Meaningful structure

I've often found it frustrating when people add arbitrary complexity to simple things. Aha! Yes, I know you wanted me to sort this list, but you didn't specify how, so I started making a generic list sorting system that could work with any ordering, but then I realised that sorting is really just a special case of transforming data, so then...

Or if you want to start a project, there are all sorts of important questions that tend to get asked, like: "what's the website going to look like?" "what's your governance model?" "how will you handle disputes?" "which languages will you support?" "how will it scale past 10,000 people?" These questions are so important that they sometimes get asked before mundane ones like "what is it for?" and "does anyone want that?"

Life, too, is very easy to complicate. The lottery numbers come up in a secret pattern that only you can perceive. Each person is perfectly paired with exactly one other person according to a divine matchmaking algorithm. Everything you've done or had happen to you has been recorded in the great ledger of life, and the Cosmic Accountant is going to balance the books any day now.

But as far as we can tell, the structure of our universe has very little to do with good and evil. Instead, reality seems mostly concerned with enforcing certain universal symmetries in a bunch of interacting probabilistic structures that seem to cancel themselves out unless they're doing the least work possible. And it's hard to imagine which one of those universal symmetries requires that you win the Lotto.

The problem with the "things just happen and the universe doesn't give a shit" reality isn't that it's inaccurate, it's just that it's boring. It's a blank canvas: a carefully woven pattern that looks like nothing. A structure, sure, but a structure with no meaning. Which is no surprise, really; the universe doesn't need it. The numbers work out the same whether they mean anything or not.

So I think the real issue is that, when you have something to do, arbitrary complexity just makes it harder to achieve. In a word, it's inefficient. But our goals are defined in terms of simpler goals, which are defined in terms of even simpler goals, and eventually it all bottoms out yet again in the laws of our universe. Those laws don't really need us, so what does it mean to be efficient at something you don't need to do?

Ultimately, then, arbitrary complexity is an attempt to add meaning. And, in that sense, it deserves a second look. There are many situations where meaning is absent, ill-defined or indefinable, and the process of adding it is necessarily arbitrary. Why this thing? Well, why not?

But I'd like to distinguish between complexity and structure. Structure is a kind of arbitrary complexity: doing a thing with structure takes more work than doing it without. However, I see structure as complexity that you can build from. It's arbitrary, sure, but once you accept it, it makes other things less arbitrary. Which is to say, more meaningful.