Complexity, Part Two

(Ten Commandments!)

This should take about 4 minutes to read.

In my previous post I talked about how complex systems need to be able to explain themselves. That’s undoubtedly true, but they also could be made less, well, complex.

This brings us to a paper we wrote in 2012 which saw the potential pitfalls of complexity and tried to address them, or at least to make a start. It’s called “Rendering unto Cæsar the Things That Are Cæsar’s: Complex Trust Models and Human Understanding” which is a bit of a pretentious title (I can say that because I co-wrote it! My long-suffering colleagues Natasha Dwyer and Anirban Basu probably rolled their eyes when I suggested the title…) but the contents are important.

The argument I have made in the previous post was made in this paper and, in the almost ten years since, not much has changed for the better.

This is a little bit of a shame.

There are a significant number of questions that exist around the systems we are deploying in the world. Many of them are urgent, and not all of them are being addressed all that well. Barring the obvious racism, sexism and other bias in the tools we are creating, complexity and understanding are, to be honest, amongst the most urgent.

The paper presented ten commandments (actually, it presented 8, but in a later paper we introduced a couple more because one should always have ten commandments). I repeat the 8 and the extra 2 here. Since the words in the paper speak for themselves, I’ll just use those words and not dress them up unless there is a need to explain further. The first 8 are from pages 197-198:

  1. The model is for people.
  2. The model should be understandable, not just by mathematics professors, but by the people who are expected to use and make decisions with or from it.
  3. Allow for monitoring and intervention. Understand that a human’s conception of trust and risk is difficult to conceptualize. Many mathematical and economic models of trust assume (or hope for) a ‘rational man’ who makes judgments based on self-interest. However, in reality, humans weigh trust and risk in ways that cannot be fully predicted. A human needs to be able to make the judgment.
  4. The model should not fail silently, but should prompt for and expect input on ‘failure’ or uncertainty.
  5. The model should allow for a deep level of configuration. Trust models should not assume what is ‘best’ for the user. Often design tends to guide users towards what the owner or developer of the site thinks what people should be doing. However, only the user can make that call.
  6. The model should allow for querying: a user may want to know more about a system or a context. A trust interface working in the interest of the user should gather and present data the user regards as relevant. Some questions will be difficult for a system to predict and a developer to pre- prepare, so a level of dynamic information exchange is necessary.
  7. The model should cater for different time priorities. In some cases, a trust decision does need to be made quickly. But in other cases, a speedy response is not necessary, and it is possible to take advantage of new information as it comes to hand. A trust model working for humans needs to be able to respond to different timelines and not always seek a short-cut.
  8. The model should allow for incompleteness. Many models aim to provide a definitive answer. Human life is rarely like that. A more appropriate approach is to keep the case open; allowing for new developments, users to change their minds, and for situations to be re-visited.

    And the other two? They are from this paper, (Security Enhancement with Foreground Trust, Comfort, and Ten Commandments for Real People) and go like this:
  9. Trust (and security) is an ongoing relationship that changes over time. Do not assume that the context in which the user is situated today will be identical tomorrow.
  10. It is important to acknowledge risk up front.

So, why was it called “Render unto Cæsar…”? Because there are times when the complex models serve important purposes — the world is a complex place after all. But there are also times when humans (Cæsar, if you will) need to be acknowledged. The commandments aim to satisfy that need.

The most important thing to bear in mind: Put people first.

And that brings us to Slow Computing, which I will get to at some point.

Thanks for reading to hear. As always I’d be glad to have feedback!

Published by Steve

Partner, Dad, Prof, Writer

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