spider web with dew on it
PHOTO: michael podger

“Networks are an essential ingredient in any complex adaptive system,” Eric Beinhocker writes in "The Origin of Wealth." “Without interactions between agents, there can be no complexity.”

Think for a moment of a printed page in a book. It may contain complex ideas, but it is relatively simple. It is hard-linked to the page that came before and the one after. It may contain references which leads you to an appendix. However, in many ways, it is what you may call “finished” or “published.”

Webpages have a whole other level of potential. They may in fact be just like that print page if an organization has merely digitized print content and uploaded it on the web. However, it is usually surrounded by an architecture of links. Sometimes, it may contain live data that gets updated as and when change occurs. Sometimes, it will change based on an action by the one accessing it. That is the true web. And when it is at its most powerful, it is also at its most complex.

However, this is generally a hidden complexity. Think of Google. It couldn’t be simpler to use: a search box and a click. Its interface has become even more minimal over the years. Up until 2015, it had a link beside the search box that read, “Advanced Search.” It no longer has that link, even though, year after year, the search algorithm has been refined to become more and more complex.

Google removed the link “Advanced Search” simply because most people didn’t want to do an “advanced” search. “Why, little old me, I’d never be able to do any advanced search. Sounds very complex. Do you need a degree for that?”

Google realized it needed to perform the advanced and complex work for the customer. Thus, instead of the customer going to the advanced section and selecting an option that indicated they wanted to conduct geographical searches, Google sought to identify words in their search behavior that would indicate whether they were searching for a place rather than a thing or person. If Google noticed such “geographic” words, it would include a map in its search results.

We all want the fruits of complexity. Only a few want to undertake the labors of complexity to make things simpler for others. If you consider the history of retail — from barter to Amazon — we see an inexorable shift of complexity away from the buyer and towards the seller. The seller is constantly and relentlessly making it easier to purchase because sellers have done the math. They understand the return on investment when investing in simplicity.

Most other organizations do not invest in simplicity. They constantly calculate the costs of complexity they will incur, ignoring the returns on simplicity. They seek the cheapest ways to get stuff up on the web (which is why we see so much digitized print content in the form of bulky PDFs on websites).

The web is not print. It’s a much more complex, networked environment. Those who are investing in complexity, while also investing in simplifying interactions with such complex systems, are reaping the bountiful rewards.