Complex Vs complicated

Added 28 September 2015




by M S Jayaraman

‘Complex’ is a nice word. It has its root in the Latin term  plex meaning connected. Thus a two way connect is duplex. More connections are multiplex. Complex systems are easy to use. Human body is complex. No one undergoes training to use the body for day to day functioning. Nature and ecology are complex systems and we are simply a part of it.

In an experiment involving robot design, in the early days, it required 80,000 instructions in ‘C’ language to enable a robot to locate and pick an object. When a barrier was introduced and the robot was required to avoid it by going over it to pick the object, the number of instructions shot up to 1.2 million! I if you are reading this article sipping a cup of coffee, every time you pick up the cup while continuing to read, you may be executing millions of computer instructions! The whole idea of complex connected systems is to ensure simplicity in use. Complexity is simplicity! Oxymoron!

So when does a complex system get complicated? 

Complications could start when you are unwell in a super specialty hospital when the cardiologist tells you “for that problem you may have to consult the nephrologist or hematologist. It has nothing to do with the heart”. That might often be the starting point for more complications to follow.

When we approach a complex system with a fragmented view or understanding we complicate matters. The word Complex cannot be used as a verb. We cannot ‘complex’ something. But, given a chance, we are capable of complicating everything around us!

‘Complicate’ originates from the Latin root  plic meaning fold or hide. When you fill in a government form, at the end of completing it a foot-note may ask you to fill it in triplicate. Bureaucracy thrives in complications!

From an early age we are all taught to break apart problems and issues which makes complex tasks and subjects manageable. But when we continue to stay with a fragmented mindset and fail to address the whole, we complicate things.

 We call for a holistic approach to healthcare whereas the word health itself is derived from holistic! With the emphasis we have on specialization, and super specialization which in fact has propelled healthcare to such mind-boggling levels of advancement, there seems to be no compensating thrust towards an integrated approach. In his insightful essay titled ‘The triumph of New-age medicine’ in the August 2014  issue of The Atlantic Journal, author David Freedman asserts “It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has”

In his popular book ‘Complications’ author Dr Atul Gawande, a cardiac surgeon by profession, observes “ When we think about medicine and its remarkable abilities, what comes to mind is the science and all it has given us to fight sickness and misery: the tests, the machines, the drugs, the procedures. But we rarely can see how it all actually works together

Fragmented thinking takes over in places whenever we are required to explore and embrace complexity be it medicine, engineering, sociology or ecology. In the early days when electrical engineering was introduced, there was joke going that if the mechanical engineer got into the car, turned the ignition key and car does not start, he would simply open up the ignition lock!

The challenger spacecraft, an engineering marvel, burst into flames throwing the crew of seven members into space. The investigation attributed the disaster to the fragmented thinking where some members of the project and subcontractors were not even aware of the fact that the project was intended to launch seven people into space.

 Literature, theatre and fine arts can help our specialist professionals to develop an integrated view of life. Already three  out of four medical schools in the US offer courses in humanities. Columbia medical school has introduced story-telling and narrative medicine in their curriculam.MIT offers  programs in  Systems thinking integrating the engineering disciplines. As MIT’s Peter Senge observes , if we  do not start a movement for an integrated approach, we will soon be looking at a cluster of tiny broken pieces of mirror, hoping  to see a good image of ourselves.


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