The colorful wolf

May 14, 2010

Luxury, Efficiency and Beauty

Filed under: Spirit of Japan,Thoughts,Uncategorized — randy @ 14:02

To be perfectly honest this trip has not been the ‘thinking experience’ that I had hoped for. I haven’t discovered anything new, just managed to fill in the gaps about things that I already knew or thought about in the past. I did have a chance to organize my thoughts, so I guess it’s time to write some of this down before I forget it. It’s not directly related to my trip or the question I sought out to answer at the end of the trip, but it’s something that’s always present in my thoughts, and as such a part of my trip and myself. I hope that this post makes sense to at least one other person..

People don’t need luxury. Or in a slightly weakened phrasing: people don’t need that much luxury. I’ve had this opinion since long before this trip, but now I’ve had the chance to prove it to myself. Having to carry everything you own is a great experience for anyone, and I recommend anyone to try it at least once, either walking or cycling. It makes you realize how much useless stuff you have, and you start to think how you can get rid of more of your stuff. Photography is one of my greatest hobbies, but during this trip I’ve realized very quickly that I have absolutely no need for my big DSLR camera and lenses. I haven’t sent it home out of stubbornness, but if I ever do a trip like this again I will leave my DSLR at home. It’s just weight. Discarding useless weight will make you feel lighter, both physically and mentally. It’s one less thing to worry about.

In terms of possessions, there’s a lot of stuff we can do without. I put my personal limit at internet. I need to have a netbook plus internet connection or at least internet at the place I’m staying at for the night. I’m calling this my personal limit because I would not feel comfortable being without internet for a long period of time. My limits in other areas are perhaps more extreme. I’ve gotten used to camping in the cold, and I don’t mind at all to stay at a dormitory room without any privacy. Shared toilets and bathrooms are a common thing of budget traveling, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that, even on the long term. A little privacy is nice at times, but I don’t really miss it any more. Even now I am typing this at a busy cafe, sitting outside in the sunshine. I’m not bound to any location, and I feel great about that. Having a home to return to is a luxury too?

Things I absolutely cannot do without are: plenty of sleep, plenty of good food and some way of distracting my mind. As for food, I don’t need high quality food, but I do need a lot of it to feel happy. McDonalds is actually good enough for me to feel satisfied after a meal. Conbini food is borderline, sometimes good, sometimes not so. As for distracting my mind, I really need something to keep my mind moving, either a story, a movie, a game, or even music will do. Drowning myself in fiction is a requirement of my life that I cannot do without, as I’ve learned on this trip. Real life is just too… real to live in twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

Modern society’s luxury standards are very high. Take a business hotel, for example. Everything is extremely clean, and everything that could possibly get dirty is either washed or replaced before the next visitor. Let’s say that such a place is 99% clean. A youth hostel, then, will give you a futon to sleep on that is perhaps replaced once every ten years. You get one clean sheet to sleep on and you use the blanket that other people used too (which is washed occasionally). Is this dirty? In my experience, no. I’ve stayed at a lot of youth hostels, and although the appearance was less squeaky clean than that of business hotels, youth hostels are by no means dirty. Old does not mean dirty! Even if youth hostels are 95% clean, I’m sure that people can accept a lot worse places without any discomfort. If they get rid of their preconceptions that everything should be just as clean as a modern-day hotel room, that is.

Why is this important? We already have a higher standard of luxury available to us, so why should we settle for less? The answer is: efficiency. People are consumers. 99% of people on this planet consume more than they produce, except perhaps in the case of shit. We use the word ‘consumer’ with no bad connotations at all when talking about people, but when talking about something else, for example electrical devices, a consumer is a bad thing. We don’t want devices that consume a lot of electricity. The world does not want people that consume a lot of world.

Your one hour of fun may cost other people twenty man-hours of work! Is this justifiable? Most people say yes. A book I’ve recently half-read and blogged about occassionaly is of this opinion. The book is called The Four-hour Work Week, and talks about how to optimize your lifestyle to spend less time on your job and to have other people do your menial tasks for you, in exchange for money of course. Outsourcing tasks to people in India or China is becoming a more and more common topic these days. I think that, fundamentally, the idea of paying other people to do things that you don’t want to do is wrong. It’s even in the bible: things that you don’t want to happen to yourself, don’t do unto another (not exact quote). Modern society is largely built upon this principle of service, but if we had a choice then things would be different. They are different in fact, which is the reason why people don’t outsource work to Europe or to the US: those people don’t want to do it. We take advantage of people whose ‘quality of life’ is less than our own. We use them up until they’ve used our money to improve their society and then they can themselves outsource their work to other countries even poorer than them. But what happens when all countries have become rich and there’s no place to outsource your work any more?

I’m getting sidetracked here, so let’s return to the main point: having other people do things that you don’t want to do is wrong. How to avoid that? Well, do less things that you don’t like to do. Optimize your lifestyle. If you consume less, use less energy/food/trees/whatever there is less need to make other people work for you. Self-contain your life and don’t rely on others. Instead of consuming worldly goods, produce enough to sustain yourself and be happy with that. The world still has a lot more natural resources than people, but that’s changing. From an efficiency point of view, relying less on others is a good decision. Redundancy is robustness. The less you have to inconvenience other people, the less time and resources you consume.

A computer-related example: datacenters. Historically large companies worked with supercomputers that were much more powerful than consumer PCs. They cost a boatload of money to maintain and the failure of one such machine is a huge inconvenience. Then Google came along, and built their datacenters based on thousands of consumer PCs. If one such PC fails, no big deal, just swap in another one and it’s business as usual. Efficiency by redundancy. Things are being centralized and ordered, and eventually a structured graph appears where the failure of one single node has no effect on the whole. Changing examples, think of chain restaurants like McDonalds, and how their food looks and tastes the same everywhere. It’s an extreme example of the distribution of a single product over the entire world. It’s extremely efficient.

But is it beautiful? Considering the McDonalds example, I guess most people would say no. Let me give you another example: Roads. I’ve cycled a lot recently, and I’ve seen a lot of roads. In urban areas the roads are engineered, efficient. They’re flat, straight and boring. There’s buildings at the side of the road that block the view and are ugly to look at. It is of course convenient/efficient to live near a big road so of course there’s lots of buildings. Even if the road is lined with trees and is made to look pretty, it’s still a flat, straight road in an ugly urban area. Leaving the city and going towards the mountains there’s a different kind of road. This type of road is more messy, but still optimized by humans. The inclines are made to be less tough for cars and bicycles, the asphalt is smooth, and when the road passes between the mountains, the top of the mountains is blasted off or a tunnel is dug so that you don’t have to climb to the top of the mountain. Nature is mostly preserved, but that’s only because the cost of leveling the entire mountain is astronomical, and it would inefficient (money-wise) to do so.

The most beautiful roads though, are the mountain roads in the countryside. They’ve existed for hundreds of years, first as a walking path along the mountainside, eventually turning into a sandy road, and then asphalted. But that’s where the development stopped. I cycled along a road yesterday that seemed horribly inefficient: it went left and right and up and down and there was not a single flat, straight section of road on the way. It was also one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by nature, limited by nothing, barely any people around. After all, who would drive on this horribly inefficient road if there’s a long, flat, straight road that can take you to your destination faster and more comfortably? Well, I would, but I’m perhaps one of the few people in this country who’s not on a schedule.

I like efficiency, but I also like beauty. When it comes to roads, 90% of the time I prefer to take the zigzaggy mountain road over the flat straight road. However, if I was a road engineer I’d probably want to ‘fix’ the mountain road and make it more efficient. Do we have to choose between beauty and efficiency, or can we have both? I’m not sure.

I believe that modern-day society offers too much luxury at a too high cost. We don’t need all that luxury, and the world would be a better place if we had less, not more. I think we should take advantage of near-endless (digital) resources and try to use as few natural resources as possible. My ideal world is a world where efficiency is not important because everyone has plenty of time, and the creation of beauty costs nothing, not time, not energy. The only ‘way out’ that I see is to digitize the human brain and to shift our perspective to the digital world, where things are ruled by a different set of rules. I’ve dismissed the idea of my live having meaning in any possible way, unless I can somehow contribute to this ideal.

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3 Comments »

  1. Hey!
    I was following your thoughts, going, yeah, yeah, that’s right, sounds good…Not needing so much “stuff” in life, making things simple, not using up natural resources, becoming self-sufficient. But then I lost you at the last paragraph. In my way of thinking, the only way out is to start a small farm, grow your own produce, raise cows, chickens, get into composting and upcycling old furniture..seriously, this does sound quite appealing to me. Your solution is to digitize the human brain and take advantage of the digital resources rather than natural ones.

    Now I am wondering what you mean by “digitizing the human brain”? Just curious. And as for digital resources – you can’t very well eat memory bytes or heat and power your home with pixels…Digital resources to me seem great in terms of information, but to be used as raw materials instead of, say, vegetables or natural gas?

    Would be interested to know your thoughts on this…

    Comment by interpretartistmama — May 15, 2010 @ 1:09 | Reply

  2. Lovely post that rings so true to me. If you havent looked at it already, take a look at The Story of Stuff – its a short documentary on the net. I think you may enjoy it.
    I will be back to follow your travels – good luck and ride safely!

    Comment by slowvelder — May 15, 2010 @ 1:15 | Reply

  3. Hi interpretartistmama. With digitizing the human brain, I mean transferring all our senses to the digital world, basically discarding our biological bodies. If we can do that, then it is possible to eat memory bytes đŸ˜‰ A virtual sense of a full stomach would take in just as much space (byte-wise) as a virtual sense of an empty stomach. In other words: free food!

    Comment by rheide — May 15, 2010 @ 13:32 | Reply


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