Ever find yourself wondering whether you should use the latest app or buy the latest fancy device to replace a simpler, lower-tech tool? Here’s a rule I recently came up with to help decide. Simply put: One should use the lowest-tech solution that meets one’s needs.
This may seem strange in the modern world with all our fancy gadgets and innovative smartphone apps: Why would you prefer the low-tech solution unless it was perceptibly better? By way of answering, I’ll ask a hopefully easier question: why wouldn’t you pick the high-tech solution?
- Simplicity. You’ve probably heard the acronym KISS (“Keep it simple stupid”). If a sheet of paper works just fine, why should you use a computer system or a tablet? Unless it’s actually more useful that way, you’re only adding needless complexity. This is not to say that the simpler solution is always better; rather, the simpler solution is better if it also does everything you need it to. If the tablet truly is more useful, then by all means go with it—the key is that at equal levels of utility, the simpler system is better.
- Fragility. In nearly all situations, the more complex a system gets, the more likely it is to fail. (You could argue that some complex systems are complex because of all the checks and failsafes in them, but in the end there is still more to go wrong than in a simpler system. No matter how good your battery charging and warning system is, it’s still going to be harder to run out of battery life on your paper.) If there is no difference in utility, it makes sense to choose the system that’s less likely to fail.
- Flexibility. The simplest systems are often easier to adapt to other purposes, and they’re often easier to fix when something goes wrong or turns out not to work the way you intended.
- Cost. I don’t really mean financial cost; while low-tech methods are sometimes cheaper, it can go either way (if you already have a computer or a smartphone that is capable of duplicating the function of another system, needing a separate device or piece of equipment will cost you more). However, the more complex your system gets, the more time and energy you must put into learning it. Sometimes this is totally worth it (if you’ve found a new computer program that can help you do your job in half the time, for instance), but other times it proves to be a waste of effort.
Here are two test cases I’ve run into:
- Anki. Anki is a flashcard system that manages your studying for maximum efficiency. I have 17,525 cards in Anki at the moment and can expect to see about 300 of them on any given day (if I’m studying every day, as I’m supposed to), getting maybe 260 of those correct on the first shot. Imagine for a moment that I instead had chosen to implement this with paper flashcards instead.A 1000-count of plain white 3×5 index cards costs me around $10 on Amazon, making around $180 just for the paper to date (plus probably another $20 for ones I spoiled initially or chose to delete at some point). Anki is completely free (assuming you already have a computer) and even if you want to buy the paid mobile version, that’s only $25. Then we have the space that 18,000 index cards takes up: a stack of 100 index cards is about 3x5x0.875 inches. Stacked all together, those index cards would be over 13 feet tall! And from this stack, I would somehow have to figure out which 300 to study.This isn’t quite as impossible as it might seem; there are reasonably efficient algorithms for handling this kind of study, even by hand. But the point is that it would be a huge pain. In this case, the low-tech solution does not meet my needs in any way, so I move to a more complicated and high-tech system.
- Notes. On the other hand, if I just need to sketch something out or write down a note quickly, I reach for a sheet of paper, a sticky note, or an index card. Writing the note on the computer does not make sense: I could talk about the ways in which paper is more flexible, but it’s easier to describe the ways in which using a computer doesn’t make sense: if I’m making a list of things I’m trying to remember to do in the next 20 minutes, I don’t need the storage or searching capabilities that a computer or phone can provide (in fact, it’s more likely to never get deleted and junk up my notes collection or filesystem). If I’m writing in Notepad and suddenly realize I need to include a diagram, I have to open up a different program or app to do that (and if I tried to avoid that by going with a drawing app from the start, I’d probably lose the organizational abilities of a more text-oriented notes program). Additionally, there is significant overhead in opening an extra app or program (and getting the appropriate device if not already using it).
The flexibility and simplicity of paper won out here: it can be used for nearly anything and is nearly always available.
If you ever feel like you’ve been drawn into using new software or tools that sounded like they were useful but turned out to be more of a burden or useless than anything else, give the simplicity test a shot next time: Is the new system legitimately more useful (and significantly enough so to cover the cost of learning it)? Or does it only add more complexity with little to show for it?