In Praise of Low-Fidelity

February 5, 2006

I believe in simplification. I strongly support technology and innovation, but I believe more strongly in choosing the best tool for any task. Simplicity can of course result from the application of technology but many times, the best tool happens to be the “low-fidelity” one. Expensive high-tech gadgets that promise to make you more efficient will probably do the opposite. Most of the time a notebook and pen will do. For example, those nifty special effects in PowerPoint that took an hour of tweaking only serve to detract your audience from your content in the end. On the other hand, my razor, my iPod, and my compact, lightweight titanium-frame umbrella, all very simple, elegant, and useful, were all possible only because of technology.

I think that technology has a tendency to overstimulate and overextend us, but I am by no means a Luddite. Innovation is essential, even if only to help us realize that some previous solution worked better. Word processors with lots of bells and whistles are great for certain tasks, but despite 40 years of advances in computer technology, the plain text file has survived. It is used for its own purposes, it constitutes the source code of complicated computer programs, and supports the publication of the most thought-provoking new books. Windows was a major catalyst to the computer revolution, but it’s complexity, bulkiness, and closed nature was in turn a catalyst to a Unix revolution in favor of openness, flexibility, and simplicity.

I believe that if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re wasting time, but if you push through the present without enjoying what you’ve done, there will be no time left to waste. This is where the low-fidelity approach is useful. There is a certain pleasure in listening to the radio instead of watching television, in writing a letter instead of an email, or in taking a walk instead of driving, and it helps keep you grounded in the present while keeping your mind clear for looking ahead. There are also possible efficiency gains. I can listen to NPR while driving or making breakfast, and I spare myself from an onslaught of advertisements in the process.

Thus, the low-fidelity approach is the selective application of the simplest, most efficient tool available, whether it involves the newest technology on the market or just some old-fashioned practicality.

I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.

William Shakespeare, Richard II