Simple: when the word is used as cover up, to perhaps flip hot-potato on to others


I initially drafted this post in 2012 then forgot about it. I just re-read it a couple of days ago, then decided to publish it.

When someone starts a phrase like this

It is simple, …

and then they go on to expand on some non-trivial topic, they may be trying to hide something. Statements like that almost always aim at reassuring people, but in matters of information technology, I have seen it being used a lot as a tool to smuggle some undesired reality in broad daylight. This post discusses such IT contexts only.

Sometimes, someone would say it’s simple, when their real meaning could be one of these:

  • I want you to believe this is simple, though I know it actually isn’t
  • I am insecure about this, I don’t want to hear any questions
  • I think you are an idiot, I am publicly taking you down. Ha!
  • I double dare you ask any question about something I’ve just declared to be simple, and make a dumb fool of yourself publicly
  • This is a tricky matter, I need to pass on the hot-potato
  • I am responsible for this complexity, but I want to look good, so I am going to shame you into accepting it
  • I have no idea what I am talking about, this conversation better be over quickly, so I’m going to use peer pressure to get it over
  • I just want to appear smart, I am not accountable
  • Since I’ve just declared it to be simple, any troubles down the road surely could only be blamed on somebody else

If something is really simple then why say it? Shouldn’t that go without saying? Why dub something simple without laying out all relevant details plainly, in the open?

It is often useful to consider the social context, decide if it’s worth calling out the bluff. It could be that people are under pressure, looking for an escape, perhaps just out of insecurity. In many cases, you see everyone submitting to peer pressure, the fear of looking like the village idiot, of not playing ball. In situations where the it’s simple advocate comes from a position of power, intimidation or fear of retribution might silence challengers. But once everyone sets in the accepting logic, then the group begin to rationalise things and move on from there. At some stage it becomes really hard to distinguish reality from wishful thinking. The phenomenon is sometimes depicted as the five monkeys, as illustrated by this cartoon.

This is how, sometimes, bad technical decisions come about, then creep up and grow to ever larger proportions. The same way, obvious flaws could lie hidden in plain sight, when the conditions to prevent them were there all the time. This could happen to teams or groups of any size. Through positive feedback, such bad stake could linger on for a long time, become costly and entrenched ever more. Only some external agent, some outsider, might be able to come in and pop the bubble up.

When people tout something as simple when reasonable logic would indicate otherwise, it is often useful to abandon the rational route and focus on the social context. We often wrongly assume that matters in technology would be dominated by logic, yet it is often the human emotion that dictates most movements. Simple is easily said, but often quite difficult to deliver.

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