The Hidden Complexity around us
Credit cards to coffee
There is a quote I came across recently that read “Born too late to explore the Earth. Born too soon to explore Space. Born just in time to witness the magic of Roger Federer”.
Since he announced his retirement, I’ve been feeling rather grateful that I could witness his genius. This feeling though is not limited to Federer. Think about it. In tennis alone, we watched the domination of Nadal, Djokovic, and Serena. In football, we have experienced the magic of Messi and Ronaldo. If we move to cricket we have been treated to the effortless elegance of Sachin and now Kohli. In the NBA, we have marveled over the nuclear athleticism of Lebron James. From Tiger Woods to Usain Bolt, these last 20 years in the sporting world have been incredible.
Now, every generation has its legends and so maybe Roger retiring was just a wake-up call on not taking stuff for granted. If that wasn’t enough, over the past month I have been reading Adapt by Tim Hartford. The book beautifully highlights how we often underappreciate the hidden complexity that makes everyday life relatively seamless.
Turns out we don’t always need the magic of Federer to make us truly appreciate life around us. Take the toaster for instance.
As Tim Hartford writes, “the toaster has more than 400 components and sub-components, made from nearly 100 different materials.” If you were to try to make a toaster from scratch you would need iron, plastic, copper, and a lot more. Iron comes from iron ore which ofcourse needs to be mined. You will need oil for the plastic. Starting from scratch could take forever and yet we can buy a toaster for less than Rs 2000. Pretty insane!
From toasters, let’s move on to credit cards. Five parties are involved every time a card is swiped. The five being -
The Issuing Bank
The Acquiring Bank
So once you decide to buy a cup of coffee and the cafe owner swipes your credit card, a bunch of stuff happens. -
By swiping the card on the machine the transaction is sent to the merchant bank. The Merchant Bank realizes that the card starts with a 4 which means that it is a Visa card. They direct it to Visa.
Visa on seeing the next 5 digits of the card learns which bank the card belongs to. They direct this transaction to the bank that issued that card to you.
The issuing bank now needs to take the decision on whether they approve this transaction. If they do not detect any fraud and believe that you will pay them back the money for coffee they approve that transaction.
Once approved, they inform Visa, about their approval. Visa further informs the merchant bank who informs the cafe owner.
You can go ahead and enjoy your coffee
I’m sure I butchered that explanation and yet what’s amazing is that all this happens in a matter of seconds just so you can enjoy a cup of coffee, which by the way, has also come a long way. If you were to Google how is coffee made from scratch you may eventually arrive at this ten-step process.
Harvesting the Cherries
Processing the Cherries
Drying the Beans
Milling the Beans
Exporting the Beans
Tasting the Coffee
Roasting the Coffee
Piece of cake, ain’t it?
The fact that most of us are blissfully unaware of this complexity around us, is incredible. On the flip side, noticing this complexity acts as a gentle reminder that we live in a fragile system with a lot of moving parts.
If you want to truly marvel over the complexity around us I urge you to read I pencil by Leonard Read. On the other hand, if you are interested in learning about how we have messed stuff up on the way, I highly recommend you to check out the brilliant book “Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up” by Tom Philipps. For this post though, let us marvel over not messing stuff up.
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