Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Magazine Simplicity

In the last few weeks I have spent many hours in airports…boredom interspersed with browsing through the magazines at the multitude of identical news stands. I had just returned from a sailing trip to the wilds of the Sonoran coast of the Sea of Cortez where I made a deliberate effort to not bring along any type of reading material, ensuring that I would truly enjoy the solitude and beauty of my surroundings.

The result: a whole day in the airport without anything decent to read. Which, as already mentioned, led me to the magazine racks. ‘Travel & Leisure’, ‘Dwell’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Architectural Digest’… I must have looked through half the magazines on their rack. By their very nature they are geared towards promoting consumerism, either through promoting the benefits of well-placed products or simply hosting the horde of glossy, full-color advertisements. Even ‘Yoga Journal’ and ‘Real Simple’ were clearly oriented towards getting you to buy something more.

Advertising is a funny thing. The qualities of a product are often quite apparent. You need flour to bake. Everyone knows that. How many advertisements for flour do you see? In fact, advertising in general doesn’t make much of an attempt to illustrate the features or qualities of a product—instead it tries to link that product to some kind of image, allure or mystique. Look at a watch advertisement: Tag Heuer, for example, doesn’t expound on the merits of its Swiss movement. Instead they try to associate their product with speed, or perhaps with “Tiger-Woods-ness”. Clothing advertisements rarely focus on the clothing at all—they try to create associations with beautiful people, places, etc.

This isn’t exactly a profound insight. What struck me, however, was that nearly all of these attempts to speed consumption relied on the eternal appeal of simplicity: a perfect afternoon meal (Bella Sera wines and Subzero Fridges), enjoying the sun with friends (Ralph Lauren), spending time with a lover (Eternity cologne), the value of a low-stress, peaceful life (Prana Yoga Clothing), etc. In each case, the consumption of the advertised product has very little to do with the emotion evoked. I have observed each of these qualities being enjoyed by people in “third world” countries who will probably never be able to afford the products advertised. Even in places where people can afford them, outside of the United States, people still retain some ability to grasp that it is not the product that provides the emotion. On the contrary, it is more the absence of a driving need for such products that frees us to pursue the actual emotional states, the experiences that we desire.

Which brings me back to my campaign for “Elegant Simplicity” and “Conspicuous Simplicity”. These are still vaguely defined concepts, but perhaps the example above will help to clarify: pare down what you want to what will actually bring it to you, look past the self-interested claims of consumer culture, and work towards the achievement of the simplicity that will ultimately prove fulfilling. Bella Sera wines and Sub Zero fridges don’t make a perfect afternoon meal. Look instead to “slow food”, quality, fresh, seasonal ingredients (a backyard fruit tree?), and most importantly contemplate the beauty of every bite and every flavor. ‘Prana’ brand yoga clothing won’t bring you peace of mind, but yoga might (it’s free, despite its overt commercialization), or something else as simple as a walk in the woods. Eternity brand cologne won’t make for a pleasant day with a lover, but conscious attention and simply taking the time out of a busy schedule will (a schedule that is probably busied with the drive to acquire and afford more consumables).

Elegant Simplicity is just that: reprioritizing your life, your patterns of action and interaction, around those things that will provide true fulfillment. See through the mirage of consumption and enjoy the pleasures of life that are free for all—if we will only take the time to seize them. Our genetic ontogeny has wired us to desire simple things: nature, friendship, love, community, food, firelight, festival, song and dance. These things are free, or nearly free, despite the machinations of our memetic-consumer society. Once we understand how things are organized, how things are controlled, and how we can break free of those controls through understanding, there is no reason that we should not all enjoy the high life of Elegant Simplicity.

2 comments:

Dan said...

I've read through your book and quite a few of your posts Jeff, but I've only just found all these posts on elegant & conspicuous technology. They are fantastic!

This isn’t exactly a profound insight. What struck me, however, was that nearly all of these attempts to speed consumption relied on the eternal appeal of simplicity: a perfect afternoon meal (Bella Sera wines and Subzero Fridges), enjoying the sun with friends (Ralph Lauren), spending time with a lover (Eternity cologne), the value of a low-stress, peaceful life (Prana Yoga Clothing), etc. In each case, the consumption of the advertised product has very little to do with the emotion evoked. I have observed each of these qualities being enjoyed by people in “third world” countries who will probably never be able to afford the products advertised. Even in places where people can afford them, outside of the United States, people still retain some ability to grasp that it is not the product that provides the emotion. On the contrary, it is more the absence of a driving need for such products that frees us to pursue the actual emotional states, the experiences that we desire.

I think it is profound. People are convinced they want things that only modern industrial societies can provide, but as you said, the appeal to all of these material goods is created through the appeal of simplicity. I also love your idea of making simplicity cool! I employ this a lot. I keep my life very simple compared to what others around me are doing, and it really attracts attention from others, and a desire to scale "down" (in terms of consumption) in their own lives. Simplicity is cool!

Anonymous said...

I love your posts, Jeff. They make me think a lot and rethink a lot, too.

Just one simple comment.

Is it simplicity to downgrade our way of life and offer this simplicity to our fat ego? Is not that making the ego more complex? Is not the growth of the adquisitive ego the root of the problem?

Just a tought,
Yope