The Complexity of Making a Pencil in "I, Pencil"

The Problem With Elegant Technology

Nov 24, 2013 • 229 Views
EST. TIME TO READ: 2 minutes

HealthCare.gov’s problems might relate to “elegance.”

Equal to simplicity, elegance results from eliminating complexity. In the Broadway play “Proof,”  the math proof was elegant. For me it could be an analytic essay or an architectural blueprint. No matter the discipline, the final product is elegant if it no longer displays the complexity that enabled its creation.

Google is elegant.

But one blogger suggests that just by using a browser to access the Google home page, we “put into play HTTP, HTML, CSS, ECMAscript, and more.” Because a network was involved, the technologies included “DNS, TCP, UDP, IP, Wifi, Ethernet, DOCSIS, OC, SONET, and more.” And we have not even begun to think about operating systems or the keyboard we take for granted.

I could go on but his point was that the complexities of computing have created a huge divide between technologists and non-technologists. His conclusions returned me to “elegance.” When the technologists do their job well, like at Google, the results are so”elegant” that they obscure all that could go wrong.

And doesn’t that take us to health care?

A recent news article said that a pre-launch assessment of how data center information was designed to be stored revealed 600 hardware and software defects. The article also made evident that decisions from the administration resulted in a what one programming specialist said was a “monstrous” amount of code that had to be rewritten.

Healthcare.gov returns us to the problem with elegant technology. Few people know how tough it is to get it right.

One final thought…

It was perfect for economist Tyler Cowen to compare the technologist/non-technologist gap to Leonard Read’s 1958 classic essay,”I, Pencil: My Family Tree as told to Leonard Read.” Close to the beginning of the essay, the pencil says, “I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe…Simple? Yet not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me…”

Sources and resources: H/T to marginalrevoplution for reminding me of “I, Pencil” and the link to Jean-Baptiste Quéru’s insightful discussion of the chasm between the people who develop technology and almost everyone else. I also recommend a Wired article on Dennis Ritchie and Steve Jobs and the NY Times article that describes some of the decisions behind HealthCare.gov. Finally, this econlife discusses “I, Pencil” and was briefly excerpted above.

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