November 09, 2006


The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life. By John Maeda. MIT Press. $20.

The Future of Europe: Reform or Decline. By Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi. MIT Press. $24.95.

     John Maeda has some simple, elegant ideas about product design, the interface between technology and the real world, and the Zen of white space (although he does not put it quite that way).  He also has a maddening tendency to undercut his own powerful arguments for simplicity through, alas, over-complicating them – and through some cutesy presentation that is less simple than it is gimmicky.  Maeda is a graphic designer, visual artist and computer scientist, and he is founder of the SIMPLICITY Consortium at the MIT Media Lab.  Applied strictly to technology projects, his ideas are remarkably lucid.  For example, in one chapter, he sets against each other the questions, “How can you make the wait shorter?” and “How can you make the wait more tolerable?”  That is an excellent, to-the-point formulation of two different (and ultimately complementary) approaches to the same problem.  Similarly, in another chapter, he positions side by side the tradeoff questions, “How directed can I stand to feel?” and “How directionless can I afford to be?”  Set against these elegant constructs are such elements as the blank page marked “don’t write on this page,” the two Japanese characters for “love” and “fit,” and Maeda’s explanation of those characters: “There can be a natural emotional attachment to the object’s life force that is a kind of deep, hidden ornamentation known to only those who feel it.”  Maeda offers 10 Laws of simplicity, plus three Keys, and specifically tells readers that “basic simplicity (1 to 3) is immediately applicable,” while “intermediate simplicity (4 to 6) is more subtle in meaning” and “deep simplicity (7 to 9) ventures into thoughts that are still ripening on the vine.”  As the book moves from the practical toward the philosophical, it becomes more self-consciously self-important and self-referential – but there are still some valuable and interesting insights here.

     If Maeda is trying to get a handle on the future of technology and of the thought processes that go into creating it, Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi are trying to get a handle on something more everyday, though scarcely less complex.  The Future of Europe is an argument, from an economic and econometric perspective, that Europe’s wealthiest nations will become increasingly irrelevant economically and politically if they do not tackle and reform a system that focuses on security and relaxation more than on productivity and innovation.  This is scarcely a new viewpoint, but Alesina (Nathaniel Ropes Professor of Political Economics at Harvard University) and Giavazzi (Professor of Economics at Bocconi University and a Visiting Professor at MIT) make it cogently – and with much reference to financial markets, the costs of doing business, the Euro and other factors.  They can and do point out that there are a number of special-interest groups opposed to economic liberalization, which is what the authors call the idea of introducing more American-style competitiveness into European economies.  But they do not say – probably because there is no way to say – how to manage the political realities of taking on those groups.  The recent disastrous French experiment that would have allowed young, recently hired workers to be dismissed without cause far more easily than others – a plan that sparked riots and was eventually withdrawn – shows just how hard it would be to change European econopolitical culture.  There is no current European leader who bestrides the continent like the colossus that would be required to shake up the region’s economies significantly.  Meanwhile, there is a counter-current building in the U.S., with some interest groups seeking more comfort and leisure time – and greater government involvement in the economy – along with higher taxes.  It seems unlikely that Europe can or will move significantly toward the U.S.-focused model that Alesina and Giavazzi favor.  Whether that failure to change does indeed lead to the region’s decline is something that observers are likely to discover in the not-too-distant future.

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