Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Dream of Simplicity’s Tyranny

This is an actual dream I had this morning, which was so profound it woke me up. Usually when this happens I smile knowingly that as soon as I’m wide awake it won’t seem very profound at all. But this time the profundity stuck with me, so I’m writing it down. Here it is, for your amusement.

I dreamed that I was an artist, and I was showing an exhibition. The first piece was a seven-foot square piece of white paper, on which a broad, bold, simple stroke bit of calligraphic art appeared. The piece was titled “Simplicity is Best”.

The second piece was also a seven-foot square piece of white paper, again with a single, swooping bit of line art. It was titled “Simple”.

The third continued the theme: a giant white sheet of paper, this one with a tiny word printed in the center, reading simply “Always.”

Several more pieces lined the wall, each exactly seven feet by seven feet, driving home the notion that these ideas were all big and simple and precisely the same shape.

The final piece was at the end of the wall in the gallery, but there was only three feet of wall left. The piece was still seven feet by seven feet, however: the paper smoothly covered the last three feet, with a huge, bold arrow pointing into to the corner, where the remaining four feet of the piece was folded up accordion-style. A tiny post-it was affixed to the folded paper, reading “visitors to the gallery may touch the art to unfold it.”

Unfolding the paper turned out to be difficult. It wasn’t just zippered shut like an accordion, but also folded up top-to-bottom, like a map. Anyone who has ever attempted to unfold a paper map knows the annoying sensation of trying to get one unfolded, and the hollow yet comforting satisfaction of successfully doing so. Achieving this victory over origami rewarded the visitor with a hyper-complicated bit of calligraphy, words spinning webs into each other scrawled across the entire hidden surface of the paper, and ultimately spelling out this message:

“The world is not shaped like simple ideas. The most complicated ideas are the ones we create to make the simple ones fit, but even then they do not fit, they merely mostly fit. And yet, we do this all the time, because a collection of simple ideas that mostly fit is much more attractive than a complicated and difficult idea that turns out to be obvious. The real art installation is not these sheets of paper, but the coat of paint I carefully applied to all of the brickwork on this wall, neatly covering it top to bottom and end-to-end. It is unremarkable, and completely hidden by these beautiful, simple, badly-fitting ideas. And if I hadn’t told you this, you’d never have noticed the paint, would you? Even now, as you contemplate attempting to fold this piece of paper back up, think about describing this art installation to a friend. What sounds better, ‘a lick off paint on a wall’, or ‘a series of simple ideas on big sheets of paper’? If you do tell a friend, please don’t give away this secret. Just tell them the title of this piece.”

The plaque beneath this piece displays the simple, single word: “Mostly”

At this point I woke up.

The reason this dream stuck with me is that, as I turned it over in my mind, I started thinking about the software I write every day, and I realized that, if I were that dream artist, I’d go back and change the last folded up sheet to read

“If this was software there would be a hole in the gallery here and the wall would be extended four feet to accommodate the simplicity of this idea. And no one would ever think this was odd.”