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My city recently passed a law making it illegal for stores to provide plastic bags for free at the checkout stand. Now we have the option of paying ten cents for a paper bag or bringing our own. If one looks at this new law in isolation, it seems reasonable enough. People will adjust to the change and the environment will be better for it.

That's how it looks if you view the bag law in isolation. But allow me to put it in context and explain how I feel when I go to my local grocery store, Safeway.

When I walk into the store, and realize I didn't bring my reusable bags, I feel like an absent-minded moron. This is how I usually feel during the day, so it's no big deal.

Then I start looking for cheese, only to discover that some genius in Safeway's marketing department thinks that cheese should be spread out over about seven different locations throughout the store. You have your cottage cheese here, your artisanal cheeses there, your shredded cheeses somewhere else, and so on. There is no logical order to any of it. Five minutes into my shopping, I am filled with rage and I feel manipulated. I assume someone at Safeway decided that inconveniencing me would somehow make me buy more shit because I end up walking down every frickin' aisle in the store looking for my cheese. It's not the inconvenience that bugs me so much as the feeling of manipulation.

When I'm ready to pay, I see long lines at the human checkout stands and short lines at the self-checkout. I know from experience that using the self-checkout, which was designed by a crack team of practical jokers, sadists, and monkeys that have been abused by their trainers, will bring me to frustration. I know I will inadvertently move my bag before the system believes I should and it will proclaim to all nearby shoppers that I might be a shoplifter. I will feel humiliated, incompetent, stupid, and shamed.

So I skip the self-checkout and look for the shortest line with a human checker. The 15 Items or Less line looks good, but I'm never confident in how they do that calculation. Is a six-pack one item or two? What about two identical items for which only one needs to be scanned and the cashier can hit the "times two" button? Will the people behind me think I cheated? Will the cashier give me an angry look and call the manager? What exactly is the process for dealing with express line cheats?

I can't stand the ambiguity so I head for the regular checkout stand and its longer line. When it's my turn to pay I am faced with the choice of proving I have a loyalty card or paying a penalty if I can't. I don't carry loyalty cards with me because I would need a wheelbarrow for all of them. Instead, I rely on using one of our phone numbers at the checkout. But which one? The people behind me glare at me and my time-wasting hesitation, or at least it feels that way. I know some of those folks were just looking for cheese so they can't be happy.

Is the loyalty card registered under the landline number for our house? Or might it be the phone number we had at our old home when we first got the card? Is it under my wife's cell phone number or do I have my own Safeway loyalty card? I can't remember. I peck at the point-of-sale terminal until one of those numbers works.

Now I have to decide on debit versus credit. I choose credit because of the airline miles associated with the card, which is another cesspool of complexity. I get mad just thinking about my airline miles.

Now the point-of-sale terminal asks if I want to donate a dollar to some worthwhile charity. I approve of the charity, but it pisses me off that they ask me in this particular situation. It's manipulative. I JUST WANT MY DAMN CHEESE!!!!

The cashier informs me that my credit card is blocked. I must have recently purchased a few things that match the pattern of credit card thieves. I switch to my emergency backup credit card while the people behind me wonder if I am a credit card thief, a pauper, or an idiot who forgot to pay his bills. I feel belittled and frustrated and angry.

I am also aware that there was probably some sort of coupon or discount for the stuff I am trying to buy that I didn't know about. So I feel a little ripped off too.

Now I have to figure out the bag situation. I have too many items to hand-carry because my search for cheese caused me to buy several items I didn't even know I needed. It only got worse as I got hungrier and hungrier over the course of my cheese safari. Damn you, Safeway marketing department! Damn you!

The cashier asks, as law requires, whether I want to pay ten cents for a paper bag. I would happily pay the ten cents if the cost were baked into the total price, but something about being asked in front of witnesses makes it feel wrong. And I know that if I do buy the bag I will be destroying the planet for future generations. I will feel guilty buying it, guilty loading it into my car, and guilty recycling it later. I decide to buy a reusable bag that is offered at the checkout. At this point, for reasons I still don't understand, the cashier gives me a death stare and moves in slow motion toward the reusable bags, as if to signal to me that I have done something wrong, but I'm not sure what.

Then the cashier asks if I need help to my car with my half-a-bag of groceries. I know her company requires her to ask, but it calls into question my manhood. I feel insulted because I know I can lift as much as five pounds and carry it across an entire parking lot without stopping more than twice.  I try to ignore the insult. . . until the bagger asks the same question.

By the time I reach my car I feel frustrated, angry, guilty, stupid, incompetent, belittled, weak, humiliated, ripped off, and inconvenienced. The feeling lasts until I get home and my wife says, "That's the wrong cheese." That feeling pretty much replaces all the other ones.

My point is that the new bag law in California is entirely reasonable when viewed in isolation. Likewise, loyalty cards, self-checkout, and all the other annoyances make complete sense when viewed in isolation. But we don't live in a world in which anything can exist in isolation. Safeway and my city government have made the simple act of food shopping so complicated that I'd rather scrounge in the dumpster behind the store than endure the pain of shopping inside the store.

This is an interesting issue because every business decision that causes inconvenience for customers is viewed in isolation. When you take that perspective, eventually the entire process becomes so complicated it is barely competitive with dumpster diving.

What we need is some sort of system in which any proposed complication is viewed as more bothersome than earlier complications. The first complication usually doesn't cause much problem. The tenth complication - no matter how well-meaning - destroys the system.

But here's my big gripe. Yes, I saved the best for last. You see, brains are like muscles in the sense that they have a limited capacity during any given day. If you lift too many heavy objects, your muscles will fail. Likewise, if you use up all of your brain cycles on nonsense, you have nothing left for the important things in life, such as making Dilbert comics and writing blog posts.

Seriously though, I think society is blind to the hidden cost of complexity in daily life. The ever-worsening complexity isn't simply annoying; it is hijacking your brain. Every minute you spend trying to find cheese, and trying to pay for it without getting arrested, is time you aren't thinking about solutions to real problems.

If this seems like no big deal, you might be wrong. Consider that everything good about modern civilization was invented by people who really needed to focus to get the job done. What happens to a world-class engineer or entrepreneur when he or she has to syphon off more brain energy to satisfying Safeway's marketing strategy instead of designing new products? Now multiply that times a hundred because every retailer, website, and business is trying to complicate your life too.

Complexity sneaks up on you because every individual decision - such as the bag laws in my city - make sense when viewed in isolation. But if that trend continues, complexity will be a huge drag on civilization.

Does complexity have a cure?

 
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Feb 15, 2013
Hah, I thought I knew which words your dumb-as-box-of-rocks filter caught, but that was a new one. The word that was blanked out of my post was e n t i t i e s.
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
The key to understanding this is to recognize that complexity isn't a feature; simplicity is. It's an easy mistake to make because complexity looks like "more", and we generally associated getting "more" with higher value, i.e. it is a feature. But in this case the "more" isn't something you want, it is something you have to deal with.

complexity typically arises from randomness, or at least arbitrariness -- in this case, many different !$%*!$%* acting rationally in isolation. The way to eliminate it is to establish centralized control over those !$%*!$%* and enforce coordination between them. On the level of an entire society this is a bad bad bad idea, but for a store it is great. However, it takes effort on the part of the store to do this, and like all effort, this comes at a cost. The complexity doesn't actually go away; you're just paying someone else to manage it for you. If you're using loyalty cards and wondering if you missed a coupon, would you really be willing to pay more to get a simpler experience?

Here's how the store could operate. You pre-register with them, give them your credit information, photos of your family for recognition, etc. When you come into the store, you're greeted by someone who calls you by name, via facial recognition software as you walked in, relayed to a handheld terminal that the greeter is carrying. If you know what you want, the greeter can enter the data into his terminal, which uses an NFC protocol (e.g. Bluetooth) to put the information into your shopping cart. The screen on your shopping cart then comes up with a map of exactly where all the objects are. Bing, bing, bing, you pick them up. Every item has an RFID tag on it, so there is no waiting in line; you simply walk the cart through out the door, and a scanner picks up everything you have purchased and charges it your preferred card. If that card is maxed or locked or whatever, and you don't have another one, there are no sirens or guards; you just get a bill in the mail, or are charged when you update your information.

Sounds great, doesn't it? No muss, no fuss. Every frustrating point taken care of. But your food costs about five times as much to pay for all the infrastructure.

In reality, this is mostly only practical for high-dollar items, where the cost of the infrastructure is smaller relative to the margins, and the store can be assured of a clientele with a certain level of financial stability. Go into a Lamborghini dealership and you'll be treated like a king as long as you have money and can be recognized as such. A grocery store's margins are so thin, though, that they cannot afford to alienate cost-conscious consumers by raising prices to cover luxury services.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Good lord, I thought this only happened in South Africa! I'm so glad someone else feels the same way. All around me are these patient, gentle, un-enraged people. I thought I was just weird.
 
 
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
[Behold the invisible middle fi- sorry, invisible hand of the market.
Everybody does what he thinks is best, in isolation, and the result is worse for everybody.]

Worse than what? Everybody doing what one person thinks is best? What's the better alternative to everybody doing what he thinks is best?
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Complexity is good for engineers. I makes our minds sharper and keeps us thinking all the time. In respect to you it gives you fodder for your blog and strips.
 
 
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Totally get the point about loyalty cards. Most stores will have a generic one if you are not looking for any "rewards points." Coupons are another point of complexity. I always get stuck behind someone with what seems like about 79 coupons for 5 items.

I love the self-checkout lines when they actually work. Once you get the hang of them they are fairly easy to use and you don't have to wait behind a line of incompetent monkeys (that goes for both the cashier, the people paying in pennies, or especially the people paying in checks) just to buy three things. And I can bag my own stuff the way *I* want it, rather than the stupid way the teenaged or geriatric bagger inevitably does it. The only annoying thing is when you ring up an item and the machine can't read it properly, then you have to wait with the stupid flashing light until a manager comes over and punches a card in. But once you learn which items do this, you can just punch in the bar code number manually and it's typically fine.

The green-bags thing is idiotic (almost as idiotic as towns banning bottled water). Unless you wash them VERY regularly, they are disgusting germ factories. Also, plastic bags are quite useful around the home: I use them to carry things from time to time, or as trash bags in the bathroom. Then they go into the bigger trash bag. It's a bit more material, but I don't think it really affects my garbage volume significantly.
 
 
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Scott, just out of curiosity, have you ever considered putting a handful of bags into your car? I used to "collect" them too, until I put one into my daypack.

Or, if you habitually wear a jacket, put in some small folding bag like that one (http://www.seatosummit.com/products/display/74), which stuffs into a pouch three inches long and two inches in diameter (got one of those myself and liking it).
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Phantom II: "There is a myth about this huge pile of plastic bags floating in the middle of the ocean, polluting the environment and killing a bunch of living creatures [...] It doesn't matter that no one has ever actually found this huge pit of floating bags[...]"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_Garbage_Patch has some details about this.
 
 
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Pay cash, tell them to go screw themselves when they offer loyalty cards, etc.

Much simpler.

Oh, and remember to take a bag, it's not really difficult.
 
 
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Behold the invisible middle fi- sorry, invisible hand of the market.
Everybody does what he thinks is best, in isolation, and the result is worse for everybody.

Are you by any chance looking for a more strictly planned society? With a planning commision of wise people thinking about the consequences of new rules? We had this in east germany...)

Of course, there's always amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias=aps&field-keywords=cheese

No idea how their packaging is but at least you can set a bookmark at your favourite cheese. And, for the environment, you can order some trees planted over the internet too: http://plantabillion.org/
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
Every time a tree is cut down to make paper, three more are planted.

Save the planet - buy a bag!!!
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
This is why Amazon works.

Not for cheese, obviously, but why go to the store when you can buy it with one click, without even having to take your credit card out of your pocket and with it delivered next day.
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
p.s. the censored words at the end of my post are as follows:

. . . to do more than just b i t c h. P l a s t i c bags today . . .

Just thought you might want to know the entire text.
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
Scott, Scott, Scott. I can't believe you are so naive as to not see the problem here.

You are a liberal. As a liberal, you believe that whatever you want is the best possible outcome for the entire human race. Now, when your fellow liberals do something that strikes you as idiotic, but which you then justify as saying it somehow makes sense in isolation, you're falling into your own metaphysical trap.

There is a myth about this huge pile of plastic bags floating in the middle of the ocean, polluting the environment and killing a bunch of living creatures and otherwise contributing to global warming, hurricanes, earthquakes and hemorrhoids. It doesn't matter that no one has ever actually found this huge pit of floating bags destroying everything on earth; just the fact that some liberal somewhere says it exists is enough for other liberals to decide to wipe it out.

Do those liberals question their orthodoxy? Do they look for one picture of this floating hellhole of plastic mayhem? No. They just assume that because it could exist, maybe, then it must be treated as if 1) it absolutely does exist, and 2) it is such a threat to every form of life on earth that the only solution is to ban all plastic bags forever, pant pant pant!

Now, it doesn't matter to liberals that making paper bags kills poor innocent trees, just as it doesn't matter to liberals that mercury in thermometers is bad but mercury in light bulbs is good. It's a part of liberal orthodoxy to believe, as did the Red Queen, that there's nothing wrong with believing three impossible things before breakfast.

But there's the difference. The Red Queen believed; that was her personal choice. But when the Red Queen's personal beliefs get forced down the throat of all her subjects, then that is . . . tyranny.

You applaud those personal tyrannies being forced down other people's throats, as long as you happen to agree with them. But when you don't, then you write a post like this. Some would ask you, "What's wrong with freedom?" You would reply, "Meat robots don't have free will, nor do they have creativity, so how the heck can they have freedom?"

Well, here is a small example of what you get when you decide junk science trumps common sense. Give an idiot power, and he will do idiotic things. Enter the plastic bag dilemma.

You may not remember, but enviro-nazis originally pushed for plastic bags, because paper bags killed trees. Then, some other enviro-nazi idiot decided that plastic bags floated and never degraded; two ideas which have no basis in fact. Then, they told their legislatures that they would no longer give them money for their campaigns unless they banned plastic bags.

So here we are. Today's plastic bags degrade pretty rapidly. If you don't believe that, stake one outside in your yard in the sunlight and in the elements. In a few weeks, it's degraded and broken apart. But try to tell that to a liberal who has decided, against all evidence, that plastic bags are evil, and voila! New laws for no other purpose than to please a bunch of idiots.

The same with global warming. If you want to believe in it, fine. But if you then turn around and increase my energy costs by 40%, as it is projected to go up over the next four years; if you make my gasoline cost $8.00 per gallon, which is what President Obama's former energy secretary said he wanted to do; if you won't allow fracking because some enviro-nazi doesn't like it regardless of the scientific facts surrounding it . . . well, then, now you're REALLY hitting my pocketbook, and I'm going to fight back.

So Scott, you need to understand that when you push for things that cost a lot of money and cause a lot of needless pain, just because some liberal idiot decides it's a great idea, then you have become part of the problem. How about making a stand in some other way than writing a post that a few scores of people will read? How about going to the meetings of the fool politicians who propose this idiocy and tell them that you'll not give them a penny if they keep doing this crap? How about using your celebrity position to do more than just !$%*!$%*!$%*!$%*! bags today; living in a grass hut tomorrow. While the politicians who make these rules, and the people who give them money to keep doing stupid things like this, laugh all the way to the bank.

Wake up, Scott. It's not just about plastic bags anymore. It's about basic human rights and dignity.
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
I entirely agree with you, Scott.

In India its not just the supermarkets. Everywhere I go, it seems the morons are in charge.
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
Sometimes finding the solution to making things less complex is complex in it's self.

The complexity of the grocery store layout is obviously designed to make ones mind subconsciously tired. A tired, disconnected mind is much easier to manipulate.

Generally people follow similar shopping patterns. I found that shopping out side of these patterns is more efficient. I shop latter in the evening to avoid the crowd.

When it's busy, self checkout drives me crazy.... What bothers me the most, is not the machines them selves, but the entropy of the customers waiting to go to the machines.

How hard is it to position the machines so that customers can get into a ordered civilized line...

I have Seen fights break out at the self checkout lane while everyone is arguing who was first in the CLUMP of people waiting for the next open machine...

It's not rocket science...
 
 
Feb 15, 2013
It's not often that I agree with you Scott. In fact, I think that if you were to review your previous columns you'd find that you yourself are often guilty of suggestions that would add to the complexity of everyday life. Portable electronics have driven me into the Luddite camp. I literally spend 2 hours of my day just reading e-mail at work that I don't need to know or act on.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
The law of unintended consequences, aka unforeseen effects of complexity and, or, chaos theory, or both. Everything is connected to everything else, and when you change one small bit in a reductionist way, the holistic effects swing back and hit you on the back of your fool head. It's like taking a swing at an intricately balanced and vastly complex mobile sculpture. The force of the impact on one piece sendings dozens or thousands or millions of other pieces flying in various directions at various speeds and the thing doesn't settle down for ages, and when it does, it is in a completely new state.

Piet Hein epigram:

Problems worthy
Of attack,
Prove their worth,
By hitting back.

Never forget to see if you can add "or both" to the end of of an either-or statement. It will remind you that life seldom consists of two and only two options.
 
 
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
One item rung up and one item into the bag, one item for the Express line count.

One can of Coke=one item.
Two cans of Coke rung up with the 2X key=two items, because it will take marginally longer to ring up and bag two cans unless you can pick them both up with one hand.
A case of 24 cans of Coke=one item.
Six bottles of Coke connected by a six-pack holder or plastic shrink-wrap--one item.
Six loose bottles of Coke=six items.

This is why commercal legislation runs to thousands of pages. Somebody is always trying to game the system. Somebody always wants to make a court case out of it.
 
 
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 15, 2013
Oh, BTW... there's a market once a week just round the corner of my house:
it is closer than any store, much cheaper, the food is fresher,
If you're tired of a line you just go to another stand,
all of them give you paper bags for free (just put them in a trolley).

And they have no cards, no bogus program and make no charity: they just sell stuff.
 
 
 
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