anon: (archaic or literary)
- in a short time; soon

50:50 vision

80:20 insight

In pursuit of a simple, single answer

Vexed: Miranda Raison and Toby Stephens. Photo: BBC

“Why bother to get married? You can just find a woman you hate, and buy her a house.”

How to impress women by DI Jack Armstrong, from the BBC series ‘Vexed’. Although said in fun, it didn’t impress his partner, DI Georgina Dixon.

There’s an elegant if flawed simplicity in the statement, which is both amusing and beguiling. Agreed, it is a male view of life, but you can, as they say, see where Jack was coming from.

There is a desire, hunger even, to find a simple solution to any problem. I used to think it a British trait, but I’ve seen it surface in other cultures too. People discuss the parlous state of the NHS, the apparent indifference of youth, or the inability of the local supermarket to keep a supply of milk on their shelves, and then ask each other “What is the answer?”

And they do mean ‘what is the answer’, singular. When they start to pontificate, their pet solution is always in the singular: “I’d sack all the managers”, or “Bring back National Service and keep the kids off the streets”.

I read this once (can’t remember where): “For every complex problem, there’s a simple solution … which doesn’t work.” I’d like to amend it slightly to, “For every problem, there’s any number of simple solutions which don’t work” – it would be much nearer the truth.

I think this blind, tenacious faith in ‘the simple solution’ started when the world was a lot less complex, and because the so-called ‘simple solutions’ often mask or hide the problem without fixing it.

This is particularly evident with computers and technology. Most people are aware that computers deal with just 0s (noughts) and 1s (ones), even if they’re a bit hazy about how exactly it all works. The trouble is, there are millions of instructions being processed every minute. When an application hangs, we turn the computer off and then on again (also called re-booting or power-cycling). Hey presto, the problem is gone … along with any unsaved work you had. But the problem isn’t fixed – if it’s a bug in the software (for bug, read programing fault), it will appear again at some less than convenient point.

Some years ago I worked for a construction company. There was an efficiency drive, and this had been, erroneously, seen as an opportunity just to simplify everything. This included the job sheets given to the work force, to the point were one ‘task description’ could encompass a huge range of possibilities. One wag in our team (we were charged with simplifying the work), suggested a single task description to cover every building eventuality: “Measure, mark, cut, build, demolish house.”

So, the next time someone says “What is the answer?”, remember the complexity of life, and the impossibility of a single, simple answer.

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