The Tastiest Pizza is often the Messiest One

Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.” In this article, Uber product manager Florent Crivello write about what he calls the “efficiency-destroying magic of tidying up”.

Florent shares this picture that he calls “an urban planner’s dream pizza” – I bet it’s not what you have in mind as your perfect pizza:

The word chaos has a negative connotation in most contexts. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines chaotic as “in a state of complete confusion and disorder“. Chaos tends to stir up emotions of being lost, not knowing what to do.

When we are at a loss of what to do, more often than not it is because we do not truly understand. The flip side of that is, in the words of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “To understand is to know what to do.”

This was echoed in Florent’s article:

If outsiders complain, but people living inside the system seem happy with it, it probably means that the chaos is serving them right, and that it’s just foreign eyes who are unable to perceive its underlying order.

The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up, by Florent Crivello

It is tempting to equate a lack of order (or at least lack of what we perceive to be order) with a lack of value or quality, which justifies a need for intervention. This is not ill-advised in some cases, with the emergency of rule of law as a case in point. A complete lack of any legal order in a community threatens the safety of its members.

In contrast, some corrections of chaos could produce outcomes that go against our wishes instead of in their favor. Apart from the pizza example above (I assume 99.9999% of the population prefers a ‘messy’ pizza where the ingredients are mixed instead of separated), another example is the free market vs. central planning: a “chaotic” free market is magically more efficient than central planning, in terms of the total sum of outputs produced. Of course, free market is not without its limitations – which is a separate topic.

The point here is: the presence of chaos does not automatically equate a need for correction. If chaos should warrant anything, it should warrant a drive to understand the underlying order, the “invisible hand”, the hidden structure that are yet elusive to our foreign eyes.

Resisting the urge to “correct” chaos may not be that easy. As Brian Arthur, pioneer of complexity theory & complexity science, mentioned in an interview, subjects such as economics seek “equilibrium, a place of statis (stability) and simplicity”. In a sense, equilibrium is (perceived to be) at the opposite side of chaos.

Brian Arthur points out what seems to be in equilibrium could be different from what is actually in equilibrium – this depends on how macroscopic vs. microscopic our view is. For example, the sun seems to be in equilibrium when we look up at it in the sky – it is a beautiful sphere held in place by gravitational forces. Yet, the sun close up is full of plasma bursts – what you could call “chaotic” reactions.

Instead of viewing chaos & equilibrium as opposing concepts, we could view them as relative concepts instead. Instead of being either chaotic or in equilibrium, an object could be both – depending on the context & our level of understanding.

So give chaos some credit – just as the tastiest pizza is not the orderliest one, the best scenario may not necessarily be the most organized one. The next time you find yourself anxious about a chaotic environment? Think about how delicious that bite of pizza littered with messy toppings is – then sit back & relax.

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