I've found the greatness of simplicity in my battle with the internet. I'm a college student studying Data Science, and I've lived the last several years as a daily internet user. It's so easy to sacrifice hours of time and attention to articles or Youtube videos that are "interesting" or "entertaining", but did not help me live a life of simple quality and directed purpose. This clicked for me (hehe) when I realized that there existed more internet content that I would love than hours in my life to consume it. Therefore, I couldn't quest after greater and greater knowledge. I could only reduce.

Now I've set up a system of browser extensions that block most distracting sites and make focus and simplicity much easier. I often miss the internet culture that I've left behind, but then I remind myself that I'm on the path to something more fulfilling.

Interestingly enough, many of my university peers have also taken up this quest. It didn't take any convincing from me. They realized the beauty of simplicity by independently reflecting on their own actions.

I think one reason for this desire is the memories of an internet-free childhood. I didn't get a smartphone until I was 16, so I remember the deliciousness of thoughts and actions that weren't directed by algorithm. I only hope that the younger generation (i.e. iPad babies) had enough of real-life childhood to eventually yearn for something other than the internet as well.

Expand full comment

Dylan you give me hope. I've had my kids, we homeschooled them and find myself deeply concerned for your age and those coming behind you. We can't put this genie back in the bottle but just maybe people will - feel the energy lost in the digital exchange. We do not get back the energy we put into a digital exchange. A person living simply, can feel that.

Thanks again!

Expand full comment

Cal Newport (Deep Work) and Knapp and Zeratsky(Make Time) are on the same track as you. Me too. I think it's a good track to be on.

Expand full comment

Magnificent. Thank you for posting. In the background of this essay, unstated and implicit, stands a tall figure: the notion that what most matters about our lives is the kind of person we become, what was once called our "character." The wonderful sentence about "public opinion [being] a conscience owned by a syndicate" tips a hat to the idea.

It's interesting and unfortunate that this sensibility - that our character is a worthy object of concern and attention - seems odd to the modern ear. But really the idea stands outside of time and talks to every generation. "Simplicity" - with its quaint or archaic overtones - still awakens the conscience. I will be watching myself a bit more closely today.

Expand full comment

Can't resist sharing this from the opening chapter of William George Jordan's book (URL above). Who writes like this any more? And yet, how great still:

"Any man may attain self-control if he only will. He must not expect to gain it save by long continued payment of price, in small progressive expenditures of energy. Nature is a thorough believer in the installment plan in her relations with the individual. No man is so poor that he cannot begin to pay for what he wants, and every small, individual payment that he makes, Nature stores and accumulates for him as a reserve fund in his hour of need."

Expand full comment

Aristotle put it best: "happiness is a life lived in the cultivation of personal virtue."

I'm actually mildly optimistic that the young could find their way back to sanity based on Aristotle's teaching. Hedonism is empty in the end. He who dies with the most toys (or having the most sex or becoming the biggest glutton)... still dies.

Expand full comment

The Stoic philosophers have been extremely useful to me in this regard. There is something about their ability to articulate a vision of the honorable life inside the tragic frame of our limited lives. I’ve read a lot of things that have moved or fascinated me, but the Stoics have reached into my days and rerouted the path. It’s been amazing and unexpected. Also, interestingly, so simple that I feel almost shy in explaining to people I speak with about the difference it has made.

Expand full comment

Chris, if you don't mind saying, I'm really curious how old are you or at least what "generation" you're part of. As I said, I believe that even though the young have turned away from Christianity, the hole in the hearts (and the meaning in their lives) has to be filled by something, and I'd prefer it be something constructive like Aristotle or the Stoics instead of radical identity politics.

Expand full comment

I turned 60 last week. I was an evangelical Christian for a short period of my life (late teens, early twenties), but the misery of living every day in the gap between the Christian call to pure service and my own timidity and self-concern were too much for me. You might say I was called but not chosen. I moved on after that to something like a gnostic (?) belief in the power of service, self-creation and declaration. It took me decades to learn that a person who hasn't dealt with his own character flaws - or at least who hasn't faced them with resolution and seriousness - with "fear and trembling" - isn't all that much use to the people around him. My youngest son introduced me to Jordan Peterson about six years ago, and I started to listen to his lectures on the Bible. Peterson completely reconfigured my orientation to faith and truth and, ultimately, the question of character and - in a sense both secular and theological - my own salvation. I could write chapters on that reorientation but to address the concern in your question above let me just say that Peterson seems to me to be pointing the way for our rising generation. He grasps that the young (and pretty much all of the rest of us - lol) are constitutionally driven to live meaningful lives. Identity politics, as you point out above, answers that call. I think that the antidote to the soul negating program on offer from identity politics is something that demands actual personal sacrifice. Though it hardly needs saying, fearfully and enthusiastically agreeing with your identity politics "friends" while they fearfully and enthusiastically agree with you is not personal sacrifice. I think young people feel this at some level, but the culture in which they and we live does not contain much in the way of an inspiring moral vision. I suppose it is the job of the older generations to make that case, and to keep the lights on for one more generation. The young, soon enough, will be us.

Expand full comment

Wow. Thank you. I'm an evangelical Protestant myself, and younger than you it turns out (just 50). You have summarized the ancients' view of "wisdom" here perfectly, which I guess makes you a philosopher (one who loves wisdom). If you have never investigated the Eastern Orthodox Church, you might find something there that speaks to you, something able to forge your Christian roots and your stoic philosophy into a single whole. If you ever get a chance, attend a Divine Liturgy.

Expand full comment

Thank you for the recommendation. I have friend who is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. I will make arrangements.

Expand full comment

beautifully stated.

Expand full comment
Oct 27, 2023·edited Oct 27, 2023

It's incredible how true these words become as one leaves his 20s, enters his 30s, and approaches his 40s. I have been thinking about these things, especially the joy of moderation, so often lately! But this says it so much better than I could, especially the fight that goes on with oneself as we try to judge or experience and mature. It's exactly what I was in need of hearing. Also, it reminds me of some of the works by Napoleon Hill. Thank you.

Expand full comment

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, follow along with things the way they are, and make no room for personal views—then the world will be governed.” Chuang Tzu

Expand full comment

Love this.

Today I reflected on my long career in Information technology and the subject of change. I started my Information Technology career in 1980 when computers were room-sized machines connected to washing machine-sized disk drives. For the next three decades I would have technical changed forced upon me every day.

My exposure to all this constant technical change provided me a fantastic learning environment to understand the human side of change. And all of this has led me to a theory that explains why we all feel like the world is coming apart at the seams.

The human animal both seeks change in always wanting something more, but is also generally change-averse in defense of what it already has. I dealt with this my entire career, and am still dealing with it even in the two companies I am the top boss of. Getting people to change is damn hard... especially when it looks to them like the change will not get them more.

People need time to ingest change and make it their new normal. There are nuances of impacts that are impossible to completely inventory, and thus there is this period with initial change where it is like the sediment in a pond gets stirred up and needs to settle again. If another change is pushed before the previous settles, then change anxiety happens.

I think what we are seeing today is too-rapid of change. People don't have enough time to incorporate it all, and the sediment is constantly stirred up. It is change anxiety to the max... and it feels like chaos is happening all around us. Some of this is just technical change, but much of it is cultural, social, language, political, etc. change that is enabled by the technical change. Change is frankly being shoved down our throats for the benefit of a few and the expense of many.

I certainly don't want to go back to washing machine-sized hard drives with 5MB storage capacity... but my work life at these companies was epic and I count many of my coworkers as very good friends today (those of us that are still kicking). Frankly, it was a bit like The Office. Working from home was pushed on us, and now employees will not have that that opportunity to forge similar long-term friendships with coworkers that they don't spend enough face time with. These employees are demonstrating greater diagnosis of loneliness and anxiety even though they demand a work-from-home arrangement.

Because of my history of having to adopt constant change, I never thought I would be one to advocate slowing down the pursuit of "progress". "Progressive" is a negative word for me now as I see it as a reckless pursuit of change that leaves a trail of human conflict in its wake.

I think we should just slow the eff down... and get back to a feeling of normal before the next big change is attempted.

I think this essay on simplicity can also be looked at through the "too much change" prism. Simplicity is often just another label for familiarity.

But, please... keep increasing the storage capacity of my thumb drives!

Expand full comment

My first great influence was Henry David Thoreau’s on Walden Pond. Same thing and I think l was very lucky.

Expand full comment

Complexity is the hallmark of technical competence ... simplicity of genius.

Expand full comment

New to the community - have been reading N S Lyons for a while.... This was the article that finally converted me! 😀

What writing! In 1905! So relevant even today. Goes to show distractions will change form over the generations - what will never change is one’s ‘sole proprietorship of one’s conscience’!!

What a beautiful way to start my Saturday. Thank you N S Lyons.

Expand full comment

Leave it to a rhetorician to write about simplicity :)

Expand full comment

Some more thoughts.

Business guru Peter Drucker had advocated that all large corporations hire a Chief Destruction Officer that would report to the CEO. The basis for this absurd idea was related to the principle of bureaucratic bloat... the tendency for people in power, once they achieve it, to shift to defense and build complexity around them to make them seem more indispensable. The complexity is like barnacles on a ship... slowing it down over time... making it less efficient. Either the ship would need to be taken out of the water periodically to clean (re-engineered) or there would be an officer responsible for constant cleaning to maintain efficiency.

Think about mastery. After devoting your 10,000 hours to something and mastering that something, you then leverage your skills to a position of success and social hierarchy. As a master you can handle some added complexity.... and it serves to further define you as a master while also making it more difficult for competition from upstarts. You have a natural conflict of interest accepting any return to simplicity.

My customers for new systems would say it had to be simple and cheap. I would tell them that systems that are simple tend to cost the most to develop. Complexity, is often just the result of laziness and poor effort in design.

I think that is the a bit of a problem with this advocacy for simplicity is that many will take it as remaining cheap and lazy. We see that in youth today that are seeming to rebel against the stress of complex modern life by taking a no-work or low-work attitude. That is the exact wrong perspective IMO. The advocacy should be to work harder and smarter to achieve more simple and elegant systems that make overall life more simple. But that also requires getting good at getting rid of tasks, actions and behaviors that only support complexity.

Expand full comment

That was exquisite. Thank you.

Expand full comment

I quite literally discovered the value of the virtues discussed herein in my own life within the last year, through the long and winding roundabout of Camus and Absurdism, but still!

Thank you for sharing this. It is much appreciated.

Expand full comment

Thank you!

Expand full comment

The points brought up in this essay provide potent support for the argument that "unpiloted autonomous vehicles" will never play a significant role on public highways. To bring up only one objection, fully autonomous vehicle traffic is the equivalent of centralized Command Economy. It's inherently fragile. When a centralized interactive system breaks down, it REALLY breaks down. The digital hardheads will most likely have to learn that lesson the hard way, but it should be apparent to even the most obdurate of them before long, while the project is still in a relatively preliminary stage.

It's one thing when centralized systems failure happens to the TV screen in your living room. The negative consequences are potentially much more profound when the crafters of the ephemeral realm of the digital screen- which hasn't gained a bit of real-world solidity since the era of Pong- confuse the screen's flickering image and precisely instructed modeling capacity with the abilities required to adapt to dynamic systems, microshifts of time and terrain (both human and physical), and the gravity-bound impacts of material realm processes.

In the real world, stuff falls over. Sometimes it breaks, or gets broken. Phenomena don't play by the book all of the time; they deviate often enough to require a very particular and immediate form of focused awareness in order to reliably anticipate Trouble, prevent it, or ameliorate it. That's what road conditions can be like: just plain generic, undifferentiated Trouble, out of nowhere, no guide book to handle it. But notwithstanding that ever-present possibility of the ingress of unpredictability--and the occasional requirement for crafting a response on the spot--some aspects of the material realm of human experience consist of undeviating constraints that can be counted on. They take the form of laws that enforce themselves. Serious impacts hurt and damage. Sometimes they maim and kill. For all of strength of evidence for modelable "game theory" aspects of human behavior, the human being game itself has no resets. Human beings have an intuitive sense of that fact, and it has a wonderful way of concentrating focus. Whereas machines just do what they're told.

More mundanely: to consider the professional small-vehicle human transportation game, someone has to load and unload the luggage for the passengers. Or are the savants of Silicon Valley planning to invent robots to ride inside the UAVs, to take care of those tasks? And how will they be with attentively using umbrellas, or lugging a drunk to their doorway? Especially if the drunk in question has forgotten their own address...and that reminds me of other occasional concerns, like how to keep the vehicle clean, and, uh, sanitary, over the course of an evening. Every evening.

Expand full comment

Former federal employee here.. it used to be that occasionally one party or another would seek to simplify and coordinate government programs. For example, Al Gore had such a program. Now any streamlining if done by Republicans would be treated as “against government employees” and the D’s don’t seem to care much. I wish we had a Good Governance party that would focus for two terms on streamlining, simplifying and coordinating existing programs. Congress folk and Admins like to start new programs and take credit.. but no one seems to look at whether they actually work as designed nor if they could be combined or simplified. So much so that it falls on individuals and communities of varying capacity to negotiate the jungle of options and requirements for programs that are designed to help them... sigh. Well that’s my riff on simplicity.

Expand full comment

In my estimation, one of the practical problems is that effective streamlining can't be done without a radical overhaul. A moderate radical overhaul is what I recommend- see my suggestions at the bottom of the page- but measures that address the structural roots of the problems I notice.

A radical overhaul can't be done without reasoned consensus. (The alternative, of violent revolution or counter-revolution, never pays off as promised by the revolutionary vanguard.) Reasoned consensus can't be achieved without the abandonment of partisanship (which is more about making the other side wrong than dialogue and negotiation) and the setting aside of private ends and agendas in order to pursue a benefit for the public commons. This includes journalistic oversight, which has a way of exaggerating the challenges of any program of reform- treating every possible problem as inevitable, of deal-breaking severity, and as a feature instead of a fixable bug. The end result is stasis.

Attitudes need to be upgraded all around, in the direction of a tempered conversation of trust balanced with verification. That's the precondition. It's also arguably a bigger hurdle than finding agreement on specific reforms, and their implementation. I think it's doable. But enough people have to WANT that rough consensus and assent to the legitimacy of the agreed compromises, instead of indulging in tantrums based off of apocalyptic mind-movies and cloud-castle fantasies of Civil War, Revolution, or CounterRevolutionary Restoration. The reality of any of those possible futures would be unrecognizable to the Fantasists, and also more horrific than the worst nightmares of most of them.

Let's get a grip, here. In terms of day to day material abundance, most of us are living pretty well. Even for the poorest Americans, "food anxiety" is not chronic hunger, much less starvation. Some trends are heading in the wrong direction on some crucial aspects of society, civic order, and governance, agreed. But most of us in the US are starting from a very comfortable place. Especially compared to having to contend with the urgent challenges of blown power stations, ruined waterworks, bomb craters in our streets, and shellholes and landmines in our fields that would be inevitable in any domestic armed conflict. The term "internecine"- losses outweighing gains on all warring sides- doesn't begin to convey the scope of all-around disaster, in a society as well-developed and affluence as the US.

As for some of the reforms I'd like to see put on the table for discussion:

I support two-choice, ranked choice elections for national offices and the Presidency. Everyone should be able to register their individual approval for the candidate or party they'd most prefer in office, and then the candidate they'd accede to as acceptable and preferable over the leading opposition, given the practical conditions whatever the status quo might happen to be on election day.

I'd like to see the length of presidential terms extended to six years, with a possible extension of the limit from two terms to three. My reasoning here is that it's more difficult for a new administration to follow through on their policy agenda in four years than in six: the first year or a new administration is spent in adjusting to the new level of executive power; the third is often hampered by midterm reaction, and the fourth is devoted to the hype of a re-election campaign. That doesn't leave much time for a four-year administration to achieve very much, no matter how competent.

Conversely, it's harder for a bad administration to bluff its way through a six-year term than a four year term. Policy consequences- whether good or ill- most often show up 5-10 years after the bills were passed and the executive actions were taken. It's best that credit or blame land on the initiators of a policy, rather than their successors, when it comes time to vote in elections.

As for extending the maximum term limit from two to three, I recommend that because good chief executives are hard to find. It would be a shame for a president with a proven track record of 11-12 years of capable leadership to be forced out of office by term limits, no matter how popular they might happen to be with voters. But 18 years should be enough time to cultivate a worthy successor, and to grant the opposition the opportunity to field a challenger without facing the impediment of incumbent advantage.

I'm not sure how my little template would prefer to modify Congressional and Senatorial terms. I might consider shortening Senator terms to 5 years, or something like that. But that's up for grabs.

I think the maximum population size for an efficiently governed polity is around 80 million people. After that point, the accountability of national representatives to ordinary voters or their local citizens assemblies becomes questionable. While it's a good thing to have unified national oversight of some functions of government, devolution is preferable. And the present-day 50-state system is absurd. We're better off with six or seven continental regions of approximately equal population. In terms of physical geography, polities are best organized around river watersheds or sets of river watersheds.

Expand full comment