The infinite search for simplicity
Humans like things, and humans like information. We like stimuli, for an uneventful life is not worth living. However, when is it too much?
With a myriad of gadgets, people and algorithms calling for our constant attention, simplicity seems more and more unattainable.
Thanks to technology we have gained a tremendous amount of leverage. Said otherwise, we can do much more than before in less time.
What a century ago could take days, today it takes minutes. Think about eating a ramen. If you lived outside of Japan a century ago, chances are you would have to figure out how to obtain a book on Japanese food, then figure out where to buy ingredients (or even grow them, if they aren’t available where you live) and eventually get to the cooking process (which in the example of ramen, takes days per se).
Today you open an app, click a few buttons, and get ramen delivered.
The free market has done wonders to satisfy human desires, and today we can satisfy more of them than ever before.
Some of these desires are around making things convenient. For example, a dishwasher is extremely convenient. As well as a washing machine. As well as a dehumidifier. And a microwave. And a fridge. And… the list goes on.
All of these things allow us to spend less time on things we don’t want to do, and more time on things we want to do — in exchange for a fraction of the time maintaining and managing them.
These physical abstractions allow us to spend more time on other realms, like the digital realm.
And we live with many digital abstractions. With the marginal cost of creating and storing content going to zero, there’s no shortage of books, videos or whatever other content we are looking for.
The role of the human becomes more and more an information filtering machine. Think about the inbox. The standard these days is to get bombarded with information — sometimes unimportant, sometimes important.
Having so many abstractions means there’s a need to maintain them, too. Software needs to be updated. There are database breaches, and passwords need to be changed. Credit cards expire, they need to be updated. Terms and conditions change, they need to be accepted. And so on.
Even the huge variety of content out there can lead to existential anxiety. Infinite read-later lists need to be triaged. Books need to be read. After all, there’s so much out there to consume, and you only live once!
Physical and digital abstractions allow us to do more, but not infinitely more. After all, the fraction of maintaining those abstractions is way lower than the hypothetical cost of arriving to the same outcome without them — which in some cases is impossible, e.g. imagine having to create your own Netflix movies from scratch. But the time cost of maintaining those abstractions isn’t zero.
Which means, at some point, the myriad of things we purchased, the myriad of services we signed up to, the myriad of articles we saved to read later, will eat us. They will demand more time from us than what we have. Collapse.
What to do?
There are only two options:
I think both solutions work together, and I’m trying to embrace both. I have become more and more strict in terms of what to buy, read or sign up to. But I’m also looking forward to a GPT-esque personal assistant system that can take care of the mess that digital life is today.
After all, sometimes it feels like the the Internet has turned humans into mere information filtering algorithms. But we all agree we can be more than that.