The Luxury of Simple

I’ve been spending the past fews days helping my parents unpack after their first move in over a dozen years. On top of the weekend I spent over Thanksgiving moving out of my old room and the subsequent holidays me and my sisters will spend unpacking boxes and unwrapping bags, I estimate it’ll take upwards of a year to settle them into their new home.

A lot of the – what we’ll call my parents’ collection – is acculumated junk from our past places of residence, many having seen 4, 5 moves across decades. These are not sentimental trinkets or family pictures; I’m stashing away tape older than Justin Bieber and a set of staplers that collectively summarize 20th century geo-economics. My parents, though, refuse to throw anything away, and I keep on looking for closets and bookshelves to preserve wholly unremarkable history.

I’m struggling to have my parents understand how to keep only what they need; their responses are along the lines of such and such being on sale, that it would come in handy eventually, or that they simply haven’t had the time to use everything they’ve bought. It’d be easy to dismiss their attitude as hoarding, but I think there is a something deeper they’re trying to communicate.

That is, they simply haven’t had the luxury of simplification.

Life is complicated. It takes time and effort to simplify our complex lives, and in doing so we’re consciously making tradeoffs to our lifestyles. It’s somewhat implied, though, that we can afford these tradeoffs, as almost always the simple option is more expensive – in terms of time, energy, or actual dollars. For those with precious little of each resource, going through the exercise of figuring out what to remove must be difficult and unsatisfying.

Take owning a car. The most obvious “complicated” situation would be doing all the maintanence personally, but it’d require keeping all the tools and parts plus a lot of time[1]. A simpler option would be taking it regularly to the shop, but of course you’d be paying more for someone else to do the repairs. The simplest option may be having no car, but that merely makes other aspects of life – like getting groceries or picking up someone from the airport – more complicated, not to mention that living within walking distance of amenities is itself a costly expenditure.

I wonder if the same argument holds in software. Simple isn’t easy, and minimalist/optimized software setups are either just hiding layers of complexity or took substantial effort:

  • For the former, I’m reminded of Minimal Mac’s Enough podcast. Currently, the hosts are running a series on the (small number of) apps on their Macbook Airs and iPhones, but I’d argue that using instead of the Twitter app isn’t really simplying when all that’s changed is a 20MB download to a browser bookmark and a reoccurring 100kb page download.
  • For the latter, Lifehacker has tons posts showing off what people have done to personalize their devices. They look cool, but the submitters spend considerable time to get their machines to conform to their tastes and workflows, and I wonder how simple they are to use as opposed to look.

The average user of our software systems really only cares about is getting his work done. Our apps don’t have to be fancy; they don’t have to be minimal; but if they are to simplify, there is so much more room untangling incumbent processes in industries that have resisted the efficiency of technology.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)
  1. Here, I’m painting car maintenance as more of a chore than a hobby.