with all the newest technology is, indeed, very significant and time-consuming. There is a price to be paid…for everything.

The major question: At what point does technology cease to help us as human beings and begin to subjugate us to the tyranny of its inherent, inevitable and necessary details? The realm in which the details live is also home to the devil.

The devil tempts. The burgeoning details and minutia in today’s society act to corrode our true happiness. We should be cautious lest we go too far up the technology curve and lose sight of life’s simpler pleasures… like reading a good book in a quiet place – cell phones off and out of reach. The noise and bustle of Manhattan can appear endlessly intoxicating to the visitor, but such an environment is no long-term substitute for the natural sounds and serenity of nature at her finest. The best approach to living is probably a disciplined and wisely proportioned concoction of both worlds.

The above recipe for true happiness involves judicious choices, especially when it comes to technology and all the wonderful opportunities it offers. Good choices can make a huge difference. That is the ultimate message of this post.

As I write this, I have recently made some personal choices: I am redoubling my efforts to gain a more solid grasp of Windows 10 and OS X on my Mac. Despite the cautionary message of this post regarding technology, I see this as an increasingly necessary (and interesting) challenge in today’s world. This is a choice I have made. I have, however, put activities like FaceBook aside and have become much more choosey about time spent on the internet.

My parting comment and a sentiment which I hope my Grandkids will continue to heed: “So many good books; so little quality time!”

Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology

IMG_2350_PSI had a very good day recently. I bought a beautiful $400 book for $20 in Ventura, California! It also happens to be a very important book – literally, a foundation work for today’s Internet and our computer-based technological age . The book is titled: Cybernetics. While traveling south three weeks ago to the annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Music Festival – an annual event for us (see last week’s post) – Linda and I stopped in downtown Ventura, California – also an annual ritual. As always, we had lunch at our favorite hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant and browsed for a bit at one of our favorite used bookstores in town, The Calico Cat.

Often we find a book or two in this little shop, and sometimes, we do not. After perusing various sections for close to an hour with no luck, I moved to the science/math section. As I ran my eyes along the shelves, I recognized many of the books they held. My scanning gaze froze as I came upon a pristine little book titled Cybernetics: or Control and Communication of the Animal and the Machine, written by Norbert Wiener. Wiener was a mathematics prodigy in his youth who enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a professor of mathematics at M.I.T., the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The book’s title reflects its ground-breaking categorization of the messaging and control systems inherent in the two closely-related realms of computer control and the human/animal brain/body connection. Cybernetics appeared at precisely the same time as the first, large-scale electronic computers, and this little book was instrumental in determining the future path of computing and control (robotics).

I immediately recognized the title and author as very important, but could this be the 1948 first edition – a book I knew to be of considerable value? I excitedly pulled it from the shelf and opened to the verso of the title page which stated “Second printing. November, 1948.” I was holding the second printing of the first U.S. edition printed by John Wiley and Sons, Inc. There was a companion edition of the text published in Paris by Hermann et CIE, also in 1948.

I became very excited and called Linda over to show her the book and explain, “I believe this book is worth several hundred dollars in the book trade: It is a very famous, seminal work in communication and control engineering. For a copy in the like-new condition of this one, $400 is easily a realistic value on the market. The apparent penciled price for this pristine copy with an almost perfect dust jacket: $25! The store’s owner called my attention to the fact I misread the price which was actually only $20. With no hint of hesitation, I coolly announced, “I’ll take it!” The book’s original price, still on the dust-jacket: $3! Understandably, the store owners had no clue as to the book’s engineering/mathematical significance to today’s Internet and computer technology.

For a retired electrical engineer, like myself, finding this little book in such perfect condition at such a price is akin to tripping over a diamond protruding from the footpath. My many years in Silicon Valley spent designing computer disk drives all ultimately stemmed from a very few foundational works (books and technical papers) such as this one. Summoning my engineering background, I can read and understand the material in this book –while difficult, it does not require a PhD in Mathematics. That is the beauty of a foundational technical work such as this – profound, yet accessible to most engineers and scientists – given some effort.

The “Other” Book

11120467054[1]There exists another similarly concise book whose pedigree exceeds even that of Cybernetics. That book was authored by Claude Shannon at the Bell Laboratories and titled The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Interestingly, the book was published in 1949 after being first introduced as a technical paper in the Bell Systems Journal of 1948 – the same year that Cybernetics was published.

Dare I press my luck and hope to find a similar bargain for Mr. Shannon’s book? Not likely to happen, but it would be the perfect complement to Wiener’s little volume.

Shannon’s book elegantly achieves the unenviable task of defining “information” in mathematical terms and in a manner which lends itself to quantifying the maximum flow of  information possible over a given communication channel such as the Internet or the radio/television airwaves, to cite two of many possible real-life applications. Reading and decoding the magnetically recorded binary bits of data (1’s and 0’s) stored on computer disk drives occurs in the “read channel” of the drive electronics, as we engineers in the industry referred to it. All such applications concerning “communications” succumb to the mathematics presented by Claude Shannon in this little volume containing a mere 117 pages! Shannon’s methods are equally applicable to yesterday’s analog channels (radio transmissions, for example) and today’s pervasive digital implementations (computers, the Internet, et all).

The next time we are passing through Ventura, I will keep a sharp eye out for this second book and any other bargains like Cybernetics! Good fortune usually takes luck, but when good luck comes knocking, one needs to recognize the sound!