The proliferating everyday complexity

Gregory bought a new laptop – a bargain with everything you need. After switching on and entering a few more personal data, then connecting it to the wireless LAN, eventually the browser opens with the homepage of the PC manufacturer. Since the new computer is quickly ready for use, all that remains is to install the program for property management. The DVD and license are on the table, but where is the DVD drive? After this emergency stop, he calls Curt, who has repeatedly helped him with computer problems. Actually, everything has been running so far almost by itself.

In the end, it is not decisive, how old Gregory and Curt are. Neither is the choice of a PC as an example. We could have chosen just as easily a heating system, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva or a car. Because of the computer widespread use, we are looking at it as an example of today’s everyday complexity – desktop PCs, smartphones, tablets, laptops, and so on. On many levels there are parts and components that are connected with each other. However, end users only notice this, if something goes wrong – i.e. when something in any given place doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. This leads to a proliferation of everyday complexity that inadvertently triggers complications, frustration and stress for users.

  • The PC
    The device, the so-called hardware, consists of components (e.g. circuit board, processor, graphic card, monitor, keyboard, mouse, and power supply unit) that can be exchanged and configured at will by the manufacturers of the components and devices, as well as by the administrators or even the end users. Even the smallest parameter changes can paralyze the PC.
  • The operating system
    The operating system consists of various programs that give the hardware a standardized set of interfaces with which internal functions can be controlled and external devices connected (such as monitors, printers, and networks) – primarily MacOS, Windows and Linux. The complex settings are set by default, are protected and usually managed by administrators – except for private users, who have to take care of it themselves.
    Even the smallest parameter changes can paralyze the operating system and therewith the PC.
  • The user software
    Applications, now called apps, are programs that offer common or very specific functionalities – i.e. text, image and spreadsheet processing as well as various kinds of business processes and special functions. The applications only run on the designated operating system. The standard settings of this software are based on the average needs of users. Integration into the existing software landscape requires knowledge of the installed software, which is mostly not affordable in the private sector.
    Even the smallest parameter changes can paralyze the software.
  • The browser
    The browser is a special software because it allows cloud-based solutions (SaaS, PaaS and IaaS), i.e. programs installed on the Internet and operated via the browser. In addition, there are standard services such as search engines and social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc… Users only need access to the Internet, a browser and the access authorization to run the applications. The settings are made by respective experts and require certain browsers with specific settings.
    Even the smallest parameter changes can paralyze the browser.
  • The Internet
    The Internet is the worldwide combination of computer networks which, based on standards such as TCP-IP, HTTP, DNS, enable the World Wide Web, e-mail and many other services. This allows any computer to connect to any other computer as long as both have access. Each computer has a number, e.g. 192.168.1.0815, which can be used more easily with a descriptive name, e.g. https://memecon.info. The access and management require certain parameters that are managed by experts.
    Even the smallest parameter changes can paralyze the access to the network and therewith all cloud-based services.

The above paragraphs are just a few examples of settings that keep computers running. The devil is in the details. Gregor is a good example of someone who is exposed to this everyday complexity. He is 86 and bought after his retirement his first computer with Windows 95 and eventually learned how to use it. Over the years he allowed himself to buy two new computers, each with the latest operating system. Although he has grown into today’s complexity, the newer developments push him to his limits. The problem is exacerbated by increasingly poor or missing descriptions – and the manufacturers belief that the user is in charge to cope with it.

Bottom line: The complexity of everyday life has grown imperceptibly, just as a hotplate gradually heats up. Just like the frog that swims in water, while it is heating up, we have not noticed the growing everyday requirements. And future generations are burdened with it from the beginning. We need approaches to deal with the growing complexity, also for private individuals, – for examples age-appropriate courses at school; improved documentation from manufacturers; service providers, who solve problems, answer questions and provide training. Otherwise, one day everyone will be overrun by the rampant everyday complexity, which will lead to a rejection of these machines.