My goal is to simplify complexity. I just want to build stuff that really simplifies our base human interaction. – Jack Dorsey
T.S Eliot write that the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper. That’s a generalizable observation – regimes end that way, patterns of thinking end that way, belief systems end that way.
It’s not that simple. Jack Dorsey’s quote above caught my eye – thinking about Twitter and the news that Elon Musk was taking it private. Something that Dorsey built to simplify the way we interact has turned out to have created unthinkably complex effects – some for the positive and some for the clearly negative. I assumed that having the platform under the control of a single person might be something Dorsey would oppose but it turns out, it’s something he suggested Musk do.
What happens when you dig into anything is that it turns out to be more complex than you think. Nothing is as it seems. Decisions are never simple. Everything has layers and layers and yet more layers.
Let me give you an example based on the concept of religion.
I come from a deeply religious part of the world – one where religion is as natural to people as breathing. It’s unquestioned, it just is, and it’s unthinkable to think that God does not exist.
I live in a different part of the world and there is religion there too. The small people in the house are taught about it at school.
One day I heard from one of these small people that they had been talking about God at school, and they were surprised that some of their friends didn’t believe in God. They were even more surprised when I said that there might be grounds for not believing that God exists. In fact, they didn’t like that much at all.
Eventually, one said, “Daddy, if you don’t believe in God then I will stop believing in God as well.” So I said “Do you want to believe in God?” The answer was “Yes.” So I said, “Ok, then. I believe in God as well.”
What is the right approach? Should you tell your children that you don’t believe in something because that is where you are in your life right now? Or do you tell them what they want to hear?
Some people might think that this is easy – one choice is true and the other is false and you should speak the truth. Of course, when it comes to the question of whether God exists or not, what’s true and what’s false is different for different people.
For a resolution to this we have to turn to Terry Pratchett and his approach to the problem.
Pratchett’s argument would be that if you take every grain of matter in the Universe and sieve it you will not find a single atom of a God anywhere in there. Grind everything up and pick through it and there will be no evidence that God exists.
That’s enough isn’t it, to say that God doesn’t exist? Isn’t saying anything else a lie?
But it’s more complex than that. If you pick through all the matter in the universe you will also not find an atom of truth, justice, mercy or love. Saying these exist is surely lying as well?
Pratchett argues that this is why we need children to believe in magic and fairies and bunnies and flying reindeer. If these are lies, then they are little lies, lies that teach children that there is more to the world than what is just in front of them, little lies that let them believe in the big lies – like truth and justice and mercy and love.
When you see what goes on in the world it’s hard to believe in anything. Layers within layers mean that what you see is not all there is, and every situation has to be looked at from multiple perspectives. Things like social media polarise us and seek to simplify debate – they ask us to believe without question in one position or another.
The one comfort we can take is that societies and people that stifle debate rot from within – they are so busy hiding from the truth that what they have left is not worth having. Maybe Musk will be good for Twitter – as a free speech absolutist he will allow everyone to use the platform. As a technologist he will look for solutions to the problems that beset the platform. As a rich and powerful person at the start of his reign, maybe it will all turn out well for him. Or not. Time will tell.
The only thing we do know is that it’s never as simple as it seems.