The tech pioneers of the past few decades have cemented “simplicity” as the first commandment of product design. Simplicity makes sense if you’re designing user interfaces. But the next wave of “tech” will include tools to alter our minds and bodies. For that, simplicity isn’t the right mental model.
Mental illness is on the rise. At the same time, the “healthy minded” are trying to optimize their mental efficiency, first through drugs, and soon through invasive, cyborg-esque surgeries. The “simplicity” design framework encourages builders to streamline everything — “what is the path of least clicks to get from the home page to the payment screen?”
When it comes to mental health, things aren’t quite as…simple. The shortest path from stressed and anxious to focused and calm may be a tiny pill. The longest path may be some form of complicated psychoanalysis. While the pill may be a quick fix, we both know that something is lost when you don’t have to push through some internal darkness to find the light. Still, psychoanalysis may be unnecessarily complex — in fact, it could needlessly awaken sleeping lions that wouldn’t have bothered you otherwise. Low-grade childhood complexes that you were barely aware of don’t always need to be resurfaced, and they could do more harm than good. Sometimes it’s better to leave things untouched.
The challenge is to find the middle path. Often, therapists or spiritual advisors push us too far on our journey of self-reflection. This could lead to insanity, as we unravel ourselves all the way to the asylum. In other words, meditation, self-reflection and psychedelics can go too far; it is possible to be too woke, or over-enlightened.
Alternatively, if I could massage your brain with some electrodes or mix a crushed pill in your tea to make you feel and think exactly the way you requested, would you like that? If we could alter our minds however we wanted, we wouldn’t even know the states of consciousness to optimize for. Do you want to be able to memorize more information or feel a more intense form of love? Do you want to be more imaginative or more analytical? To an extent, we could have both. But eventually there will be tradeoffs. We barely have a value system to help us make these decisions. There’s no consensus in the culture. Your wife may prefer for you to become a better lover, while your boss will pay for the surgery to make you a more productive employee. We have to be careful to maintain neurodiversity, too, or risk becoming a neuro-conformist society. This isn’t even about morals — society would simply move backwards without neurodiversity. We need people who can think differently.
But let’s say I knew exactly the state of consciousness and cognitive abilities I wanted to see in myself. It still wouldn’t be effective for me to give a wish-list to my doctor, undergo a surgery and wake up a new man. See, the founders of every major religion have all spread a variation of the same idea: love and hate, suffering and fulfillment, joy and sorrow, are all deeply intertwined. Resist darkness to receive the light, the ancient Kabbalists instruct us. The lotus flower grows best in murky water, the Buddhists remind us. We need to face obstacle, danger and fear in order to access what we really want — fulfillment, joy, love. There’s no fun or purpose to life without an opponent. Instead of simplicity, let’s reach for lightness. Because to experience lightness, we need to go through some darkness, feel some heaviness, and still choose to face the light, let go of the heavy chains, and allow our shadows to fall behind us.
Young people today will have more control over their minds and bodies than any other generation in human history. Simplicity is not the way to design the next wave of mind and body altering technology. It’s unclear the cognitive states we want to optimize for, but it can’t just be efficiency, speed and ease of use. Let the algorithms handle that. Humans are built for something different — not something better or worse, but something different than what the machines will be working on. Simplicity worked for iPhones. It won’t work for the human mind. This will be hard to explain to the suits in the boardrooms, but they’ll come around. We’re all in this together!