Where tech aligns

Minimalism’s Own Machinations

The Light Phone II has good intentions. But like other minimalist tech, it’s a machine with an agenda.

For about ten years, the smartphone has remained the same. Augmented reality may be the more sophisticated of additions, but there is little indication people are interested in new sources and more intrusive displays of mere data. Quite the opposite.

Enter Light Phone II, a leader of the “calm-design” style in independent tech that found its roots in a successful crowdfunding campaign. Over the course of five years, the Light Phone proposed and iterated on a new ethos of the smartphone, releasing its debut then one successor.

Even in its physical form the Light Phone II presents itself as a solution to information overload. It’s perhaps the size of a stack of a dozen credit cards, portending a simple user interface. It delivers on this with just a few features: A phone, an SMS app, an alarm, a map, and an audio player. It is fair to call it a more contemporary iteration of the esteemed Nokia 3310. After the Razr, the elder millennial should be well familiar with this device. Unfortunately, it tends too far in the direction of Life Alert.

With more space away from outside attention-thieves, we are left with our nature and our will. We have a device to help us execute on them in the Light Phone II, and so I picked up my new device to text a friend to make plans for coffee. It’s small, so typing is harder than typing on a conventional smartphone. I asked, “Do you want to get coffee later today,” and they responded with an ordinary logistical challenge. Where they are and will be and when, the mutual dance of finding a convenient time and place. I can’t handle any of this on the Light Phone II but want to constrain myself to it, so I suggest a time and place that feels right.

The minimal features of the Light Phone II, by one light, forced me to make a decision and engage with my intuition. Maybe more areas of my brain would be illuminated on an MRI screen, being unable to effortlessly outsource the computation. Am I growing? It is possible.

Except now I’m issuing curt ultimatums, and my friend wants a longer text exchange (i.e., wants to communicate with me), and did I mention the screen is small and I’m typing ten words a minute? And I can’t use multiple functions at once, the display is e-ink so it’s like interacting with a small Kindle beyond the act of reading, and it took two minutes to load a tiny pixelated map. Within minutes it becomes instantly clear that this device has its own intentions for me: I am to communicate according to its protocol, not find a means of communicating on my own using it as a tool. And so I decide to relent, and ask my friend if I can call them. But they’re in a noisy place, and what an anachronistic suggestion, they’re looking to share paragraphs. The real conversation is to happen later at the coffee shop, if it can be made so.

A vague “call you later” became a mutual commitment forgotten, and we had coffee the following week. The tool could send and receive signals from miles away, carried through outer space, but it couldn’t enable us to set a time and place to hangout. It just ignored the problem of human forgetfulness, optimizing for micro-exchanges of calls and responses. We could have been exchanging morse code.

Something of the sort occurred continuously with the Light Phone II by my side. I’d hear a new song I liked and wanted to save it for later listening, but couldn’t. I would sometimes reach friends by phone, and the audio quality was serviceable but cassette-tape-like. Barely an annoyance except it reminded me of the sort of unnecessary compromises that minimal tech often makes.

Software is increasingly the nuclear phenomenon of the age: the pieces can bring the destruction of the species. But they can also grant the ability to forge new and sustainable ways of life. You’ll find truer human expressions, or you will be consigned to the pod and your sensations will be gently numbed as your soul is eroded carefully.

These dynamics will manifest so completely throughout our day that almost every decision or contemplation will be mediated by software, software-controlling-software, and software-constructed hardware. The battle to determine the shape of this inevitable world is being waged with the most trivial of things, in gadgets we once believed to be matured.

Twenty years ago, Marc Andreessen observed that “Software is eating the world.” It was a pithy and accurate description of the disruptive effects of software on conventional business models. Ten years later, Andreessen expanded on the theme: online bookstores – indeed, everything-stores – had decimated even national bookstore chains, but the effect of software would run deeper. He observed that the physical world itself was altered by, and made dependent upon, increasingly carnivorous software. Even the trusty old combustion engine had become linked to software-based controllers, paving the way for mass-market electric and self-driving vehicles.

Software was always a part of the world that software was eating. New software references and depends on older software, primitives combine to form structures of increasing powers. Imagine this itself occurring in parallel across millions of practitioners, professional or amateur. A twelve-year-old could cobble together a necklace that connected to the internet and changed color according to the coming weather as shared through open protocols by the National Weather Service. Enable experienced practitioners to find each other and you have all the makings of a renaissance: thousands, eventually millions, of micro-companies and micro-organizations, leveraging the increasing abstraction of software, its ubiquity, and its usability, to create productive enterprises over a longer weekend.

This cottage industry of indie tech isn’t unprecedented. Rather, it laid dormant as the field adjusted to an explosion of interest and popular participation. A new line of technical elites is being born of this cottage industry, the spiritual predecessor to the garage-tinkerers of the seventies and eighties. Future profit, in money and knowledge, will occur in service to “niche groups” or in the “long tail.”

The minimalist theology in indie tech holds that people are functionally driven. They want to make a phone call to their friends, and go to the coffee shop. People need electronic devices to do these things, but the electronic device and its designers also conspire to rob them of the presence of mind to make and execute plans. In this account of the state of nature, human beings are mechanical and easily duped. Dopamine is being elicited or stolen, while other humors are knocked out of balance. They just wanted to call their bestie, but the simple recipe was thwarted by a notification or something.

But this is to confuse cause and effect. For every app that promises a distraction-free writing space, there’s a convenient button to escape from monotony. 

Minimalist tech, like the Light Phone II, addresses one aspect here. It fends off externally imposed distractions, and in so doing, enables us to see more clearly our nature. But the theology of our nature here is false or radically incomplete, predicting a world of diligent bureaucrats executing plans faithfully if only their managers and coworkers wouldn’t disrupt them.

Inconveniently, however, these distractions originate somewhat closer to home, in the restless soul. Without recognizing this, the underlying pretense of Big Tech is accepted. Addenda to behavioral economics, incremental patches on the empty notion of engagement, become an iteration of the same false god.

Minimalism often deals in mere quantity, so here it was deemed more important that the phone fit inside a box of mints than to deliver and to receive better audio. The screen is grayscale e-ink, a few inches, and as such takes a second to refresh each page view. The experience is very Kindle-like, except rather than being served an entire page of text to occupy oneself with, one is met with a couple of options. A simple and tedious decision tree, and an experience not unlike that of dealing with automated menu systems when you call the gas company. It takes a long time, you’ll get frustrated, wait, and just send a check and hope for the best.

Seemingly recognizing this, the Light Phone II alternately positions its device as a secondary phone. You carry it with you, along with your other realer phone, or carry it alone when you want to unwind. Or something. It all seems an ad hoc rationalization: It is allegedly simpler to carry two devices than one, and to switch between them. Or to choose the simpler device when venturing into the park, getting frustrated, fixating on the device over the park anyway (for different reasons), and rejoicing in the fact that you cut out a few ounces and millimeters of extraneous weight and size.

It would be a categorical error to mistake this as a features problem. Adding another menu item doesn’t alter this calculus: People have complex and often uncertain goals, and the simplest act requires multiple sources of information. We want to do things, and the tools we use can facilitate and guide this. Or a tool can force its user to conform to it, and in the extreme case, lead the user to shape themselves to complement the ostensible tool. The Light Phone II and other minimalist tech often moves too close to the latter for comfort.

Ironically, Big Tech often has a clearer view on such matters, and the largest consumer tech company in Apple is increasingly engaged on the problem of inattention. Fairly sophisticated tweaking tools are increasingly built-in, so that one may set rules for themselves and their children. Social media apps might be disabled at 9pm, or limited to an hour a day. Adult material can be substantially blocked. You can even delete all your apps, save for the phone, text messaging, and Spotify.

Minimalism at its best deals not in mere quantity, but in relevance: display the functionality that’s relevant to the broader task at hand and let the rest disappear. The intent of minimalist technology is more apparent in your phone reminding you of when you’re free whenever you’re making plans by text message. Or entering a location in a map and letting you choose between bus schedules, and hailing a ride in one click. It doesn’t thrash you with ads when you’re sharing a cancer diagnosis, but it also doesn’t assume that our desires are reducible to perpetual menus of decontextualized options. We plan trips to the museum to be inspired after a rough week, and to see loved ones. To facilitate this is to facilitate the human, and the enormous variety of its expression is underpinned in part by a relatively few number of virtues and vice.

There is no escape from defining the Good. No technology company can feign neutrality when the toolset itself has been eaten by software, where rapid development of software and hardware by non-specialists is made feasible, where new theologies may be acted upon, and where all the pieces for a renaissance of the cottage industry are in place.

From the technical and economic to the cultural and political, decentralization is upon us. It is a great time to recognize both the diversity of human expression, and the more universal principles of human nature, while fearlessly asserting one’s conception of the Good, and finding one’s people. Of enabling channels between and within tribes of every sort without aspiring to the universal interface that pretends to serve all ways of living, or ignores righteous disagreement as to the nature of the Good.

Without this awareness, independent tech may trap itself in a maze, refining the implicit assumptions made by its behemoth predecessors. The risk of being consumed by the latter here is in choosing to imitate or offer a mere replacement for what can always be better executed by monoliths.

The child who learns how to program a twenty-dollar Raspberry Pi, who clumsily attaches some LEDs, and who manages to broadcast a blue light around his neck as the National Weather Service predicts rain, this child, this tinkerer, is the rightful heir to the independent development of technology. This is where the promise resides. Where open source, human-scale abstraction, variety, and ease of use converge.

“Learn to code” isn’t the clarion call of the age and “Software is eating the world” has become a truism. Our call to action is at once simpler and more difficult: Step back, think with one’s heart and to feel in one’s bones, and find those with whom you can create. Our call is to discover for ourselves and find those with whom we share some common points in the greatest questions: Where did we come from, where are we going, what does it mean to be human, and just what is it all for.

Lots more where that came from.