1. Where We Are
It didn’t take research for me to understand that most people were unhappy with many aspects of modern life. Even those that absolutely love their careers tend to feel frustration over something — bureaucracy, paperwork, or long, pointless meetings. Things are much bleaker for those who work in jobs they don’t enjoy at all but continue out of necessity. This disconnection with one’s work results not only in unhappiness, but in poor performance. A 19th century tailor took great pride in his or her work because the finished product was entirely their own. Today, most clothing is made in mechanized assembly lines, and one individual does not have a finished product to take pride in. They may have been involved in stitching the top button on a pair of jeans. There is no connection with the finished product, and therefore the sense of accomplishment felt by the 19th century tailor has gone. Even more telling is the result of the innovation. Technology allows us to manufacture clothing much faster and at a lower cost, but this does not result in less work or more income for those involved in making clothing — in fact, it typically results in more work and less income. The workplace is simply one aspect of a more complicated life. Similar disconnections are to be found in the dynamics of our familial and personal relationships, our hobbies, our leisure, our health, and virtually every other aspect of life.
2. An Approach to a Perceived Problem
I began as most people begin in non-fiction or academic research: Starting with an assumed answer (hypothesis), and then searching for evidence to support my point of view. The problem with this is that in today’s world you can find research to support anything. Historically, people have used “scientific evidence” to support anything from racial discrimination to the idea that women had a lesser capacity for science and math. Therefore, I decided to take a step back and examine the long chain of events that led to our modern, complicated world. Early on, the loosely defined movement of minimalism jumped out at me as both a great idea and an inevitable response to the world we live in. I believed, and I still believe, that simpler is usually better. Still, for me to begin with the answer and then find supporting evidence would have been biased. I had to take a step back. In doing so I followed the long chain of events that led to the most complicated aspects of modern life.
It was never my intention to write a “self-help” book for those interested in minimalism. There are plenty of those available. Providing advice on how to simplify one’s life is commendable, but this leaves those who choose to live simpler lives as outsiders, as a counter-culture, living a better lifestyle despite the norm. This is good, but I think not good enough. How do we change the norm? This may or may not be possible, but I am sure it is not possible if no one tries. Therefore, my focus is not solely on the individual, but on the complex systems which run our complicated world. The scientific method has probably been the single-most important tool in technological advancement, and it works well. What I think is too often overlooked is what happens before the scientific method can be used: defining a hypothesis. The scientific method is fairly objective when carried out honestly, but the process of selecting a hypothesis is highly subjective. Therefore, rather than beginning with an answer, I began with the facts, and use these facts to try to identify answers. The scientific method can help the scientist or researcher gauge the validity of a hypothesis, but it can’t help them come up with good ideas. It is these good ideas that turn into the hypotheses they test. In fields which use the scientific method such as psychology, economics, sociology, and of course the hard sciences, we have nothing until we have a good idea. You can train someone to utilize the scientific method, but you cannot train them to have good ideas. This is more a combination of intelligence, depth of knowledge, natural skill, and pure luck.
It is for this reason that I chose to proceed as I have, in the hopes of coming up with “good ideas” rather than a set of studies that seem to prove my point. I still rely heavily on research, but I did not begin with a bias as to which research I would pay attention to (and which I would not).
3. Cases and Causes
The meat of the book. A look at how complications developed, from financial and government systems, to specific technologies from transportation to communications. Why did Apple choose to remove headphone jacks from the iPhone? Why do we intentionally make light bulbs last for a very brief time when technology exists to allow them to last for decades? There are enough case studies to fill a dozen books, but the cases I present focus on the forces which create the complications. From strategies such as planned obsolesce, which result in intentionally forcing perfectly working consumer goods to become obsolete, or in some cases even strategically building them to have a short shelf-life, to market systems which survive only by marketing and selling an increasing number of goods, the forces that create our complications are much stronger than the complications themselves. Scale is another force examined. Our first President George Washington had open office hours during which anyone could visit and discuss an issue; today, you would be lucky to meet your local representative in congress. The sheer growth of population has caused some of our complex systems to function in an entirely new, unintended way. From food production to health care, the sheer number of people have drastically changed the way we do things. There is so much going on, and so much information to consume, that even someone working at it full time could never hope to keep up enough to understand what is going on around them.
The initial plan was to look only at the time stemming from the Industrial Revolution, and this is certainly where a majority of the changes began. This is not going far back enough, unfortunately. Realistically, the United States sprung up from nowhere, a culture unto itself yet built upon the customs of the countries (England, France, Ireland, Germany, etc.) from whom the first colonists came. The plan was also to look only at the United States. This was a naive approach because in today’s global economy borders are not so easily defined. Even some of the brands we most closely associate with America are now owned by foreign corporations, and most large corporations operate globally. Even micro-businesses run by one part-time artisan often cater to a worldwide economy. Therefore I have gone back not only to the influences on colonial American and eventually the United States, but also to the roots of many of the European ideas that formed these influences. The scientific method can be traced (at least) as far back as Aristotle, with Francis Bacon picking back up on it more than a thousand years later.
I have found during my research that influence — from marketing, from our peers, from media, from the news — has such an incredibly drastic effect on our behavior. It brings into question the very nature of free will. We clearly have an ability in the moment to make personal choices — for example, you can choose to continue read, or not. This is a freedom of choice. The question is to what degree our prior experience — for the most part out of our control — has an effect on the person we have become, and therefore the choice that we will make “in the moment.”
This is also a very substantial portion of the book, because the influences I discuss determine how and why we accept modern “complications.” It is easy to look at marketing and understand that it is effective and clearly has an influence on consumption, but it’s important to look further and understand that marketing exists in many forms. If we accept that a talented advertising agency can influence the breakfast cereal we choose, what can we say about politicians who have been hiring advertising agencies for a century? Why can psychological studies overwhelmingly predict the winner of elections based on subjects perceptions of their photographs? How much influence is conferred based on which book we choose to read to learn about a new subject?
I also review how technological advancements have changed the nature of both advertising and even news itself. Prior to the internet, we all read the same newspapers, listened to the same radio stations, watched the same television news. There may have been a handful of choices, but the were self-contained. Today, complex algorithms determine which news stories are presented to us based on our past reading history. The news articles that Apple or Google presents to you are different than the ones it presents to me.
The combination of technology and psychology has led to the ability to design video games and gambling machines meant to be highly addictive. It has also led to an ability to tailor advertising to the head of a pin. Decades ago, an advertising agency would have to choose one advertisement targeted at one audience. For example, a line of lipstick might be targeted at working women. Today, a line of lipstick can be targeted to working women between the ages of 22 and 35 who earn between $50k-$100k per year, live in an urban area, have no children, have a history of eco-friendly purchases, at least one pet in the home, and some type of active hobby. A different advertisement can be created for women who do not work, are between the ages of 40 and 65, have at least 3 children, grocery shop at a certain chain, and purchased a home in the last 18 months. If this demographic targeting seems highly specific, understand that these examples are rather simple and ads can usually be targeted on a much deeper scale.
One of the reasons advertising can be so fine-tuned is because we have slowly changed the currency with which we pay for things. Virtually any retail chain store pushes hard to get you to sign up for a membership club so that your purchases can be tracked, and in many cases, most especially grocery stores, you pay substantially higher prices if you refuse to sign up. This is old news, however. Today we are much more heavily influenced by the way in which we pay for online content. At this point we expect most things to be free. Free GPS software tracks where we go, free health monitoring applications track our exercise routines, news sites track what types of stories we read, and almost every other free service is paid for by the collection of fine-tuned data and the delivery of fine-tuned advertisements. In short, what we think is free is not free. Amazon is willing to sell a Kindle for $20 less if it includes a simple advertisement on the screen when you’re not using it because they know, over the long run, they will earn far more than $20 through the display ads.
In short, our attention is today’s hottest commodity, and everyone wants a piece.
5. Force into norms
I take a brief look at how even with our great amount of freedom, it is almost impossible not to be pulled toward whatever becomes the “norm” of our culture. Some of us may fall farther than others outside of these cultural norms, but not nearly as much as would occur organically. Whether through legislation or by a change in the way we access the basic necessities, once something becomes the “norm” it is almost impossible to live without it. There was a time when people built their own homes; today this has become a highly specialized skill. After so much time has passed, it is easy to believe that everyone simply agreed this was a good idea. The truth is that the closer hiring home-builders became the “norm,” the more powerful the home-builders became. Now, it is nearly impossible to build your own home legally, even on some distant 20 acres of land in an unincorporated area. It is difficult to look at these issues from the perspective of today. Today, it would seem silly for most people to try to build their own home because they do not have the qualifications. Going back, however, it’s interesting to look at how often such things became “silly” and were brought about not by people who wished to pass on the labor, but rather those who wished to sell homes.
I also look briefly at the growing technology gap. The faster technology in cities outpaces life in more rural areas, the more these two areas begin to look very differently. Given the expense of such technologies, how long can such a gap last? When residents of a 300-person village in Virginia are expected to live up to the same technical standards in areas such as manufacturing and transportation as those living on the outskirts of Washington, DC simply because they live in the same state, what will happen?
6. The Human Condition
The human condition is often referred to in an ambiguous way to explain the inevitable unhappiness — whether occasional or frequent — of the human being. I take a more scientific look at this cliche and attempt to provide scientific evidence for what is natural, such as the sadness of death, to what is unnatural, such as feelings of anxiety and depression directly related to activities which humans simply have no genetic instinct to perform.
7. Looking Ahead
Technology is not the “bad guy” in my perspective, instead it has much more to do with how unpredictable technological change has been, and will continue to be. Therefore, I also dedicate some time to showing how technology has given the individual and grass roots movements more power than they have ever had. While things have steadily moved towards forced norms, we are finally seeing a shift where we have more options and more opportunities than ever before. Micro-businesses, steadily rising telecommuting opportunities, solar and wireless technologies, and many other new opportunities offer a chance to live a lifestyle closer to one’s desires rather than being forced into a norm.
Just as I saw value in focusing my research on how simplicity could benefit the whole, I think strategies that focus on widespread change rather than individual opportunity can make a real difference in the future. Minimalism itself is more of a philosophy than an organized movement, in part because the whole idea of organization goes against the philosophy of many who consider themselves minimalists. Still, I see the future focused on making larger changes. Rather than figuring out ways to skirt the law to live in a self-built “tiny home,” I see a movement to apply pressure to legislators to allow such common sense economies. At the same time, I question whether some live in tiny homes because they truly want a confined space, or whether it is simply economics. I see growing evidence that working professionals making decent incomes living in vans because of the financial savings and freedom, but what if such savings and freedom could be obtained while still living indoors?
One of my main arguments is that we have rarely been able to predict the effects of new technologies, but I go ahead and make some anyway. From autopilot in automobiles to the future of personal communications I try to use my extensive research in the cause-effect of past changes to point out some possible scenarios in the future.