Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
We bought bicycles.
We live in a world where it is so very easy to overcomplicate things. Technology has reached a point where complex machines are easy to fabricate, and we don’t give them a second thought. But machine complexity increases rapidly the more work they take away from us, and sometimes simpler is better.
I use the word machine here, of course, in the broad sense of a tool that consumes some form of energy to accomplish an action or goal. The advantages to simpler machines are that they are generally cheaper, I can usually make and repair them myself, and they often have a wider range of uses.
There are, of course, times when more complex machines are preferable or necessary. We have a hand-powered grain mill for grinding flour, but I installed an electric motor so that I could grind wheat while doing other things in the kitchen. The cost is minor, it was easy to set up, and I can always run it by hand if the power’s out.
But I keep finding instances where we create problems for ourselves. I’ve been noticing this a lot in the past year. The machines we invent to make our lives “easier” are imperfect and limited, and we then have to invent workarounds for all the edge cases. We have inventions to skirt the limitations of our other inventions.
For example, we have washing machines, but we can’t use them to wash all of our clothes—some must be dry cleaned, or treated special ways. We have clothes dryers, but can’t dry all of our clothes in them (and they’re not very efficient machines, either). If you’re not careful about looking at the tags, you can easily ruin garments by washing them the wrong way. Wait, I thought the machines were supposed to make it easier, to take away the guess work? Generally, both of these problems can be solved by hand-washing and hang-drying clothes. Sure, it’s a little more work, and we’re no longer used to doing things that way, but it’s also significantly cheaper and works 100% of the time.
As another example, we have refrigerators. Refrigeration is an interesting development in history. Before refrigeration, humans had brilliant—and brilliantly simple—methods for preserving food long-term without refrigeration. But now that we have refrigerators, we don’t “need” those methods anymore, and have essentially forgotten them. Pickles and sauerkraut are no longer fermented, and we have to store them in the fridge. Milk is pasteurized and eggs are washed, and both must be kept refrigerated. So now much of the food we buy requires a large, expensive, inefficient thermal conversion machine for storage, when previously we typically used the earth. Yes—root cellars stay around 55 ºF all year, and traditionally preserved foods will often keep for a year or longer at that temperature.
Now, I’m not saying you should ditch your washer and dryer, throw out the fridge, and move into the country so people don’t see your laundry hanging up, but I am saying you should think more critically about the machines you use, why you use them, and if they’re really worth it. Maybe they are worth it to you; maybe convenience is a high priority.
But as for me and mine, we’re trying to reduce the excess, the machines, the gadgets, the reliance on the Grid. Simplifying our life, oddly enough, means more work. But it’s work that I’m excited for. Work that is rewarding, work that sets a daily rhythm, work that we can teach our children to appreciate.
Remember: we create problems for ourselves. What problems do you have that you can solve by simplifying?