The Simplicity Heuristic

Occam’s Razor for Social Systems

“Why should we plant when there are so many Mongongo nuts in the world?” Kung San Bushman, quoted in “The Dawn of Everything”

I went to Farmers department store today to get a refill for my SodaStream machine so we could again have bubbly water which we find refreshing. The process had, unfortunately, been complexified. I used to go there, the salesperson would take our empty bottle, go out the back, and come back with full bottles that we could use and charge us for the service. Now, Farmers had decided to turn this into a returns process, so the salesperson needed to find a manager, get them to approve a return, then technically process the empty bottles as a return (which isn’t really what is happening), give us a credit, and discount two new SodaStream bottles the amount of the credit. This means that I get two new SodaStream bottles with associated packaging, which is two substantial cardboard boxes, partially defeating the sustainabilty purpose of us using SodaStream in the first place.

In Western society we seem to have a “complexity bias”; this is probably based on the widely held belief that technological and societal advancement will ultimately lead to better living. But it dawned on me recently that perhaps what we are seeing is the mounting cost of complexity. The more complex we make our systems, the more unpredictable they become; many outcomes are possible, but only a small number of these outcomes are intended or desirable.

Lately complexity science, systems thinking, and such methods have been developed to help us grapple with the complexity that we are creating. The world and the universe are inherently complex places, but as we progress we are piling complexity on top of complexity, and society seems to be starting to teeter. What if instead of asking ourselves how much progress we can make, an alternative question we could be asking ourselves is how much can we simplify?

Occam’s razor, also spelled Ockham’s razor, also called law of economy or law of parsimony, principle stated by the Scholastic philosopher William of Ockham (1285–1347/49) that pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate, “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” The principle gives precedence to simplicity: of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred. The principle is also expressed as “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”


What if we applied the principle of Occam’s razor to our social/societal systems?

This line of thought that I am having is inspired by the new book “The Dawn of Everything”, which looks at new emerging archaelogical evidence to challenge a number of mental models and beliefs which, on closer inspection, seem more like myths constructed to prop up our belief in progress as a panacea. There is a fascinating discussion in the book about the move from hunter-gathering to farming. The authors show using evidence-backed examples how there was no such thing as the agricultural revolution. Hunter-gatherer societies in different places experimented with farming at different times and for different lengths of time, and with very mixed results. The quote from a Kung San Bushman “Why should we plant when there are so many Mongongo nuts in the world?”, is a beautiful example of Occam’s razor applied to the problem of obtaining nutrition. Farming is much more labour intensive, risky, and vulnerable to various environmental disturbances, for example drought, storms, floods, and so on. And so the Bushman has chosen the simpler, easier, more adaptive alternative over the more complex, more fragile, more difficult one.

At the same time, I am very aware that I sit inside my standalone house, sheltered from the rain, having eaten some fast food for lunch, writing on my laptop, posting on something called Medium which is built on a remarkable conglomeration of software, hardware, and protocols called the internet, and this makes it very easy for me to share ideas. But the complexity or simplicity that we choose for our social systems is certainly worth considering, and it is worth thinking about what ultimately will lead us to the greatest quality of life. One of the benefits of being the uniquely self-reflexive organisms that we humans are is that we can reflect on and question our own beliefs, and think about what serves us best.

How complex or simple do you think we should make our way of being together?



Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being

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Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being