Rumination 52: Overstated Minimalism

Back in March, I wrote a piece called Je suis KmÀrt in which I discussed some of the annoying, meaningless drivel that is printed on cheap clothing for marketing purposes. My essential point was as follows:

‘What I find concerning is the way that people mindlessly scoop up such items, using them to project false styles and realities that match their constructed realities on Instagram. In people’s relentless efforts to stand out, they end up all heading to the same retail chains.’

I do spend some time ruminating about the identities that people project online. Shopping trips often spark this thought, as I’m surrounded by consumerist nonsense that undoubtedly ends up in selfies.

Well, here’s yet another example: during a recent visit to Cotton On, I spotted this bag.

Whilst not in French or Spanish this time, this bag includes the printed label: ‘Minimalist New York’. So, what’s my issue with this? My issue is that by printing the very word ‘minimalist’ on a supposedly minimalist bag, the designers have ironically created a product that is less minimalist than it could have been if it hadn’t included any words in the first place.

I would argue that including only the city name or featuring no text at all would have been a better branding exercise than including the word ‘Minimalist’. Upon seeing someone carrying the bag without any text, people may even ask, ‘That’s a nice bag? Where did you get it? Who made it?’, to which the owner could answer that the brand is so minimalist that the company doesn’t even include its name on the products. That sounds more interesting and genuine to me.

If you wish to display a minimalist aesthetic, just be a minimalist without needlessly overstating it. Think about it: if someone likes to wear purple shirts, that person will just wear a purple shirt on any given day. He or she won’t go to a clothing shop asking for a purple shirt that says ‘purple’ on the front of it, just so that people understand the inner philosophy of their colour choice.

Don’t fall for this. Be who you want to be without feeling the need to overstate it with a printed label.

Rumination 51: Fabricating/Inventing

I recently finished reading Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Frankly, it was one of the most profound, challenging and at times abstract texts that I’ve ever read.

Throughout the book, I came across numerous sections that seemed almost prophetic (aside from some of the more outdated and even offensive sections about women). On the more positive side, Nietszche seemed to have an unbelievable ability to see into human nature, balancing arguments of morality, history, nationalism, science, knowledge, prejudice and nobility. What stood out to me particularly, however, was the way that he argued how people view the world (and thinking about it today, how little has really changed). Section 192 (p. 115) in the chapter On the Natural History of Morals is the best example of this:

‘ As a little as a reader today reads all the individual words (not to speak of the syllables) of a page — he rather takes about five words in twenty haphazardly and ‘conjectures’ their probable meaning — just as little do we see a tree exactly and entire with regard to its leaves, branches, colour, shape; it is so much easier for us to put together an approximation of a tree. Even when we are involved in the most uncommon experiences we still do the same thing: we fabricate the greater part of the experience and can hardly be compelled not to contemplate some event as its ‘inventor’. All this means: we are from the very heart and from the very first — accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.’

Nietzsche published his book in 1886, prior to all the brilliant scientific, technological and medical advancements of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Today, I believe that many people still take for granted a range of technologies that enable us to see, appreciate and interact with the world in all of its complexity, be they satellites, smartphones or medical imaging equipment that takes things down to the most microscopic level. With all the knowledge that we have accumulated and that is now instantly accessible on the Web, people still view the world in a way that is general, narrow and even prejudiced.

Going back to what Nietzsche says about the words and syllables on a page: think about the way that you read online and perhaps are even reading this right now. People now skim over and scan through texts hurriedly, searching for keywords and not always paying the finest attention to each word on the page. We are always in a rush, constantly aware of the next possible piece of content in a feed or upcoming video recommendation. In every text, word choice is deliberate and we don’t always read texts in a way that is critical, appreciative or respectful of the author.

In the excerpt above, I paid particular attention to the words ‘fabricate’ and ‘inventor’. I would argue that many people use our powerful communication tools—smartphones and the Web, specifically— as tools of their own fabrication and invention. Social media, whilst possessing the enormous potential for good and global connection, have become the ultimate channels for lying and misrepresentation. Consider filters on Snapchat, stories on Instagram, sensationalist threads and ‘fake news’ on Twitter and controversial live streams on Facebook: all of these media now offer influencers and casual users alike a way to reduce the complexity and beauty of the world to marketable bits and fabricate desired identities, world-views and narratives.

Beyond the simple, typical use of things like filtered photography to present a preferred image of yourself online, we now see people misusing technology to the point that it distorts their own view of lived events. This ranges from viewing an entire live concert through one’s screen whilst video-recording (affecting appreciation and memory of the event), all the way to live-streaming a massacre on Facebook. What should be tools for connecting people end up becoming either banal habits or ways of publicly destroying people’s lives. As Nietzsche put it, we see ourselves as the inventors of events.

In a world that now requires a relentless stream of new content, producers and viewers now risk a distorted view of the world, opting for ‘an approximation of a tree’ rather than appreciating its entire composition. These mainstream, digital tools, as Nietzsche put so well, have now shown that really ‘one is much more of an artist than one knows’, fabricating and inventing narratives as one sees fit. We are now artists of our own existence. We use new technologies to exacerbate and perpetuate our worst behaviours.

My question is: how many people today are aware that they are fabricating their own world and how many have lost sight of it? The next time that you go to post something online or quickly skim through an article, stop to think about how your production and consumption habits are affecting your own (and others’) view of the entire tree. Look beyond the approximation.

Rumination 50: Will Email Ever Die?

A number of things have come up this year in my feeds that have discussed the history, value and disadvantages of email.

First of all, I watched the movie You’ve Got Mail for the first time. Yes, I know… I left it for a while after its release. This film presented the tool in a way with both caution and hope for the future.

Second, over the past few months, I’ve seen fellow Twitter users voicing their frustration about email and how their messages build up quickly, leading to anxiety in the workplace. How can they ever get through it all?

Third, on the matter of relentless promotional material in inboxes, the recent episode 257 of The Talk Show with John Gruber featured a discussion about how our email clients have become faux web browsers and a kind of ‘non-consensual technology’, which attracts various security risks and breaches. Spam and dodgy services are an unfortunate reality for just about everyone.

It’s the way that email as a communications technology has influenced our social lives and behaviour at work that interests me the most. In each of the roles that I’ve worked, I’ve seen people obsessively check their emails, worrying about losing track of the latest conversation or decision. I don’t think that email was ever intended to be used this way. It’s not really supposed to be a messaging platform for natural, turn-taking conversation. It’s literally what its name means: electronic mail.

Email is not the best tool for modern work and ongoing digital conversations. Instead, applications such as Slack, Yammer and Microsoft Teams offer better workspaces that enable you to communicate, share files and work on projects in a way that is more fluid than the reply-all method of shooting written messages everywhere. Even more casual apps like iMessage are more appropriate.

ABC News published a great article about how to approach your daily deluge of emails and what to do when you return from time away from the office. You should definitely take the time to read it, as each of the quoted contributors suggest strategies such as bulk-deleting unimportant emails that arrived whilst you were away and rewording your auto-reply to have more personality. There is also caution about the use of tools like Slack, which I mentioned above, as over-reliance on them can lead to similar problems or even a reduction in face-to-face communication between colleagues. I think that’s a fair argument, unless you work remotely all the time.

My own system is simple: if I’m at work and I’m writing something that is to be sent within the organisation, I will share it and attach any necessary files with a chat app, unless otherwise instructed. If it’s external or part of my personal life and there’s no other way to get in touch with someone reliably, then I will use email. If emails are important, then I keep them. If they’re not, then I delete them. When I’m on holiday, I remove my email account from my iPhone entirely, so that I’m not tempted to check it or accidentally stumble on something with the wrong tap of a button.

My biggest suggestion, however, regards the use of app-icon badges and lock-screen notifications. It’s also very simple: don’t use them. If you have your work email on your personal smartphone, do not enable such notifications for that account. If you must have some form of reminder or easy access, leave notifications enabled in your notification centre or equivalent pull-down pane, so that you can check them with intention.

So much of the anxiety in our daily lives comes from our devices flashing a number of useless things in our faces. If something is an emergency at work and someone needs to get in contact with you, they will send you a message in a chat app, flick a text or (dare I even suggest?) call you on the phone. Furthermore, if you’re at work, your email client is going to be open in front of you anyway.

Our smartphones and tablets are meant to be tools of creativity, productivity and daily empowerment, not vortices of distraction, depression and despair. Email will probably never die… but that is a good thing. Email offers us a way to receive the information that is important to us and get in touch with people around the world. It’s a kind of standard and just needs to be used moderately and appropriately.

If we choose to have email access on our portable devices, like the social networks that have taken over so many other aspects of our lives, then let’s be deliberate in the way that we use it.