curiosity across disciplines

Phone lint and minimalism

Minimalism gets a bad rap these days. Granted, the minimalist aesthetic has been overdone in recent years. But, if we strip away the sex appeal of culture’s often-fleeting obsession with the spectacle of a thing instead of its substance, minimalism is unabashedly good and useful.

For instance, good designs are inherently minimalist, having precisely what’s needed and nothing more.

Minimalism helps sort out priorities, creating awareness of what we truly care about.

And, most relevant to the topic at hand, it helps uncover hidden externalities. But more on that in a minute.

First, Hofstadter’s Law:

“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.”

Hofstadter’s Law is a cheeky reference to the notion that estimating the time to complete complex endeavors is inherently difficult.

It was coined by Douglas Hofstadter in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach, and remains about as durable a rule as I’ve ever found.

I can’t confirm that Hofstadter specifically pegged the Law to the concept of externalities, but I find it the Occam’s-razor-est of explanations for why his observations were so prescient.

Externalities are usually discussed in economic or industrial contexts, but I contest that the concept applies more broadly.

Thomas Helbling's “prices do not capture all costs" is the most crystallized definition for externalities I've ever come across.

Originating from an IMF article, Helbling’s focus is certainly within the economic sphere, but his flawless definition extrapolates well beyond the humdrum world of yield curves and fiscal policy.

Helbling notes, among many other cited examples, that pollution is a negative externality paid for by the public. We have to deal with noxious air quality because oil and gas, for example, gets a less-than-optimally regulated pass[1].

Okay, but what does this have to do with Hofstadter? Or minimalism?

Hidden externalities are baked into Hofstadter’s Law. As complexity grows, it’s harder to identify and to account for them. This is true whether we’re talking about burning coal, writing a bloated blog post, or planning a construction project.

To wit, when’s the last time you heard of a major building or construction project that came out on time and under budget?

Yep. Hidden externalities ala Hofstadter’s Law at play.

These are all weighty topics abstracted from the everyday. Sure, you might get a brain tickle next time you’re stuck in traffic, now able to point to a more thorough explanation of why reality is the way it is[2]. Buuut, I’d argue that’s not terribly satisfying.

What is satisfying is removing phone lint! You know, really getting in there, using a bent paperclip to exhume all those nasty, impacted pocket contents from speaker holes and charging ports. Yum.

Like videos of popped pimples, or a professional detailer cleaning a filthy car interior to a spit shine, we have a collective fascination with gross things becoming less gross.

In addition to being so delectable, phone lint also happens to be an excellent example of an everyday externality. While shopping for a new phone, we don't compare the geometry of various phone cutouts to optimize for ease of future lint cleaning[3].

So while it’s technically not an externality in the purchase of the phone itself, it’s functionally an externality relative to the average phone-buyer’s process. And it’s one we don’t notice until our charger isn’t seating properly, or the connector for the audio aux cable[4] keeps cutting out. These minor annoyances are functional externalities that create missed alarms from an unexpectedly dead phone battery, or a cranky, tuneless commute.

For everyday thinking, we can further simplify externalities thus far as: net costs that exist outside our standard frame of reference.

Using phone lint as a goofy example in understanding externalities is neat. But, what do we do about externalities?

Circling all the way around, that’s where minimalism swaggers back in as one possible answer.

Incorporating a minimalist framework can help create awareness of this “more complexity always drives more externalities” thing.

The goal of any good minimalist is in keeping things as simple as possible, but no simpler. A minimalist lens dictates that we only add more stuff, change processes, or even remove things when there’s some net positive value to doing so. And that “net” positive, by definition, incorporates all those pesky externalities.

Like Hofstadter’s Law, using minimalism to better account for the hidden costs endemic to our daily and societal lives, is an inherently iterative project.

And iterating gets us asymptotically closer to a more accurate appraisal of our time, the costs, and to reality.

Thankfully, lint, like many externalities, is easy to deal with once we identify it's the culprit causing our janky signals.

  1. Get it, “pass gas”?! Yes, I’m 12. ↩︎

  2. Closely followed by prickly rage, because no rational explanation of the madness that is a traffic jam is sufficient to quench the inner demons. ↩︎

  3. All I can imagine is a fancy suited man with a twirly mustache and a monocle in a 1920's accent going, "Ah see here sonny, I had my eye on this dapper looking Nokia, but it's got a micro-usb! A micro-usb I tell ya! If I don't want to be spending ages keeping this thing from lookin' all rag-a-muffin, I'll have to settle for this iPhone with its speedy adapter instead! What phoney-baloney!" ↩︎

  4. Yes, I know. The real crime here is that my car doesn't have bluetooth. Yes yes. Does my life even have meaning? I get it. ↩︎