Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The simple life

It is not an uncommon sentiment that life used to be simpler. I suspect that a portion of the sentiment rests on a combination of some of the following factors: (a) a confusion between the simplicity of artifacts and the simplicity of life; (b) a confusion between the simplicity of individual life and the simplicity of the community's life (this might be a special case of (a), if the relevant aspects of the community's life count as artifacts); (c) a confusion between the simplicity of process and the simplicity of product; and (d) a certain lack of imagination.

Here is a two word refutation of the claim that life used to be simpler: "manual transmission". Granted, cars with automatic transmission are more complex, but that is a complexity of artifacts, not a complexity of life (see point (a)). Sure, having to fix a car with an automatic transmission is more complex, but the average person does not have to do that—one can delegate the task to an expert (see point (b)). Or let's go further back. Bows and arrows. Simple? Even sticking to a self-bow, how many of us have actually tried to make one (and don't forget how to make string), much less make a good one?

The average Western worker accomplishes tasks of significant complexity. But the processes by which these tasks are accomplished are often efficiently simplified (see points (b) and (c)). With a few mouse clicks, pages of text slide out of a printer.

One area, however, where it does seem like there is significantly more complexity is the area of law. The average person does need to fill out tax forms subject to laws of dizzying complexity; anybody who deals with various sorts of media runs up against complexities of copyright law; and anybody who has a business of their own has to abide by a myriad of rules. At the same time, it might turn out to be the case that the complexity of our formalized laws does not greatly exceed the informal complexity of custom in past societies.


Doug said...

Thanks for such an interesting post!

I wonder how many of us have actually tried to shoot an arrow from a bow. Even that's not an easy thing to do...

Vlastimil Vohánka said...


What about the philosophical life being formerly less difficult? Once I complained to a colleague that it sometimes seems impossible to establish some philosophical conclusion for myself or some other person. If I philosophize mainly because I desire for knowledge of clear answers to ultimate questions (as I really do), then no one will marvel at my being frustrated by aporetic results of the majority of contemporary philosophers (whether blogging, or not) when it comes to these questions. Nowadays, at most we can encounter a conclusion that "significant progress" has been made by this or that paper or book on our way to the answer to some ultimate question, whereas this claim is made by the author himself. But, it seems, the goal (i.e., the answer) is never reached. The author made the progress, but (almost) no one has enough persistence to pursue the answer.

My colleague answered that is was not so formerly, in some earlier times. The philosophical consensus about the premises fainted and our common sense is so distorted (or enlightened) that we are (or were made) philosophical and intellectual agnostics about almost everything. We have a very thin base to grab for firm conclusions. So, our philosophical life, in the given respect, does seem more difficult.