Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives. By Tim Harford. Riverhead; 327 pages; $28. Little, Brown; £20.
SELF-HELP books offer ways for readers to whip their lives into shape. A new book by Tim Harford, an economist and columnist at the Financial Times, argues that we need to whip our lives out of shape. According to his new book “Messy”, the order that we crave is our own worst enemy, and disorder sets us free.
Mr Harford’s book strays well beyond mess of the physical sort (though he devotes a whole section to railing against oppressive tidy-desk policies, which he argues disempower workers and make them unproductive). Most of the book is about other types of mess: randomness, experimentation and human autonomy.
Intellectual mess, such as flitting between projects, breeds insight and helps make connections. Paul Erdos, a nomadic mathematician, leapt between collaborators, cross-fertilising projects with abandon. The chaos he brought with him was tiresome for some (if he felt peckish in the middle of the night, he was known to bash saucepans until his host gave him food). But it also meant that he produced a peer-reviewed paper with a stranger on average every six weeks for 60 years.
Mr Harford argues that we should resist our instincts when faced with a disorderly world. Too often policymakers try to tame complicated systems using simple targets, and inadvertently create nasty unintended consequences. When the British government set waiting-time targets for doctors’ appointments, for example, doctors responded by making the appointments difficult to book in advance.
More detailed targets are no solution—they can be gamed too, and risk tidying smaller problems out of sight while more catastrophic ones brew. In the mid-2000s, banks faced sophisticated capital requirements, which regulators thought would act as a buffer when a shock hit. But the fiddly requirements simply lulled regulators into a false sense of security and allowed bigger, systemic, risks to build. The meticulously calculated buffers were then no match for the massive financial crisis.
Mr Harford warns against a creeping force for neatness: automation. It makes lives simpler to delegate complex, wearying tasks to robots. But convenience breeds complacency. In 2012 some Japanese students visiting Australia were told to drive into the Pacific Ocean because of a glitch in their GPS system. Rather than question their technology, they ploughed on. (They were fine; their car was not.) While readers may worry that the robots are coming for our jobs, Mr Harford thinks we should be just as worried about them taking our judgment.
“Messy” masterfully weaves together anecdote and academic work. But Mr Harford’s call may ring hollow for some. He is rewarded for his messy creativity with money. The person packing his book in an Amazon warehouse is not.