I almost ignored the essay in the WSJ today about simplicity, because it started out with something about Henry David Thoreau. I’ve never been a fan. I don’t like anything about Walden. Life can indeed be simple if you isolate yourself from society — simple, but not worth living. (I say this as a person who is given to self-absorption, but that’s not a quality I like in myself, which causes me to react viscerally against Thoreau.) Also, it’s hard to avoid snorting in contempt at anyone who thought “modern” life in the first half of the 19th century had too much hustle and bustle in it.
But my interest was engaged a few grafs on, when I got to this bit:
Do you know anyone who stops to read “click-through” agreements on websites in the middle of performing a task? One company, PC Pitstop, deliberately buried a clause in its end-user license agreement in 2004, offering $1,000 to the first person who emailed the company at a certain address. It took five months and 3,000 sales until someone claimed the money. The situation hadn’t improved by 2010 when Gamestation played an April Fools’ Day joke by embedding a clause in their agreement saying that users were selling them their souls…
For a long time, I’ve meant to write a post asking, “Does anybody out there ever read those ‘terms and conditions’ agreements that you have to click ‘Agree’ to in order to proceed?” I tell myself that no one does, but I was a bit leery of posting the question because everyone might respond, “Of course we do,” at which point I would know for sure that what I’ve often suspected in the past was true: I’m on the wrong planet.
If it turned out everyone else was reading them, it was going to make me feel guilty every time I clicked “Agree” without reading all that crapola. It wasn’t going to change my behavior — I’d rather go to Room 101 than read a single one of those monstrosities. But it would make me feel bad. A little.
Those things always come up when I’ve already been substantially inconvenienced, having been forced to go through unanticipated steps in order to get on with whatever I was trying to do when the process started. You know those nightmare traps, in which you’re trying to do A, but realize that you can’t do A until you’ve done B, and then it turns out that B can’t be accomplished without first having completed C, etc. Those 20,000-word masterpieces of unreadability only come up when you’re fuming your way through G or H, and you’ve had it.
Besides, I couldn’t read one if I tried — not if by “reading” it, you mean get anything out of it. The surface of every letter in such documents is polished, then coated with grease, so that my brain can’t grab ‘hold of them. I can only read them on proofreading level. I don’t know if everyone experiences this or only someone who’s spent a lot of years as an editor, but there’s a certain level of reading on which I can catch spelling, punctuation and even grammatical errors, but when I’m finished, I can’t tell you what I just read. That’s as deeply as I can go into those kinds of documents.
The authors of the essay in the WSJ note with justice that much of the unnecessary complexity of life — the sort that’s too much to deal with — is caused by lawyers and technologists. On the one hand, lawyers try to protect their clients by covering every base to an absurd degree. Then there are those people who think everything can be quantified — people like “Clive,” a character created by John le Carre, of whom he wrote, “He believed that facts were the only kind of information and he despised whoever was not ruled by them.”
But you know what? If everyone else — or at least a goodly proportion of the populace — clicks through all those things without reading them, it gives me some hope for the world.
I tend to lump in this sort of complexity with the lack of trust in the world. I wrote a column back in the ’90s that was sort of my Unified Field Theory of public life. I said everything that was wrong with society resulted from the fact that we didn’t trust each other. Overly lawyered, too-complex-to-read contractual agreements are monuments to this problem. As I wrote in 1995, “A lack of basic trust of each other explains why… We have so many laws, and so many lawyers. We trust nothing to common sense…”
One of the great ironies of this is that so many people come to hate government because they get fed up with bureaucracy and overly complex rules. And yet the reason we have all those excessive rules is that someone insisted that we add them because they didn’t trust government just to use good judgment.
But I just realized something about those agreements I click on without reading: They show that I trust the entity that posted the agreement. I know I’m not signing away one of my grandchildren or my house or whatever, because I know that society wouldn’t stand for that. I know that if the agreement for this software that millions of others have downloaded meant that I was selling myself into slavery, I would have heard about it. Society, that thing too many of us distrust, wouldn’t have stood for it. So, even more than the entity that drafted the agreement, I’m trusting society as a whole. I’m trusting the village, or the wisdom of crowds, or whatever you choose to call it.
Which makes me feel better about the world, and about myself. And about everyone else who clicks on “Agree” without reading the agreement, and gets on with life. It makes me feel better about the world I live in.