More Is Less April 2023

People often quote Mies van der Rohe as having said ‘less is more’. I’ve also learned more as life has gone on that ‘more is less’. In everything there is a time price and a soul price to progress. We develop technology to make our lives more efficient and comfortable, but that comes at the expense of something else that may not be immediately obvious to us. I’ve noticed people often come to a similar conclusion about this, about how technology turns hard (but possible) to solve problems into easy or impossible ones. I can easily afford an iPhone, and it would be impossible to reproduce one by the effort of my own hands.

In some domains, it does seem like most of the progress that we have realized has been in some sense negative progress that comes at the expense of making them less sustainable and more fragile. The more I dig into the science around household products in our kitchen, bathroom and laundry room, the more I feel that those that live closer to the land may well have been right all along. By and large, complex products found in our homes are not biologically compatible with our sensitive systems of sustaining life.

I have written before about removal cost, and in many ways have integrated it into my philosophy of life. I remove things from my life like shampoo, and then assess what the true cost of removing it is. Often, I conclude that the true cost of removing it is not even noticeable, or positive, and it continues to be omitted. In the case of shampoo, the reason our hair has too much oil is that we are assaulting it with detergents. If you stop using shampoo, you no longer have an overcompensating hair hydration system. If you were not born with it and it is not an essential micronutrient, that thing is probably more of a nice-to-have.

People talk about clean water, shelter and sufficient nutrition as the basis for sustaining life. Animals in nature live without our definition of clean water (our water is more ‘low risk’ than it is clean) or shelter. Animals evolve as essentialists, in many cases the energy ROI of technology is too low to justify. The only thing I can tell that is truly essential to our survival is fresh water and survival nutrition. While I wouldn’t advocate for a lifestyle that focuses on those inputs, we absolutely possess sufficient wealth in the world to assure these things of every person. And I’m not sure assuring them of anything else is a good thing.

It is freeing to imagine and meditate on the notion that survival requires so little input. We spend almost no time considering the abundance of water and micronutrients in our life. It requires so little input effort to attain these things. One extremely stoic interpretation is that our lives are experienced in such distracting abundance that we simply cannot cope with how successful we have been with adapting. We are easily able to get food, and it is impossible for most people to control enough land to forage off of. In that sense, technology has again separated ourselves from the original imperative of life, to conquer natural selection.

As I get older I find it hard to cope with the intrinsic complexity-and-yet-ease of life. I handily respond to my emails, learn to restart my computer when it acts up (and now my car too) and navigate labyrinth grocery stores with ease. My life has lurched in the ‘easy’ direction as I learn how to adapt to our contrived environment. But I yearn for opportunities to experience the truly hard that have become impossible. Starting a country comes to mind. No places on earth remain to be settled. Starting a company and becoming a father were both things I found to be hard. I knew they would not be impossible, and I think much of the satisfaction I experience as a result of those pursuits is because they require me to struggle.

To those who ask what more we can do for each other, I would argue against the central point. We should ask ourselves what less we can do before we starve. We rob each other of the opportunity to experience struggle. We struggle as a result of our own difficulty navigating complexity. Life isn’t intrinsically hard, it requires water and micronutrients. The systems we have created are buckling under their own complexity. It isn’t clear that most technology that exists today needs to exist, or if removed that we would be worse off. In many cases, it is quite clear that we would be better off were it not to exist, but we still persist.

One thing modern AI has shown me is how truly rote and pointless most white collar work is. We are all administrators of complexity, whether executives in a business where customers could probably go years without noticing their absence, or one of many professions whose primary role comes down to maintaining knowledge assets. We outsource complexity to the machines as fast as we can and still we struggle to keep up. AI will assist us in this process as its capacity to manage complexity will eventually vastly outstrip us. I think this has the potential to free us to refocus ourselves back on the fundamental pursuits. Leave the calculations to the machines, we need to leave ‘high IQ as personality’ to history in order to progress.

I aspire to live a life of meaningful struggle where my problems are neither easy nor impossible to overcome. I aspire to a world for my loved ones that is the same. I aspire to grant others the opportunity to overcome their own difficulties, and never to rob them of those opportunities in service of making them easy. I aspire never to allow another person’s difficulty to become impossible through an omission of effort. My desire to help is not a valid reason to go around taking meaning making opportunities for humanity.

In this sense, I re-learn the lesson in Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror. Any time I start to resent the other, I need only look as far as my recent actions to find flaws and an opportunity to improve. I have never arrived at that point in my life where I am so sure of myself that I cannot find a recent error. I try to live my life in the arena, with skin in the game and risking failure and shame. It is better to have loved and lost than not to have loved at all, and so on. We put ourselves in comfortable cocoons, and then suffocate in them. We may be better off allowing the elements to weather us. Staring into the abyss laughing.