• Sarah Chayes

The Power of Simplicity



How did “something so genetically simple…manag[e] to bring the planet to its knees?” Virologist Christopher Mores voiced that question on NPR on May 5. It is “stunning to think about,” he added. As we begin to rebuild our society on the other side of this catastrophe, the momentous reality Mores identified is worthy of our thought: the power of simplicity.

For, this is hardly the first time something simple has brought us to our knees. On 9/11, the attack that devastated this country and incited two wars that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that changed the way we lead our lives, was not the work of some sophisticated foreign power wielding the latest weaponry. It was not a dirty bomb, requiring nuclear know-how, or a cutting-edge attack on information infrastructure, or any of the similar threats that security experts were riveted on. It was carried out with box cutters. Knives -- among the first tools Homo sapiens ever invented.

Nor is the virus the only strikingly simple factor in today’s crisis. Why have so many irreplaceable doctors and nurses and medical technicians sacrificed their lives to the pandemic? For lack of a piece of shaped cloth. Twenty thousand years ago, humans thought to drill holes in honed splinters of bone. Thus they could stitch hides together and survive the punishing temperatures of the Last Glacial Maximum. But now we disdain sewing.

Why has there still been so little testing, even once enough of the needed chemical reagents and other complex inputs became available? For the lack of swabs – the equivalent of a specialized Q-Tip.

Which medical acts have been the most powerful in helping COVID-19 sufferers? Not some late-breaking remedy, not even mechanical ventilators. The most effective gestures have been simple ones, such as the physical act of hoisting the heavy, painful body of an ailing patient and rolling it over.

Which workers have ensured that our complex society at least continues to register a pulse, as it has been placed into what some compare to a medically-induced coma? People who do our simplest jobs: the “unskilled workers” who ring up grocery purchases, or cut up slabs of meat. We disdain such people so much that many qualify for public assistance while working full time.

What about those whom our society has most admired and lavishly compensated for the past thirty years, those whose jobs have been considered so complex and specialized that they deserve outsized salaries and bonuses – Wall Street traders? How indispensable do they seem today?

Is this the best way we can think of to allocate rewards?

“It’s such a tiny piece of nucleic acid,” virologist Mores marveled to NPR. “It’s infinitesimal compared to the size of the human genome, and yet it can just totally unravel us. Those are the things that really give me pause sometimes. Like, wow, how could this thing with so few genes, and so little room to move, figure us out so well?...I think that’s worth respecting.”

Simplicity: let's stop disdaining it. Let’s pay it more respect – including, for a start, paying more for it.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes