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Startup Cyanide (Part 2)

The Catharsis of Simplification

Tom Littrell
Aug 25, 2017 · 6 min read
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everyone is busy innovating, the next big thing must be the antithesis of innovation. Once the world has reached its carrying capacity of this-x-that technology, the companies that succeed will need to do so with reduction and simplification in mind. The solution to clutter is not another gadget or productivity tool. It’s the good old-fashioned kitchen recycle bin. Less (features, buttons, add-ons) is more.

The word “minimalism” has surged within the English corpus of the past 50 years. Marie Kondo has sold more than 7 million copies of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Representations of the hegemonic American home in advertising and entertainment media picture practically unlived-in living spaces compared to decades past. We are squirming away from the tentacles of capitalism as certain politicians — the Bern — rekindle new generational ideologies. To fully tear off our blinders, however, a degree of deliberation is necessary.

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In practice, we love to slim down. Letters, filing cabinets, calculators, cameras, and gaming consoles have been jam-packed into palm-sized aluminum chassis. Our outfits have steadily transformed from layered ruffles and heavy linens to nickel-thin fleece and nylon socks. We not only require less to work and play, but also aspire to carry less on our persons. There is something beautiful about having great respect for one’s personal effects and owning only that which offers some measure of value in life.

The proliferation of digital media access and subsequent collection of big data has rendered targeted marketing campaigns salaciously successful. As a result, what is added to personal inventory feels deceptively subtractive. Purchase an electric oil diffuser and exchange wick-ed wax for viscous vials. Trade wires for signals and film for frames per second. Are 2,400 vacation photos as precious as 24? This is not an argument for the existence or validity of media panics; rather, it’s an affirmation of the virtues of value over excess.

Nothing carries any inkling of meaning intrinsically. It is we who assign meaning and who have assigned it since days of old. From Plato to Chomsky, we’ve been taking a crack at the the subject for quite some time! Though seemingly counter-evolutionary, a common conclusion is that some things carry more value simply because we take them to. Picture a paperback book, for example: How pleasant to protect each page as it is turned so that a story may be concluded and, once it is finished, passed on from one curious mind to the next. The most impressive e-reader can provide no such pleasure. The same concept applies to sustainability.

Unless we as individuals unearth some greater meaning in our natural world, what is in actuality a thanklessly nurturing vessel is quickly reduced to that of a thinly translucent gauge — sliding toward empty unbeknownst to its hapless conductors. While it is quite easy to lose oneself in the fantasy of a heavily fortified future, it is infinitely healthier to fantasize of tomorrow’s miraculous spoils than to be downtrodden by the toils of current policy. To train a sense of awareness of the perils nestled within capitalism is to have a keen eye for what is truly, truly simple in the purest sense of the word.

In biology, a population is said to have reached its carrying capacity when it can no longer be supported by accessible resources. Humanity has long surpassed its carrying capacity on Earth by squeezing the planet dry long before the possibility of natural replenishment. Postindustrial entrepreneurship has similarly slung tech-tac-toe into the nether. Product Hunt is absolutely riddled with surgically stitched startups hoping to slice through a certain density of investment ventures. Monopolies utilizing vertical market domination render such efforts futile. Yet what desperately needs to happen has already sown its seeds — a form of paradigm reversal, of cyclical rehabilitation.

As false innovation fizzles, a readiness to accept less rather than excess settles in. Upgrades have transgressed into more refined updates with developers and entrepreneurs shifting focus from feature pushes to bug squashes, security enhancements, and polished stabilization. When will this penchant for quality seep into other realms of influence, such as our primordial affinity for nature? Many modern minds (for example, Marc Barnes) are on the brink of an answer, yet the core issue of complication has twisted contemporary philosophy into a Gordian knot. The answer, as it would seem, lies within the question. To complicate life, one must seek simplicity; to simplify, one must stop seeking at all.

Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature spells the tale of Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian explorer in the late 18th/early 19th century who laid the footpath for how we navigate the natural sciences today. Humboldt scrutinized every detail of the environment to connect fields of study that once relied solely on taxonomy to form a hypothesis that connected Earth and stitched its biomes into a singular, living organism. For this, he was lauded by the likes of Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Napoléon Bonaparte. To accomplish such a task, Humboldt did not reinvent the wheel. He did not refine the specificity of any particular field. What he did do was simplify — use what knowledge and tools he had available to draw connections between natural phenomena and find contentedness within his surroundings.

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Bright ideas used to be a dime a dozen. Today, so too is their implementation. “It’s just like *company* but better!” no longer flies. “It’s *product* but with the convenience of *product*!” has been iterated to death. Joshua Fields Millburn, one half of the Minimalists, decrees that “[o]n a long enough timeline, everything becomes obsolete. A hundred years from now the world will be filled with new humans, and they’ll’ve abandoned their USB cables, iPhones, and flatscreen televisions, letting go of the past to make room for the future.” In progression toward immanence, relinquished objects and forfeited projects are traded for a deeper understanding of value.

Even the most bare-bones, natural, and simplistic activities have been commodified in an attempt to strip meaning and value in exchange for financial growth. Meditation does not require a subscription — perhaps a book or human guide, not a guided user interface. Woodland excursions are weighed down with pristine, must-have gear that detracts from the core purpose of hiking. Consumerism “threaten[s] to erode traditional skills, distance the woodsman from nature, and implicate him in a consumer economy preoccupied with profit.” Pick up any two packages of the same-type item at a convenience store (the irony!) and this notion of excess will be obvious. But the irony does not end there. With companies like Punkt serving up $300 “dumb phones,” even minimalism has been slapped with a price tag.

Not to fret—the option to simplify is always present. The path to simplification is becoming more obvious each day as the weight of purported innovations becomes overbearing. An abundance of noise is defining the true signal. When presented with the option to contribute to personal inventory, consider whether the task the tool can achieve is conducive to deep-seated desires or fleeting fancies. Resist transactions trawled by tantalizing design.

A brief timeline in Part 1 of Startup Cyanide slingshotted humanity from the first agricultural revolution to modernity and the age of the startup. It was rather distilled and linear — but what comes next? Surely the rolling stone must hit the bottom at some point. Perhaps the bottom is not quite in sight; however, a plateau is approaching upon which innovators of our time will look inward rather than forward and refine the world with what resources are present rather than stretching thin so very limited assets. This act of connection, reduction, and simplification is the catalyst for transforming the Silicon Valley of today into the Carbon Valley of tomorrow.

Part three awaits.

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