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Voluntary Simplicity

I first saw the phrase “voluntary simplicity” in the spring 1996 issue of Adbusters. I liked the phrase, and remembered it, even though I never had a very clear idea what it meant. So, once I knew I wanted to say something about it, one of the first things I had to do was figure out, or perhaps just decide, what it was supposed to mean … and that's what I've done.

Part of the problem, I discovered, is that the original article (Downshifting) lumped together two different things.

Voluntary simplicity, downshifting, call it what you will. It all reduces to trading money for time.

The idea of trading money for time is an interesting one, and downshifting seems like a reasonable enough name for it, but I think of it as an aspect of the fact that there's not enough time, not as anything having to do with simplicity.

By the way, I was quite amused to see some egregious bundling that I hadn't noticed before. Following the article was a diagram, Profile of a Downshifter, that presented a picture of a person carrying groceries and whatnot, and indicated various characteristic features … such as “buys organic fare” and “conserves blowdrying energy”.

So, anyway … what do I mean by voluntary simplicity? Well, it's quite simple. It's the idea that you can choose to make life simpler … or, more precisely, the idea that such a choice can be valid and rational, that simplicity, by itself, is a valid justification for action, and, conversely, that complexity, by itself, is sufficient reason not to do something.

Here are a few examples, in no particular order.

I have an answering machine that's ten years old. It was one of the first ones that used digital recording, and can only hold about two minutes worth of messages. I might think about getting a newer, more capable one, or using the phone company's answering service, but, apart from the fact that I've never had two minutes worth of messages, the one I have has a beautiful simplicity. It has a red light that flashes when there are messages; it has a great big button labeled “Play”, and a smaller button labeled “Save” that re-saves the messages after you've listened to them; and that's it. There's no complexity, nothing to think about, nothing to break, nothing that can go wrong.

I don't have a cell phone. I admit there are benefits to them, but for me, the benefits aren't worth the complexity. I don't want to deal with choosing among the various brands and calling plans, keeping the phone charged, carrying it around, and wondering whether I'm in or out of range.

And then there are clothes. At a previous job, I had to wear a suit to work, and so had to mess around with ironing things and taking things to the cleaners. I was quite pleased when I discovered wrinkle-free shirts … and even more pleased when I stopped wearing suits, and didn't have to bother with all that any more.

Einstein, I hear, took things a step further, creating simplicity by having many sets of identical clothes, so that he didn't have to decide what to wear.

Although I think the above examples are worthwhile, I have to admit they're also flawed, because in them, as is often the case, simplicity is aligned with cheapness, so that it's hard to tell what the real motive is. The motive should be easier to see in the following two examples.

First, as I mentioned in Easy Deflection, it's possible that my strategy for finding a parking space is based on minimizing complexity. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what the right measure of cheapness is. If it's proximity to, say, the mall entrance, then I'm not minimizing it, and have proved my point; but if it's actual monetary cheapness, then my strategy might actually be a little cheaper, since it stops the car sooner. Still, I think it's pretty clear that cheapness is not a factor.

I'm tempted to say that simplicity is orthogonal to cheapness, just because I like the geometrical analogy. Let's see … maybe we have a surface of possibilities existing in an N-dimensional space with simplicity, financial cost, distance, and so on as the axes? No, that can't be right, because then simplicity would always be orthogonal to cheapness. Maybe we should project the axes onto the surface? That would work. Or, what amounts to the same thing, we could take the Riemannian approach, ignore the N-dimensional space, and think of simplicity and so on as functions on the surface (the manifold of possibilities, heh heh). Then, instead of projected axes, we have gradients of functions.

Well, that's enough of that … I won't say anything about what we're minimizing, or about local and global minima.

Here's the best example, which I've saved for last. Whenever you have a conditional discount—a sale, a coupon, frequent flier miles, what have you—you have to accept complexity, i.e., reduce simplicity, in order to obtain cheapness. So, the two are guaranteed not to be aligned. Since I avoid conditional discounts, that proves my point.

The essay No Eking uses many of the same examples, by the way.

Now that I claim to have proved my point, let me qualify it a little. In all the cases I can think of, dealing with complexity requires some amount of time and mental energy, so it's still not clear that simplicity by itself is the real motive. Maybe I really want to save time, or mental energy. I'm not sure that matters, though. Whether simplicity is an end in itself, or just a convenient shorthand for other desirable things, it's still useful to think about maximizing it.

Finally, although it isn't about voluntary simplicity, I'd like to mention a famous principle.

Keep it simple, stupid.

The way I think of it, the principle is aimed at designers of systems, who are apt to inflict complexity on the users, or participants.


  See Also

  Methods of Choosing
  Not Liking Uncertainty
  Promotional Rates

@ October (2001)