Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

House of Cards


Recently finished Donald A. Norman’s Coping With Complexity. (It’s one of the few books without a subtitle, resisting unnecessary complexity.) It’s full of good advice to both users and designers. Yet, as good as it is, he missed one key aspect: the complexity generated by too many things.

We humans tend to underestimate the probability of errors in complex systems (Kahneman and Tversky). One result of this tendency is to accept complex systems—and even add to their complexity—without realizing we’re overestimating our ability to cope with them.

Certainly our computers (and other devices like cell phones and tablets that are really computers) are very complex systems. We make these devices more complex by adding programs or apps that didn’t exist when the devices were originally designed. The complexity arises for two reasons: these programs and apps weren’t designed to interact, and there are so many of them.

However, even that complexity pales by comparison with the proliferation of these devices in our brave new gadget-filled world. We externalize our lives in these devices, resulting in a complex system that was not planned and is now unmanageable. To repeat: they weren’t designed to interact, and there are so many of them.

Case in point: The cheap AC plug device mentioned in the last post worked fine for a few days and then died. Returning it, I found out why: I had tried to charge my Kindle with it. I tried because the first website I found said it was OK. Why didn’t I read the specs from the back of the Kindle itself? I defy anyone to read those numbers with the naked eye. (Turned out the Kindle required over twice the amps the plug could deliver.)

We need to know these numbers for device compatibility. We use web sites to find information about devices. Two mistakes and one minor burnout. You might think I was lucky. This equipment was for an upcoming trip, so I tested it before I really needed it. Made my own luck.

Make it or find it, luck is what we need to manage our complex personal device environment. But it’s growing more complex every day (and in every way). Too many devices, far too many interactions, and too few safety nets. Hence, this post’s title: House Of Cards. And the bigger that house of cards, the more likely it will collapse.

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