“Less is more.” — Robert Browning, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and others
I’ve been exploring the theme of simplification. It began with a meditation on the election of Donald Trump.
There are an abundance of rationales offered for this vile eruption on the body of American society, from sublimated racism and misogyny, to the internet’s corruption of the media and the media’s corruption of itself. And genuine anger at the depredations of global capitalism. There is some truth in all of them. But, being a designer, my mind turns to the problem of complexity. More specifically, our psychic, even spiritual if you’re comfortable with that word, ability to adapt to a world that seems to be leaving our humanity behind.
The Trump noise-machine delivers a torrent of sensational stories. They bombard our collective psyches with pat slogans like “make America great again”. Slogans are the weapon of choice for those who wish to find scape-goats for complex issues without actually addressing them. Over-simplification makes slogans meaningless except as code. What most strikes me about Trump’s romp through nuance and honesty is the apparent anguish of those who respond to his code – anguished and overwhelmed by the shaking ground they stand on. The shaking is produced by social and economic shifts that are tearing on the global politic. My designer mind is interested in the way technology is driving this change. We are being inundated by a tsunami of technological innovation, lurching from one disruption to the next.
Trumpism is surely a distress call from those who feel the disorientation of change. The confusion created by needing to absorb another technological breakthrough before the previous ones have been absorbed. Just as we’re adapting to carrying computers in our pocket we see smart robots creeping up on workers from the shadows of their work-places, driverless cars taking away despondent drivers’ last freedoms, genetic science suggesting we’re just as engineer-able as machines.
Get used to it!
I was trying to make sense of this when a review of Thomas Friedman’s new book “Thank You for Being Late” called from my pocket. Friedman does a beautiful job describing the acceleration of technological innovation that is pressing on our lives. The book’s title intrigued me, but I was taken aback by his get-used-to-it attitude. “Since the technological forces driving the pace of change are not likely to slow down, how do we adapt?” he asks, as if technology is its own force for change, beyond human control or agency.(1) I doubt this is a message that will calm the fears of those who are lashing out.
Disheartened, I went in search of ideas to counter Friedman’s “adapt or die” surrender to technological determinism. His optimism that we can “thrive in the age of accelerations” appears to place us on a collision course with the potentially destructive outrage of Trumpist techno-despair. And frankly, put us on a collision course with the human spirit which moves a lot slower than the pace we’ve accelerated into.
In my search for understanding about the nature of design, I’ve been delving into the pre-historic record of human evolution. This is a surprising place to look, you might say, for advice about the design of our technological present, or for advice about how to handle high technologies that feel as if they’re running out of our control. I have found it to be a treasure trove of insight.
Technological complexity isn’t inevitable. Simplicity is a choice we can make.
“The Artificial Ape” is archaeologist Timothy Taylor’s treatment of the idea that we, the human species, are the product of a collaboration between two aspects of our-selves – our nature and our culture. (2) This is a process referred to as co-evolution in which the tools we make elicit changes in our selves, by the Darwinian processes of natural evolution. A most evident example of co-evolution is how, having become tool users and makers, we evolved hands that are adept at grasping them in useful ways with opposable thumbs and agile fingers.
Then Taylor introduces an idea that I find most useful for understanding design complexity – entailment. Entailment, Taylor tells us, is the dependency that the parts of systems have on all the other parts for their existence. Taylor gives an account of what is entailed every time we get into our cars for a short drive to the grocery store:
“A car needs wheels and fuel. Those entail rubber plantations and oil wells, and complex manufacturing, refining, marketing, and distribution processes. Once all the things that cars have to have to be cars are factored in—from metal, tarmac, and glass, through to traffic police, a licensing bureaucracy, test agencies, and so on, each of which comes with its own primary and subsidiary systems of entailment—it is clear that the car can exist only within a modern globalized industrial system.”
He hints at what the design process might look like if we chose to disentangle complexity.
“Reverse entailment, although it sounds as if it might be even more complicated, means a type of dissociation, a deliberate unmeshing. To our habitually entailed existence, the prospect seems strange, the opposite of progress.”
Reverse entailment sounds promising, but I’m not sure it’s possible to go against the “progress” that new technology relentlessly promises us. I feel the confrontation looming between Friedman’s exhortation to “just get used to it” on the one hand, and the Trumpist’s despair at everything that is the apparent opposite of conservative on the other.
And then, as if to give me hope that I am looking for, Taylor tells the tale of aboriginal Tasmanians that the British explorer James Cook encountered in 1770. It is a story about a culture that intentionally chose the simple life, an example that such a thing is possible.
The Tasmanians Cook met were naked in a climate that is wet and cold. (3) And surprisingly, they appeared not to know how to make fire. This has often been ascribed to their cultural, even evolutionary, backwardness. But Taylor is convinced by his research that they had at one time both worn clothes and made fire like all the other people who arrived on the Australian Plate around 40,000 years ago after wandering out of Africa 50,000 years earlier. What, he asks, made them “forget”?
He reckons that they reverted to a life without clothes and fire making tools precisely because of the wet and cool climate. Being dependent on diving for food they needed to have instant fire to get warm and dry quickly and on demand. So they designed a pouch for carrying live embers wherever they went, and quickly built roaring fire whenever they swam. They passed embers from generation to generation, tribe to tribe, an eternal flame for warmth and light. In a lyrical passage rare among academics,Taylor describes the design choices made to reach this simple, un-entailed life thus:
”…no bone tools means no awls means no clothes means no pockets means nowhere to keep tinder and fire-making kit; that means no fire making, which means carrying fire all the time. That means quick fires whenever you want, which means it is okay to have no clothes. Carrying fire all the time means it is safer not to wear clothes, so you don’t catch fire by accident. It also reduces what else can be carried. No composite tools means no axes, so no log boats or all-weather craft, which means no fish—but with lots of sudden storms, why risk orphaning the children when seals can fish and you can eat seals? Inshore, you can grease up and dive for lovely stuff. Naked, of course, because you don’t want damp clothes. You want to get dry and warm as fast as possible by the fire, and eat abalone, wallaby, and tree-harvested possum. Your little temporary rafts can take you to small seabird breeding haunts in fine weather, and who wants to go birding and egg-hunting in high seas? Without a complex toolkit to lose, or surpluses to be stolen, or clothes to dry, you don’t really need a house, and since you carry fire everywhere, the risks of burning one down would be high. With no houses and little personal property, there’s not much hierarchy. That means no need to make loads of stuff, like thrones and crowns. Accounting is unnecessary, so you don’t need writing or numbers, or pens or paper. Or money. You have no maps, but you are not lost. You know where absolutely everything you need is. And because you don’t have to look after it, you can get it when you want it.”
Theirs is a tale of the choice we are capable of making – simplicity over complexity – by design, with lively imagination and great ingenuity.
A New Design Brief : Practice Reverse Entailment
Back to my original concern: can we respond to the complexity that technology is thrusting on us? Looking deep into our ancestral, and technological past, I have hope. My hope comes from two sources – one within the character of the technology that I see emerging, and the other within our ability to adapt that technology to suit ourselves, as the Tasmanians did.
It is worth reading “Thank You For Keeping Me Waiting” for the sheer scope of it’s narrative, its compendium of technologies that have and continue to emerge to disrupt our lives. Now, I’m no technologist, but I’ve been designing Silicon Valley kinds of things for long enough to recognize how the dependencies of basic technologies diminish as each iteration pares its functionality to an essence, eliminating steps, reducing entailment.
Making light from electricity is the simplest example I can think of. LED lights are becoming popular now for their energy efficiency, long life and clean color, are more advanced technology than the incandescent light bulb we associate with Thomas Edison, but they are simpler in construction and function – less entailed. Modern wind power is similarly less entailed than the coal fired turbines that energize either light-source. Now, I’m not going to do a thorough entailment analysis on either technology, and I’m not sure I could. What I am suggesting, however, is that entailment analyses be completed on every technology under development in labs everywhere. Disentailment should become a goal for technologists, just as reduced cost, efficiency and durability already are. Heck, every technology could even come with it’s own entailment notice, like the label on a can of soup listing its contents and where they came from.
What matters just as much as the technologies we develop, is which ones we select, and the forms that we put them in. That’s where design comes in. We’re at a remarkable juncture in the long co-evolutionary journey that has culminated in a powerful process by which we create intentionally. For the first time in three million years we’re becoming fully aware of the creative method that we employ to create the cultural component in the collaboration between two sides of ourselves. We call this method “design”. By design, we are gaining agency over the utility, form, fit, and meaning of the world we are creating. By design we are more able than ever to intentionally achieve the world we would actually like to live in, that serves the purpose of the human spirit. We can choose to design for the simple life, the easy life, the joyous life and a life of abundance. And we can do it with the least entailed and entailing technologies available.
The science of ergonomics has helped us describe design factors for creating things that fit us, bodily, psychologically, behaviorally, cognitively and even emotionally. The Trumpist outrage may be the wake-up call we need to design things that fit us psychicly and spiritually. With the right methods and technological building blocks we can create a world that doesn’t overwhelm us, which doesn’t force us to accelerate our minds, contort our psyches, distort our spirits.
All we need is the best of intentions.
( 1) I hope to get back with a more complete review of Thank You for Being Late – from a design perspective.
(2) The book’s subtitle is “How Technology Changed The Course of Human Evolution”. I will certainly get back with a more specific review and discussion of this book. Until I do, you can read an excellent review HERE. It is thought provoking (and provocatively argued). It is full of insights that are entirely relevant to our contemporary approach to design and innovation.
(3) Taylor gives a similar account of a number of other cultures, including the tribes of Tierra del Fuego encountered by Charles Darwin on his journey around the southern tip of South America.