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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0 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
The cure for complexity is simplicity.

Use cash, avoid loyalty cards (how can anybody be "loyal" to a store? Come on...),
choose the shortest line with a human checker and remove any idea that better choices could exist,
always carry in your pocket or knapsack a plastic bag reduced to a small triangle
(there's a nice French video on Youtube showing how to do that).

Last but not the least, look at people as if you could see through them.
That transmits the message: "asking me for anything is a pure loss of time".

Greetings from Cheeseland.
Feb 14, 2013
I completely relate.

Your complaints about complexity probably wont ever be fixed though. I'm reminded of something I'd heard a while back. It's said there's a set amount of time that people are willing to tolerate for their commute. As methods of transportation got faster, the distance from home to work got longer. The suburbs were a direct result of the invention of the car and the freeway.

I think there's a limit to the amount of complexity that people will tolerate but that society will always fill up to that limit.
Feb 14, 2013
Don't pay ten cents for a paper bag....and don't bringing your own bag.
When the cashier asks if you need help bringing your unbagged groceries to your car say "Yes".
Feb 14, 2013
Safeway just delivered my groceries to my door... pretty simple if u ask me. =P
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
There is another way, you know.

You could get a goat. You then milk the goat and make your own cheese. That is how I do it. It saves the inverse of roughly 10 hours per pound of cheese.

The other option is Amazon Fresh, but anyone who knows me knows I always vote for the goat.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
My job is attempting to strip complexity out of technical marketing messages. It's the same things really. In isolation, any one piece of jargon can be explained or justified. In the aggregate they make case studies and product sheets as readable as a bar code.

It can be a lonely job trying to separate technical folks from their jargon. I'd love to show some of them a picture of Scott Adams foraging in a dumpster because it's easier than shopping at Safeway - and tell them: "This is what happens when you fail to think about how what you do/say impacts your audience."

It wouldn't help - but it would be a nice respite.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013

On trips to the supermarket, one should always be accompanied by one's personal video-biographer. Especially if one is Scott Adams. And especially if there's lots of grumbly muttering.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.”

― Oscar Wilde
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
from time to time it is ok to leave world-saving-thinking tasks alone and do something useful in the real life instead. looks like this complicated system works perfectly for this purpose. and maybe it is by design ;-)
Feb 14, 2013
A few good chuckles on that post... I'd say more disordered than complex. As time goes by the conditions of a system become more and more disordered... Entropy, the universal law.
Feb 14, 2013
The Self-Checkout stations do give me comfort that the robot apocalypse is a looong ways away

+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
I'm guessing that Scott hasn't read "Who Moved My Cheese?" - that might help him to deal with those situations in which someone, like, moves the cheese. 8)

Feb 14, 2013
How do you say it is good for the planet? There is this store called Hollywoord markets in Michigan and I was astounded at what their plastic bag says. It rattles of a bunch of stats like making and disposing off plastic bags are less energy consuming than paper bags. There were more but I don't recall.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
What I'm left wondering is why are you such a tightwad? My impression is you're doing very well financially, so why are you worried about whether you have a 25 cent coupon for cheese, or a 10 cent charge for a bag, or the dollar off you would get with your loyalty card? If you hate all these things, then just forget about them. Consider it as purchasing peace of mind. By worrying about these things, you're deciding that the anguish you put yourself through is worth it for the money you save.

But... you can't just ignore it, can you? Otherwise it wouldn't be a neurosis. ;-)
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
Register every phone number you have (or have ever had). It's not like you get better discounts for being a super-frequent shopper rather than merely an occasional shopper. Heck, register any numbers you like - if we all do this soon we'll have the whole phone number domain covered and you'll just be able to punch in any set of digits to get your discount.

Consider accepting the offer of help to your car from the checker/bagger. You were only in the store for a few minutes and it drove you nuts. The poor bagger is there for an eight hour shift and would really like an excuse to take a walk in the fresh air - even for just two minutes.
Feb 14, 2013
Thank you for eloquently summing up the hell of grocery shopping today. Be glad you don't shop at Von's, which has gone one step further in adding their Just4U program. If you want the lowest price, you not only have to have the loyalty card, AND clip coupons, but you ALSO have to go online and load extra coupons to your card, which may or may not work. Then when you're at the checkout, do you really want to stand there arguing over the 20 cents that you didn't get off your peas even though you know you downloaded the electronic coupon? I may start doing all my shopping at 7-11. Yes, they charge you three times as much for most items, but you don't have to search for cheese and you just pay the price on the shelf.
Feb 14, 2013
I was in Home Depot last night - boy do I feel your pain.

First there is the store layout. 20 years ago, HD was proud to be a warehouse store. It had 20 long, parallel aisles, with large orange banners telling you what was in them. Then, Lowe's started gaining market share, and the HD corporate knuckleheads misdiagnosed this as being a store layout problem. So, they copied Lowes, with all its messed up sections of perpendicular aisles, leaving me overmatched in my effort to find the light bulb shelves.

Have you shopped for light bulbs lately? No more grabbing a box full of simple 100 watt incandescent bulbs. They've been outlawed. So you are left to do a 30 minute research project on which replacement technology to use. Of course they have all kinds of LED bulbs that proudly proclaim equivalence to 75W or 40W bulbs. But, I couldn't find any that proclaimed equivalence to 100W - you know, the one they got rid of.

And why did they get rid of 100W bulbs? Because incandescent bulbs are "inefficient". Of course, politicians don't really know what "inefficient" really means in a scientific sense. For light bulbs, it means that a meaningful amount of energy is projected in the form of heat, rather than light. Unfortunately, they don't stop to think that for 6 months out of the year, that heat is a welcome output in homes in the northern half of the country. All else being equal, that heat from the light bulb is reducing the load on the heating system. And given that a lot of northeastern and midwestern homes are generating heat with 40 year old oil burners, that electricity powered light bulb is likely a net benefit for emissions, given the average emissions profile of most utility power generation. Moreover, the light bulb is providing localized heat - i.e. to the person reading a book under a lamp, which is more efficient than blowing air through the whole house.

Yes there is the opposite effect in the summer and in the south, but given the age of those old boilers, I wonder if the net result is really worth each of us having to spend a half hour in Home Depot trying to figure out what bulb to buy.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
Scott, this is satire worthy of Art Buchwald. My warmest congratulations, and happy Valentines day to you!
Feb 14, 2013
At least you didn't fall into the "I can help you over here!" trap with the cute Express Lane cashier.

You think she's being nice because she's not busy. She's just standing there. But she knows as soon as you unload your 35 items, several large, mean-looking dudes will line up behind you holding one item each. A kitchen knife or a box of ammo -- you know, something small. They'll have grim, laser-like stares and look like Travis Bickle on the day before laundry day. They are memorizing your face just in case later a van might momentarily block their path as they stalk you across the parking lot.

You consider saying "She told me I could check out here", but that would only sound weak, and weak prey is even more delicious. And noticing the smirk on her face, I would say she is enjoying this all too much anyway. Is it my imagination or is she working at half-speed now?

Oops, I forgot my cash-back. Ah, screw it.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Feb 14, 2013
"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."

John L. Casti makes the same argument in his book "X-Events: The Collapse of Everything"... It tends towards the extreme, but he does make a valuable point in that we are fairly ignorant of the level of co-dependence in our systems, and that the continually increasing level of complexity in those systems will only make failure more likely.

Also on a similar thread Nassim Taleb's book "Black Swan".

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