Simplexity – review

In Simplexity Jeffrey Kluger writes an easy-reading book on “why simple things become complex and how complex things can be made simple”.

simplexityFirst of all, this is not a book for anyone looking for a deep examination of complexity theory. Kluger is a writer for Time, not an academic or researcher. This makes Simplexity a very easy read and rather enjoyable. It’s the kind of book you want to take on a business trip, as it will give you some interesting ideas and perhaps help you look at things a little differently.

The book is organized into chapters that read like short stories. Topics range from “Why is the stock market hard to predict?” to “Why do people, mice, and worlds die when they do?”. My favourite chapter was, “Why is a baby the best linguist in the world?”. I learned that the first 9 months of life are essential to language learning and that a baby’s brain can do some amazing things in language acquisition. It had me questioning some of the common practices in language education.

For business professionals, the chapter on “Why do the jobs that require the greatest skills often pay the least?” is informative. The story of Beth Bechky, a workplace ethnographer, tells how she discovered that engineers in a firm would spend hundreds of hours developing blueprints to pass on to the assemblers, with the instructions, “Build to the print”.

The assemblers, in turn, accept the blueprints, shoo the engineers away – and often as not simply put the drawings aside. Never mind building to the print, many of them barely look at it. The source they turn to instead is one another. The more experienced assemblers figure out how the job should be done and tell the less experienced ones what to do. When a question arises, all of them simply consult one another.

The back cover compares Simplexity to Freakonomics and I would say that it’s a fair comparison. It’s a fun read and will make for interesting dinner conversations and may provide some insights, but it is only a shallow dive into complexity theory.

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