Ownership and Simplicity

Imagine you live at the top of a hill and your friend lives at the bottom of the hill. Every day you walk down the hill to visit your friend, and walk up the hill to go home.

One day you have an idea; you take a board, attach some wheels to it, and stand on it as you leave your house. The board rolls down the hill to your friend’s house, saving you the trouble of walking down there. “Look at this skateboard I made,” you exclaim to your friend, happy that you only have to walk half of the distance from now on.

“That’s nice,” your friend says, smiling. “But you don’t have to walk both ways,” he tells you, giving you a set of keys to a brand new car. He shows you how to drive it and you agree it’s much more convenient than the skateboard, and faster, and it can go uphill as well as downhill.

You drive the car every day that week, up and down the hill, and stop thinking about the problem. On Saturday, though, the car doesn’t start, so you call your friend. “This car isn’t working,” you complain. Your friend drives his car up the hill and checks it out.

“Did you put any gas in it?” “Gas? What is gas?” You ask, frowning. “You also need to change the oil, and it’s pretty dirty. You should clean it up.”

These responsibilities weren’t apparent when you accepted the free car! Now you have to drive it to the gas station in addition to the regular trip up and down the hill, and you have to pay for an oil change, and keep it clean. And more, you need to pay for insurance, registration, emissions tests!

Technology, even free or inexpensive technology, comes with a cost, and the cost isn’t always apparent to us at the outset. This blog is produced in plain text using Markdown formatting, which makes it robust and simple to read and parse. The internet operates on HTML over HTTP, which is not a big step from text on a disk, but it is not trivial either.

We are fortunate to live in a time when software especially is free and open, and many tools exist which consume text files and serve HTML over http. I adopted one such tool, and immediately it elevated the style and thoroughness of the output considerably from my initial cobbled-together script. However, it wasn’t long before I was scratching my head at how to customize some things, and was pressed to download the source code, read some lines, replace some more. I pondered, did I own this website anymore when my own input was dwarfed by an elephant of ‘free’ code that I did not write and did not have the time to understand?

I’d fallen for the shiny new car, and taken on the burden of reading the code, learning the configuration language, and surrendered dozens of choices regarding whether I wanted my name printed on the site or wanted an RSS feed, or a footer or dateline on the article. These were things I had intentionally excluded, especially the dateline, and by adopting the elephant hundreds of choices I hadn’t even yet considered were made for me. It truly wasn’t my site anymore, and so I made the painful decision to leave the shiny new car behind and go back to working on my skateboard.

When you choose to bring something into your work or your life, consider what you receive from it, and what must be given in exchange. A houseplant demands water, pruning, and fertilizer to yield its flowers. A pet needs training, food, attention. A new electronic device demands electricity, attention, the purchase and installation of software or media. Each is a balance between burden and benefit. Consume carelessly and the complications that things bring to your life will consume you.