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When Less is More is More Than Less

It’s amazing we are at a point where I will see half a dozen long form reviews of a two dollar application flood my RSS feed. Are we so desperate to save 1-5 dollars that we devote an hour to reading different perspectives on simple cheap apps? The web and the iOS app store have fueled the fire when it comes to this recent explosion of small, single use applications as well as our low expectations price wise. Now, don’t get me wrong, I admire products that can take one idea and make it shine. I love the simplicity of this approach but when is enough enough? How many different single use applications will I chew through before I am satisfied with one particular workflow or need?

As a photographer, audio engineer, and more recently, a writer, I find that there are a lot of useful tools available to me that aid me in these processes but this is  also where the waters start to get murky. I see blog after blog now chalking up minimalism as a bare bones, fundamental approach to living a tightly organized life and sometimes I feel it reaching near religious followings. Everyone wants their chance to show off how neatly organized they are, how they have discovered The best way to write a story, launch an application, or manage their time.

This is all well and good and I enjoy reading through different ideas and opinions but at what point is enough enough? When does minimalism start to become cluttered and excessive in itself?

Take writing for example, a task so basic and fundamental, in its essence it can be broken down to pen on paper or a stick in the sand. Yet here today we have a plethora of various writing applications because at some point in the past 15-20 years of modern technology we have managed to damage and greatly exaggerate the basic fundamentals of recording our thoughts and feelings into their written word. We have somehow sucked the romance out of it and turned it into nothing more than a means to reach an end.

Life and work have become so overly complex that there is now a sub genera of writing applications that strip out functionality in an effort to bring the focus back to writing. This is great and all and I myself use two such applications, but I am starting to wonder when we will realize that what we have is good enough. Why continue to spend countless time and energy (that we clearly realize is precious else all of this minimal talk sort of negates itself) researching new writing applications when you have one already that you are happy with? What on earth prompts you to think you need more than a keyboard and a few basic niceties to help organize, archive, and share the information?

I guess first off you have to ask, what constitutes happiness or contentment in a computer application that transcribes your thoughts. We construct our personal ideal in our mind and tell ourselves what features or lack of features we need to seamlessly get these thoughts out of our heads and onto the screen. So where do we get these ideals to begin with? Well, the way I see it, in today’s social media blitz of a world it’s peer pressure. No one is invulnerable to this. More than ever before I see people, including myself, fall prey to this most basic of social pressure. The web and tech has turned our minds, our needs, and our desires upside down and it’s gotten to a point where even something like writing has become a task easily influenced by the collective, ever shifting ideas of the people we follow online. It’s suddenly an urgent need to feel as though you are keeping ahead of the curve, staying relevant.

This means that, to a degree, our idea of contentment with an application is constructed of the things we let influence us. Now with a never resting movement of information this has grown increasingly difficult to keep up with and without realizing it we find ourselves thinking that there is always greener grass on the other side even if in reality we are perfectly happy with what we already have.

You end up coming across conundrums within the logic of finding a good app to suit your needs. If app X only had the ability to change the text size it would be perfect. If app Z would just let me pick my own typeface and adjust my kerning and leading I would really be able to get some good writing done. I like app Y a lot but it just has too many features to deal with… My point here is that at what point will we learn to satisfy this highly bizarre balance of both wanting so much more from so much less? When did we get so spoiled that we are left never feeling satisfied enough not to poke holes in everything. It’s depressing.

How many different conduits do we need to accommodate our writing needs? How many more ways do we need to sync data to feel as though we have control over it from every location possible? How many articles about being minimal do we need to read before we feel as though we have a natural understanding of our own needs? How much more do we really need to feel happy with less? I feel the answers to these questions in some ways speak volumes not only of our computing habits but the way in which we live our lives.

The same types of questions are brought forward within any number of other fields, most notable for me of course is photography. It’s almost painful to watch the speed at which trends come and go as various applications and techniques go through their month long cycle of interestingness. It seems everyone is out to discover the next best photo application or way to manipulate digital photos to look more analogue, a contradiction that will never really make any sense no matter how you look at it. When you break down what you really need as far as post editing tools are concerned (from a classic photographer’s standpoint)  you really only need iPhoto, or perhaps Aperture or Lightroom if you want to get more serious and shoot RAW which I always suggest you do if there is the option. Simplicity in post processing is key to developing your skills as a photographer. No matter how good you may think you are at something the only true path to honestly calling yourself a professional is time, patience, and an unwavering knowledge and precision within your craft. It doesn’t matter how many toys you have around to manipulate your images. Don’t play victim to current trends if you are trying to make your way as an artist. This is where these sorts of social pressures not only clutter and contradict the fundamentals of living an organized, minimal life but can also end up stunting your growth as a master of your passion.

Something else to be taken into consideration when debating the need for yet another app to try and fulfill our bottomless expectations are the various app stores out there and the dawn of pushing technically incomplete software into the market as the norm. While in some cases you get a product that grows in healthy ways with user feedback this has also turned software development into a rat race to push out new ideas first resulting in one too many half finished pieces of software. Since when was it ok to state, “as long as they add feature X in the future like they say they will this app will be the best ever!” in a review? This practice has thrown our expectations into a tail spin of disappointment and confusion leaving us constantly in search of what’s next before what we have is even truly fully realized. To me, that’s a maddening prospect.

To bring this back around to my original point, I am simply starting to find it daunting to read through endless reviews rambling about every negative nuance possible within a product which ends up reinforcing our driving need for more. Nothing is ever good enough anymore, even positive reviews seem to find the need to look for what is NOT there. This causes waves of developers scrambling to make new software to fill gaps that only ever existed because of newly imagined holes in our needs to begin with. If you are honestly trying to devote yourself to a minimal approach to computing and living, its amazing how simple this task really is and it astonishes me how much effort some people seem to go through in order to emulate the sometimes utopian standards projected to us online. Whats the big secret? Knowing yourself well enough to be honest with your own needs and learning to be your own you. It’s fine to keep up with the latest and greatest but you can’t let it define you. Age old advice but true now more than ever.

I find myself enjoying writing articles like this here on FFS because my mind is often running wild with curiosity and wonder as I read through the statements being made by fellow writers online and I can not help but want to jump in with observations from more of an aerial view. I find countless parallels between every creative field out there from writing, to music, to photography. I am interested in continuing to explore these observations from varying points of view through reviews, photographs, and simple observations like those mentioned here today. In the future you can expect not only a continuing source for photography and focus on that field (and of course plenty wallpaper imagery) but also growing observations on life in a world more and more dominated by technology. Speaking of which the often spoken of changes to the sites design and features are still very much underway! Just hit a few snags in the coding process of the new design, thanks again for being patient as I work towards building fiftyfootshadows into something even better.

Update: I have written a few more thoughts after a provoking comment left after publishing the article. I have pasted the comment and written a response after the ‘Read More’ link below.

I’m kind of conflicted over this essay.

Maybe I have missed the point slightly or taken it personally so please respond accordingly.

At the moment on my blog, more as an exercise to help me become a better writer, I write reviews of iOS software relevant to my own interests and because nobody else is doing what I am doing.

The software I write about is related to portfolio software; making comparisons to print boxes of old and to see how far the iPad can go to replace traditional portfolios, admittedly, some of apps are of the price you describe or more. I’ve written about 11 pieces of software that do the same thing.

In the reviews I do state in some ways where I think they can be improved, I wrote one this week about Minimal Folio. A piece of software different in style to all the others because it relies on a focused feature set. But my opinion of it was it could be improved in very small ways.

http://jonathanjk.com/2011/04/28/app-review-minimal-folio-version-1-08/

I wouldn’t say I won’t buy it or get lost in thinking I can’t work productively unless it had features x,y and z. One example was I suggested Flickr support would be a better option than Dropbox because images on Flickr are most likely already organised in a way that was less complicated than with Dropbox. But it isn’t that big of a deal.

But if I do see something which I think needs to be improved, aren’t I learning how to be critical in a constructive way as well? Isn’t this important, it is to me.

Reading your article has made me feel guilty but conflicted. Why shouldn’t I ask for another feature that I genuinely think will help make life easier, especially if people have already bought it. Second to that, what is wrong with self-improvement, the article seems to stray into that territory for me a little but I do understand that we need to de-emphasise the tool. I recently sold all my pro Canon camera gear and lenses and I’m swapping it for a Fuji X100 simply to make life easier and not be bogged down.

But I’m still uneasy about this essay. Thoughts?

Jonathan,

Thanks so much for the comment. This is why I have them available here on the site unlike many of my fellow bloggers jumping on the recent no comments trend. I write things like this, to spark imaginations, spur conversation, or simply question what we need versus what we want versus what we have. The statements above are questions to raise awareness of the idea that at some point maybe we don’t really need an app to be perfect to be great. Of course there are dozens of variables in this discussion I did not even dip into above.

You make a good point here in that the whole idea of stripping down an app’s feature set in an attempt to make our lives easier sometimes can in turn add steps in reaching the end goal (depending on our varying workflows). Sort of a strange contradiction within the ideals of wanting to accomplish more with a simplified set of tools. It fascinates me to consider these implications and I often wonder what kind of product could be created, perfected, and left alone as it is with no further need for updates outside of making sure it continues to function with new versions of the OS as it evolves. I know of a few applications which have not been updated outside of service or bug updates and they continue to function flawlessly without need for any more or less. But it takes a keen balance and understanding of it’s users and it’s intended functionality to pull this off.

Something such as minimal folio, an app I use as well and enjoy using, I feel is not flawless either but I do very much love to use it and greatly prefer it to other options on the iOS app store because it is not bogged down by anything elaborate or unnecessary. I totally understand your desire to link up with a service such as flickr and I could see that being beneficial to them to add but on the other hand it could create a whole new host of problems to overcome within it’s functionality that they are not able to accommodate easily.

It’s also important to remember that a request such as adding flickr support does not simply end with flickr. If they were to add support for flickr and gain a reputation for that they could either make a point to be exclusive to that service or face many other new support and feature requests to add other services as well which may or may not be a bad thing depending on who’s shoes your are standing in. For my uses I prefer drop box support greatly over flickr simply because I am able to compile my image sets based on any of my images not only the few select ones I end up sharing over on flickr but i can recognize the appeal. Adding flickr support could lead to something like I spoke of in the article here, the invention of new needs where users start to find new reasons to think that something is missing when in fact they already have something that functions perfectly well as it is. This, of course, is not the most solid ground to stand on as far as my logic goes but I feel it’s still a valid point. This takes me back to my point about apps being shipped unfinished rather than fully realizing and polishing an app before releasing it. I realize these ideas are a bit utopian in reality which is why they are more grounds for conversation and raising awareness than me trying to lay down a law.

At ay rate, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed your review of minimal folio, It was quite thorough and would be a great resource for anyone in the market for a great app for such a need. When I wrote the first couple of sentences of my article I was not intending for it to be an attack on reviewers so much as a reaction to the use of my own personal time. I write these sorts of posts most often as a reaction to a cynical remark or over zealous review and I realize that they can, at times, be read in a lot of different ways by different people which, to be honest, is also pretty fascinating to me. I will admit that I try to fit a bit too many observations into a post  sometimes so articles like this end up meaning different things to different people depending on which sentences and observations they choose to read into.

It’s hard to accommodate everyone all the time, I just wanted to call attention to the concept of learning ones needs based on their honest perception and understanding of what would function well for them personally rather than letting too many outside influences dictate their taste. This wasn’t meant as a post professing my undying love for minimalism, it was meant to act as a critical look at the idea, that even within wanting less, we sometimes get carried away.

I think I have said enough for now, I hope this clears things up a little at least, I did my best to explain my motives. I am more distracted this week than last week when I wrote the original article so I hope I am writing clearly enough. Feel free to use the comments as a space to elaborate more on these ideas if you would like.

(Also, I love your camera choice, it’s a bold move and I totally respect that. I often daydream of simplifying everything I shoot with down to my Hasselblad and a Leica M6 or M7. Hope You have been enjoying the X100!)

Comments

  1. Jesse Koepke - April 28, 2011 at 5:29 am

    You’ve hit on an issue about which I’ve lately been thinking a lot. I’ve gotten into a habit of constantly looking for the next best writing app that will make writing effortless, and spending all of my time reading the latest “5 Steps to Easy Writing”.

    The thing is, creative work is not easy. Like you said, it takes “time, patience, and an unwavering knowledge and precision within your craft” to be an artist. I need to accept the fact that creativity takes work, most times hard work, and after finding a workflow that fits me, I need to simply sit down and write.

    Thanks for summing up my thoughts for me.

  2. Sayz Lim - April 28, 2011 at 11:03 am

    “Knowing yourself well enough to be honest with your own needs and learning to be your own you.”

    This is the essence of all the articles about being minimalist. TextEdit all the way.

  3. Jorge Martinez - April 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Great writers actually write down on regular notebooks and napkins. Some of the most powerful truths in the world were written on the sand.

    That being said, I think your hit the point.
    Please wath Penn & Teller show “Bullshit”, the episode on “The Best”. They refer to our compulsive search for the “best” when just a few things are enough to make us happy.

    Thanks for your post!

  4. Chris - April 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Pretty sure, “arial view” is a typo, but given the context, it is amazingly accurate.

  5. Jesse - April 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm

    Bravo – found this via a link on mnml and have to say it’s great to see my own thoughts expressed so eloquently. I have just recently taken up writing as a serious pursuit and had started down the long road you’re talking about when my trusty OLD macbook kicked up it’s little legs and died on me. So now I’m either tethered to a borrowed iMac, or ***gasp*** I write in my notebook. It’s been so enlightening that I’m going to find a nicer pen that doesn’t make my hand cramp and take to writing this way daily. Then if there’s something I want to post, I can transcribe it directly into the WP editor and get it posted. No need for 3 different apps or anything…

    Thanks and I’m looking forward to more of these sort of posts now that I’m subscribing!

  6. Surat Lozowick - April 28, 2011 at 6:42 pm

    I agree completely. I recently wrote a short post with some similar ideas, about how better tools don’t make better writing:
    http://blog.suratlozowick.com/post/4555715895/writing-tools
    It’s encouraging to see the same ideas here, and better expressed :)!

  7. Lisa Waldman - April 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    Beautifully put and I completely agree. Writing with a trusty pen on paper is such a simple and easy way to go. When using a computer, as Jesse wrote above, you can lose your stories if it dies or you forget to save. Handwriting, if it is legible, is really an art form by itself and cannot be shown using the computer.
    That being said, I found this great website called Readability (https://www.readability.com) that takes all the extra “stuff” on web pages and gets rid of it. After clicking it in your bookmarks (assuming you have a Mac), all you are left with is the font itself. It’s great and perfect if you like minimal/get distracted easily.
    I thought that kind of fit with the subject at hand, sorry if not.

  8. carlos cabezas - April 29, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Thanks J, You are an amazing writer. I will like to see more of this, if you please.

  9. Neil - April 29, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Great post, very interesting.

    The pencil and paper is the most sophisticated writing and design system ever nothing can compete with it as my old computer science lecturer once said. Upgrade to the system would probably be a rubber on the end of the pencil!

  10. JonathanJK - April 29, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    I’m kind of conflicted over this essay.

    Maybe I have missed the point slightly or taken it personally so please respond accordingly.

    At the moment on my blog, more as an exercise to help me become a better writer, I write reviews of iOS software relevant to my own interests and because nobody else is doing what I am doing.

    The software I write about is related to portfolio software; making comparisons to print boxes of old and to see how far the iPad can go to replace traditional portfolios, admittedly, some of apps are of the price you describe or more. I’ve written about 11 pieces of software that do the same thing.

    In the reviews I do state in some ways where I think they can be improved, I wrote one this week about Minimal Folio. A piece of software different in style to all the others because it relies on a focused feature set. But my opinion of it was it could be improved in very small ways.

    http://jonathanjk.com/2011/04/28/app-review-minimal-folio-version-1-08/

    I wouldn’t say I won’t buy it or get lost in thinking I can’t work productively unless it had features x,y and z. One example was I suggested Flickr support would be a better option than Dropbox because images on Flickr are most likely already organised in a way that was less complicated than with Dropbox. But it isn’t that big of a deal.

    But if I do see something which I think needs to be improved, aren’t I learning how to be critical in a constructive way as well? Isn’t this important, it is to me.

    Reading your article has made me feel guilty but conflicted. Why shouldn’t I ask for another feature that I genuinely think will help make life easier, especially if people have already bought it. Second to that, what is wrong with self-improvement, the article seems to stray into that territory for me a little but I do understand that we need to de-emphasise the tool. I recently sold all my pro Canon camera gear and lenses and I’m swapping it for a Fuji X100 simply to make life easier and not be bogged down.

    But I’m still uneasy about this essay. Thoughts?

  11. George - May 1, 2011 at 9:04 pm

    Great read, cheers. I love this site.

  12. In praise of uncertainty : tom mclaughlan - May 2, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    […] asks John Carey in an insightful essay about the growing prevalence for mouse dissection amongst bloggers – the tendency to review […]

  13. Dave - May 4, 2011 at 8:49 am

    We miss you! Thanks for the read. Can’t wait for you to give us some new stuff to feist our eyes on.

  14. JonathanJK - May 7, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Thanks for the response, good clarification on my issues raised.

  15. The fallacy of the "right" tool | Surat Says - June 3, 2011 at 3:03 am

    […] words were inspired by a lengthy piece by John Carey, which talks, in part, about how the act of writing has been adulterated: [Writing is] a task so […]

  16. Three Legged Squirrel - June 15, 2011 at 9:52 am

    We squirrels have a thing for nuts. Humans have a thing for things. The question you are posing is fundamentally a spiritual question. The Buddhist say that all suffering is born of desire. The quest for the ‘perfect’ app is just the many ways this desire manifests every day in our lives. There is emptiness at the centre of things. Humans are do everything they can to fill it. But the emptiness is natural and so the desire to fill it is unfulfilled and never ending. Just how many kitchen appliances does one kitchen need? Do humans really need a more advanced toothbrush? How many ‘revolutionary’ new technologies will be released next year? As long as there is want, there will be greed looking to exploit for profit. You may enjoy my musings at http://threeleggedsquirrel.tumblr.com/, in particular the entry titled: There is No Other Side.

  17. The contradiction of digital/technological minimalism – Surat Says - November 3, 2011 at 5:45 am

    […] should be a minimal affair. All it takes is something to write with: paper and pencil, or a stick in the sand. Yet programs like Word make it much more complicated. So minimal writing apps exist that try to […]

  18. patrickrhone / journal » Blog Archive » When Less is More is More Than Less : fiftyfootshadows.net - January 28, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    […] When Less is More is More Than Less : fiftyfootshadows.net […]

  19. Fujifilm - May 6, 2014 at 1:44 am

    Sollte ich lieber eine Olympus Kamera kaufen, oder keine Marken Kamera?

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