The KISS Principle. Why Dumb Devices are the Smart Choice.

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Recently I’ve begun to like ‘single function’ devices more and more. By single function I mean they have basically one and only one thing they do. They’re not encumbered by multiple features, menus and buttons. I really began to appreciate this recently when I purchased a fifty dollar iPod Shuffle. Now I do have an iPod Touch and have used this for music for several years. But I’ve found that all too often my music listening gets ‘interrupted’ by all the other things the iPod Touch can do. I find myself no longer just listening to music, but reading a web page, checking my email, or looking up lyrics on a lyric app. The iPod Touch has a lot of neat features, but it’s also SO distracting. I can’t enjoy music as much if I’m doing all these other things.

But the Shuffle is a different animal altogether. First of all, it’s about the size of a quarter. That should be your first clue to it’s intended use. It has a play/pause button in the middle surrounded by volume and previous/next buttons. Oh, a little knob on the top has a couple more options, but as far as music players go this is as simple and dumb as you can get- and I love it! Because there’s no screen I don’t even have to look at it to use it. I can hit play and change the volume while it’s still in my pocket. It’s a music player that takes all decision making out of enjoying your music. Just pick it up, hit the big play button, and you’re rocking. I’ve really come to appreciate how quick and easy listening to music has now become.

Another one of these single function devices that I’ve really come to like is the cheap $70 kindle reader. Now the newer Kindles like the Fire don’t fit this category, but the cheapest Kindle keeps it really simple. Again, it pretty much only has one function, namely storing and reading books. It has a black and white screen, and a really simple interface- basically scroll down a list till you find your book, select, and read. It can bring up a web browser and surf the net, but really, who uses it for that? It’s a single function device, and again it takes almost all the decision out it. Pick it up, select your book, and read. You really can’t be distracted by the device while you’re reading.

Now compare these devices to others that we’re familiar with, like computers, iPhones, iPads, smart televisions, etc. There are more but those come to mind immediately. I think we can all agree that these are definitely MULTI-function devices. I remember watching Steve Jobs introduce the original iPhone back in 2007. We were all amazed by everything it could do. It was a phone, a music player, and videos. You could check your email, organize your contact lists, and surf the internet, all from a device that could fit in your pocket. Everyone in the audience (myself included) was amazed by the simple, attractive design and that it could be operated with just your finger. Indeed, it’s hard not to be impressed by such a device, even today. My initial reaction to the iPhone was one of awe and wonder, but also suspicion. To me it was cool but also overwhelming to think all those functions could exist on a device I could put in my pocket and take with me. I feared such a device like that would most certainly take over my life. It would insert itself into the little corners of my life and I’d never get that space back. All that capability and power demands your attention, and it’s my attention that I don’t want to so easily give away.

In my efforts to simplify my life, reclaim the quietness of my own thoughts, and build margin into my day, I’m beginning to appreciate single function gadgets more and more.

Our world is becoming more and more complex and connected. We’re constantly barraged by information, advertisements, and choices. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to disconnect and get away from this stream of information. In my efforts to simplify my life, reclaim the quietness of my own thoughts, and build margin into my day, I’m beginning to appreciate single function gadgets more and more. For me, choosing dumb devices is the smart thing to do. Not that I can’t handle all the latest tech, but I appreciate things that let me decide less and enjoy more.

Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. A Comparative Look

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I just finished reading The Animated Man, A Life of Walt Disney by Michael Barrier. I’ve sort of been into biographies lately. A few months ago I read the Steve Jobs biography and now moved on to another man I’ve been interested in. I really quite enjoyed reading this biography about Walt Disney. I had looked into several biographies about him that I could’ve chosen from but ended up going with this one. The biggest difference between this one and the others is the amount of research that went into it (the hundreds of quotes and interviews), access to original Disney archives (which others apparently didn’t have), and the honest by hard look at who the man really was. Other biographers tend to write about his accomplishments in glowing and flowery terms. They focus too much on the ‘magic’ and not enough on the man. I wanted a good look at who he really was- his personality, what he believed in, and how we was able to build such a legacy.

I think I got what I was looking for. I’m impressed by certain qualities of Disney, like his vision and how he turned his hobbies into businesses, and not so impressed by others. Despite what Disney (the company) has become today, Walt Disney was really just a business man who had a real belief in a certain medium (namely animation), and had a drive to see it become mainstream. He was motivated more by personal interests (it’s what he enjoyed doing), and to make a successful business, rather than creating a “wonderful world”. I think that’s where some of the illusion was dispelled for me. It was more about what Walt wanted to do rather than people. Of course his films and parks are for people, but I think it was more of a means to an end rather than a sense of altruism.

The main thing that I’ll take away from this book, though, is just how similar Walt Disney and Steve Jobs were. Having just read the Steve Jobs biography several things rose to my attention as striking similarities. What’s amazing is that even though these two men lived and worked in completely different times and industries, each one possessed qualities that were similar to the other. In many cases it was almost like they were the same person! Here are a few of the similarities I noticed. They both had:

  • obsessive control of their product(s)
  • high attention to detail
  • an entrepreneurial spirit

Disney had obsessive control of everything he did. In the book it talked frequently about his need to have his hands in whatever project, film, or endeavor his company put out. If he didn’t have a hand in it, he simply wasn’t interested. He had to share in the contribution. One example: he wanted tight control over Disneyland in California, from how people would feel when they entered and roamed the park, to where and how they moved throughout it. He wanted to control peoples’ experience. Coincidentally, the original plan for EPCOT was to be a self-contained, autonomous city. He wanted to take what was successful at Disneyland (the order and structure) and apply it on a city scale. He believed in control.

Disney also had a high attention to detail. He noticed when things were out of place, a line was missing, or something just didn’t feel right. He knew what he wanted and anything else stood out like a sore thumb. He had a clear vision for what he wanted. He would tweak things until they were just right.

And lastly, Disney had an entrepreneurial spirit. In other words he was a businessman and had a real sense of how to make a business succeed. He loved his business and worked very hard at it. The book talked about how he would arrive earlier than even his brother Roy, work a full day, and then make rounds in the studio late at night looking at everybody’s drafts and things. He loved his work. He even took it home with him often discussing with his family ideas or gags. He read film scripts while on vacation. Of course oftentimes this leads to sacrificing other things in your life, namely family and personal relationships, but he was very driven to make his business succeed. He was a keen negotiator and knew that strong relationships with key people are how deals happen.

The book wasn’t about these points in particular, but these are the things that really stood out to me, especially as I thought about Disney in comparison to Steve Jobs. They were both creative visionaries and pioneers in their respective industries, and they transformed these industries in the process.

As a takeaway for the rest of us, maybe it’s a good thing to have vision. It’s good to believe in something and strive to make it happen. It’s okay to know what you want and work hard to see it happen. I think Walt Disney and Steve Jobs teach us that hard work, passion for what you’re doing, and a personal interest in seeing your dreams come to life can be very transforming; for yourself and for the world.

Be a Technology Rebel- Don’t Buy It!

I’m typing this post on an iPad. This is the first time I’ve done a blog post from an iPad and honestly I’m a little skeptical. It has little to do with the product itself, the iPad is a pretty neat device. My ambivalence is more for philosophical reasons. Maybe it’s because I don’t embrace change very well. New is not necessarily better. I’m a traditionalist at heart. Maybe it’s because I don’t like it when people tell me I need the latest and greatest techno product. Maybe it’s simply that I like to be a rebel and buck the trends.

I think a big part of it is that deep down I just don’t value technology in general. Of course I do value it to some extent. But to the degree that the culture at large values it I fall far short. So much of what is created these days is great and wonderful when it first comes out. It’s novel because it’s current. But I just don’t admire things that are fleeting. I admire things that stand the test of time. If it won’t be around 2, 5, 10 years from now I just don’t value it.

Technology is inherently selfish too. I’ve found that the more technical something is the harder it is to share. Look at ebooks. So you can download digital books. Great! But can I give the book to a friend. Well, maybe. But it’s hard. There are rules, restrictions and policies about that. Really?! If I buy something I don’t want to be told who and how I can give it to someone. This is the same reason I don’t buy music from iTunes. Technology makes it increasingly harder to be generous. Also with ebooks there’s a big restriction on who I can lend the book to- they have to have an ebook reader. Sorry, but that’s not good enough for me. I’m hesitant to buy things that put restrictions on how it can be shared. Life is too short to hog things for myself. I want to be a giver.

I think ultimately, though, my biggest beef with iPads and the like is that at the end of the day it’s just another distraction. I’m helping babysit four kids this week and I’m seeing that kids as well as adults share a common weakness- we all have have inherent weakness for screens. We get sucked in so easily. I’m really hesitant to get an iPad because I know it’ll be another distraction for me- something that commands my attention and makes me more selfish. If I think ahead about it I’m not sure I want that. Generally speaking the fewer screens I have in my life the less problematic this is. So if I can help it, if I have a choice, I’d like to reduce these distractions as much as possible.

I’ve put a lot of thought into it and this is how I view technology in general. I have my reservations and it’s not just to be a rebel. It troubles me to think that people don’t think things through before they add another gadget or technology to their life. We’re not just adding a new _________ (fill in the blank) to our life. We’re giving something up. Technology always fills the space of something that previously existed in our life. How often do we see it?

Empty Space, Creative Places

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Turning Off Your Smartphone: More Stress Or Less?

I had to read this article twice. Pretty much nailed it for me. Couldn’t have said it better myself so I’ll just quote the article:

When it comes to creating stress, smartphones are near the top of the list. Although these ubiquitous devices put the world at our fingertips, and seemingly free us from the shackles of the office, they also invade our lives and psyches.

This is something I’ve thought a lot about. I see the way that people are so wrapped up in their smartphones and online devices and it really concerns me. I think people are way too addicted to them. They demand our attention, interrupt relationships, consume our thoughts, and pretty much wipe out any free time we’d normally have if we’re not careful. They insert themselves into the empty spaces of our lives. But we need those empty spaces! In this fast-paced online always connected world, I often wonder if we’ve lost the margin in our lives. Do people even care about margin anymore?

I’m cognizant of how much time I spend in front of screens during the day, whether they be Tv, computer, iPod, etc. It’s really sneaky how it works. While I’m looking at a screen I’m getting fed information and stimulating my mind. I’m being told what to think, told what to believe, leaving little room to weigh my own feelings. No room for creative thought. This is the same reason why books are better than movies- one allows for imagination, the other doesn’t. Personally, I need time to reflect on things, put the pieces of my day and life together and make connections. Without it I feel lost at sea. Margin lets me build bridges in my mind. It’s how I make sense of the things around me. I think if we’re not careful we lose this margin, this breathing space, without knowing it. But if we’re careful we don’t have to!

I appreciate the author of the article suggesting we need predictable time off- time when we deliberately turn off our smart phones, unplug our internet, and turn off the Tv. I wonder how many of us are really able to do this? It’s a discipline for sure. And for those not used to it, it could be kind of boring, leaving a wide open empty space in their life. But I say it’s worth it! It’s worth trying. Those who are never able to disconnect and unplug have lost something. They’ve lost the ability to think, to wonder, to let the mind wander into new creative places. Have we lost the ability to daydream? Or have we been overtaken by Angry Birds or some other mindless video game? The people I admire the most are those who can say ‘no’ to these things- not just on principle but because they know that it’s in the empty spaces where some really wonderful things take place. That’s when we’re most thoughtful, and most creative. Let’s not lose the magic of margin in our lives. It might open up a whole new world for us.

A Tribute to Steve Jobs

The news of Steve Job’s death has been all over the internet. Even over here in Indonesia I’ve been able to follow the story quite a bit by reading all the articles and comments. It’s been nice to see all the tributes pouring in for him. No doubt he has influenced a lot of lives.

The news of his passing really kind of hit me like a blow to the gut. I knew he was sick, but definitely didn’t see that one coming. I guess his health, like everything else at Apple, he kept a closely guarded secret. It’s hard to put into words just how much subtle influence he has had on my life personally. I’ve been using Apple computers my whole life, and even when it was ‘uncool’ in the 90’s to be a Mac fan I stuck with them.

The first computer I ever used was an Apple IIe. It loaded 5 1/4 inch floppy disks, had a green bubble screen, and it honked at you when you made an error. I laugh about it now, but I have a lot of fond memories of our old Apple IIe. It’s amazing how things you experience as a child effect you and pave the way for your future. My exposure to a ‘personal computer’ at such a young age has shaped my life in profound ways.

One summer my dad brought home an Apple IIgs. I remember my brothers and I were blown away by the enhanced graphics and sound. We had a lot of fun playing the games. This was the first computer too that had a mouse. I remember being really confused about how to use it. It didn’t work very well when I tried to move the little ball with my finger. But then somebody pointed out that it rolls on top of the desk and it was a eureka moment. Brilliant!

In high school I saved up my money and bought my first Mac, a 233 Mhz G3 PowerPC Mac with a 17 inch CRT monitor. Boy was I proud of this purchase. I didn’t let anybody touch it! Games started to scream when I added a 4MB video card a few years later.

But it wasn’t very cool to be a Mac fan in the 90’s. Most people don’t realize this now but for most of Apple’s history they have been the underdog. They were always in Microsoft’s shadow. The classic “1984” commercial they put out during the Superbowl was just all too telling of Apple’s position against Big Brother IBM. It was a fight against mainstream computing. Everybody predicted Apple was doomed to go out of business when Windows95 came out. It copied the look and feel of MacOS and pretty much did all the same things. But Apple hung on.

Enter Steve Jobs. . . again. He really did save the company. A string of strategic decisions followed by awesome products put Apple back on the map. First the iMac. Then the iPod. MacOS X was years ahead of the competition. And building new Macs with Intel processors that could run both Windows and MacOS was brilliant. Way to go Steve. By the time they released the iPhone and iPad in 2007 and on they were already way out on top. I heard several months back that Apple surpassed Microsoft in stock value. In other words, Apple is bigger than Microsoft, their old nemesis. I just had to smile at that and call to mind all the nay sayers who predicted Apple’s demise. Finally, the little guy won. And just recently I heard that Apple had more money on hand than the US government and was the most valuable company in the world. Pretty incredible. I still find this all very hard to believe. Thanks Steve for the wonderful ride.

No doubt Steve Jobs will be remembered for the visionary he was. A guy who was relentless in seeing his dreams and vision come to fruition. Accepting no compromise. A perfectionist. I think he and I have a lot in common. I too want to live out my passions. I also want to change the world. It’s not about what we leave behind that matters though. It’s about who we can touch along the way. I think Steve Jobs knew this when he complimented Bill Gates one time for not wanting to be “the richest guy in the cemetery”. He understood that treasures and success don’t matter in the end.

When I think about Steve Jobs and all that he was able to accomplish, it’s hard not to admire him. But when I think about the long run, when I think about eternity, I have a very different outlook. Steve’s passing reminds us that our lives are so fleeting. One blink and it’s all over. What on earth are you doing for heaven’s sake?? Because in the end that’s all that really matters.