Freedom of choice and freedom from choice lay on a spectrum. And, in technology, it’s no coincidence that more choice tends to be messier and complex, less choice tends to be cleaner and simple. It’s a trade-off between what you choose and what you leave up to an expert.
My wife and I like to go out a few times a year on date nights to nice restaurants. These restaurants have tasting menus with wine pairings. This is dinner on cruise control, and we let the chef drive. It’s great when it works, because the chef makes expert choices.
Occasionally, it doesn’t work. There might be something we don’t like: Rabbit are pets, for instance. We’re not fans of seafood, though some menus have surprised us. We also have food allergies. Usually—though not always—we can ask for a substitution. Otherwise, we chalk it up to adventure.
But, overall, ordering from the tasting menu and trying the wine pairings makes date night simple with a side of novelty. It’s on the high end of freedom from choice. We choose to go out, and we choose the restaurant, but we leave the rest to experts.
Suds and swine
On the other end of things, I like to make homebrew—zymurgy, not software. There’s a spectrum of choice to be had here, too. But, even with a kit, the process is much more involved than just ordering a pint. I also have friends who are great cooks. When we all get together, it’s a party.
But, that party is about the food and drink, about sharing the process and the product. It’s not a simple date night: The choices are the focus as much as the participants. It’s a chance to show off and try new things, become experts ourselves.
Power and ease of use
Where am I going with this? Well, Dave Winer said this in a podcast:
In software, the tricky parts are where the power comes from, and the ease of use comes from where you limit the amount of options. The more limited the options, the easier it is, but the less powerful it is. It’s just an engineering tradeoff there. It’s like the tradeoff between heat and motion in physics.
The folks at Apple are masters of tasting menus and wine pairings when it comes to consumer electronics. You pick Apple because you don’t want to think about most of the choices. They have experts in various forms of design, and their products are elegant, beautiful, and generally work great together. It’s blindingly obvious from their bank balance that this is something people are more than happy to pay for.
Why? Because you have better things to do with your time than to futz with impedance mismatches and arcane interfaces. You know, like do the things for which you bought the gadgets in the first place (eg. work, play, communicate, etc).
On the other hand, you have something like the Linux ecosystem. Therein, many others have made choices for you. But, all the choices are still open to you—and many must be made by you. The result is kind of a mess at times, with little or no top-down unifying vision. But, the grit and the loose coupling between the parts are the stuff of freedom. Freedom of choice is dirty and complex, especially when lots of players are involved.
Choose not to decide, or DIY
Here’s the thing: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice—you’ve just chosen to let an expert make most of the choices for you.
What happens when disagree with some of those choices? If you’re lucky, you can ask for substitutions (or tweak some options). But, you might have to go to a different restaurant (ie. another manufacturer). If you’re really unlucky, you’ll find that you disagree with almost all of the restaurants and manufacturers. Sometimes, we just grin and bear it, because switching is too inconvenient.
And beyond switching, do-it-yourself is just plain hard. You can crawl up the spectrum toward greater freedom-of-choice—but that demands greater knowledge, skill, and attention. You have to discover the choices, make them, and then track what you’ve done. In fact, it rises to the level of a hobby at a certain point, and you spend as much time (or more) on the infrastructure as the things it’s there to support.
Sharpen the saw
Here, I guess, it’s a personal decision: How much time are you willing to spend on the devices through which you do your thinking? Because, that’s what computers, tablets, smartphones, and software are: They’re cognitive prosthetics, addons to your brain that expand your capabilities to think, remember, and communicate. How comfortable are you with the choices made by your chosen experts in shaping the patterns of your mind?
Me, I’ve been a hobbyist in this field since very shortly after I learned how to read. My take on the power / ease-of-use spectrum was best put by Doug Engelbart, who asked “Would you rather ride a tricycle or a bicycle to get across town?” I’d rather have the freedom to program and recombine (and crash and twist my ankle), than take on an extra stabilizing wheel or slow down.
But, even if you’re not willing to rise to the level of cognitive prosthetics hobbyist, think about sharpening the saw. Have you ever tried meditation? Written a journal? Taken training? Practiced a skill? Have you ever taken a critical look at the technology in your life and considered how it’s serving you and your mind? It’s all in the same category, to me. It’s an effort, and it takes time—but it’s self-investment.
Food for thought
In my head, earlier versions of this were more judgmental: Holy crap how can so many people be so passive about the technology in their lives?
Of course, it’s obvious: People don’t have time for this crap. You’re the weirdo who’s been doing it almost since birth.
Still, just like attention to diet and exercise (of which I need more, myself), I think intentional use of technology is crucial. Take stock of your choices and freedoms. Be mindful of where you are on the freedom-of / freedom-from spectrum.
Do your gadgets and services make you more free and capable in ways about which you care? Have you given up things you’d rather not have given up (eg. time, cost, privacy, flexibility, lock-in, reliability, longevity)? Do you trust what your chosen experts are doing for you, are they working for your interests?
Of course, in my personal life, it’s a hobby. And it’s my job. And I spend way more time on mindful technology than I should, versus mindful eating and living. Like I said, I need to work on that. But, hopefully, I’ve managed to lay out some ideas in this post about freedom, choice, and technology without coming off as a total angry nerd.