Triviality represents the mundane and uninteresting; thoughts and ideas which lack any significance. It’s a clean and easy way to reduce one’s time and effort into nothing but a waste. Want to kill an idea? Call it trivial.

The concept of trivial also describes a beautiful logical progression. In his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”, Richard Feynman recalls his experience with the term.

I still remember a guy sitting on the couch, thinking very hard, and another guy standing in front of him, saying, “And therefore such-and-such is true.”
“Why is that?” the guy on the couch asks.
“It’s trivial! It’s trivial!” the standing guy says, and he rapidly reels off a series of logical steps: “First you assume thus-and-so, then we have Kerchoff’s this-and-that; then there’s Waffenstoffer’s Theorem, and we substitute this and construct that. Now you put the vector which goes around here and then thus-and-so…” The guy on the couch is stuggling to understand all of this stuff, which goes on at high speed for about fifteen minutes!
Finally the standing guy comes out the other end, and the guy on the couch says, “Yeah, yeah. It’s trivial.”
We decided that “trivial” means “proved.”

In the logical sense, this term “trivial” projects a somewhat hidden connection between two or more separate ideas. Mathematicians use the word to describe a methodology for solving a problem: starting with a question, an answer can be derived through a series of transformations — navigating across different topics and using problems with known solutions in order to infer our own. Take a problem and transform it into another, one which has hopefully been approached from all angles before. It’s a beautiful process.

Often times the idea is so hilariously overused that it has inspired parody sites such as The Proof is Trivial!

Hey I know some of these words!

Even so, we are now far from our original definition of the mundane and uninteresting, and instead are looking at this term as a method of problem-solving: taking a problem definition and reducing it into something we already know.

We see this in our everyday lives. The first time I flew alone I was a nervous wreck. The flying part wasn’t scary, but the process was so foreign to me (getting to the airport, going through the right checkpoint, finding my gate, arranging travel once I landed, etc.) that I was completely lost, until I realized:

  • I know how to read signs
  • I know how to stand in line
  • I know how to use a telephone

Do them in the correct order and flying is trivial.

That doesn’t mean the term “trivial” is all that friendly, though. It still carries the negative connotation that “this work is unnecessary” or “why bother offering up your own solution?” When Drew Houston first announced Dropbox on HackerNews, one particular comment showcased the sheer disconnect between two definitions of the same word.

For a Linux user, you can already build such a system yourself quite trivially by getting an FTP account, mounting it locally with curlftpfs, and then using SVN or CVS on the mounted filesystem. From Windows or Mac, this FTP account could be accessed through built-in software.

So, yes, you can build your own Dropbox, internet commenter. We can follow a number of steps to emulate the functionality of Dropbox, so therefore we can consider it “trivial,” but that doesn’t mean it has no value.

There’s a clash between the two meanings. On one hand we have the unimportant, insignificant, and banal, while on the other we have a magnificent series of logical inferences and simplification, but the two don’t mix. This process of simplifying steps is incredibly valuable, but to call it “trivial” sends a variety of mixed messages.

The word “trivial” offers many opportunities to inappropriately reduce an item to its most basic components; allowing us to ignore the beauty that lies in the process. The value of a network is greater than the sum of its parts, but a simple misstep in vocabulary undermines it all.

Be careful how you phrase things; trivial’s a funny word.