When Less is Moore

Posted by: by John Parsons on June 24th, 2012

The rule of thumb known as Moore’s Law is at the heart of our problem of exponentially growing collections of information. Because digital capacity is supposedly doubling every 18 months, our natural inclination is to collect and process more data—because we can. Human capacity, meanwhile, does not follow such a growth curve, and the gap between the data we collect and our ability to grok it all widens daily.

Apple Macintosh 128kThat makes one think. If expanding capacity has negative but unintended consequences, then do limits—even arbitrary ones—have positive effects?

Back when the original Macintosh was introduced, it had a measly 128 kilobytes of RAM and a 5-ish MHz processor. Despite having less horsepower than a mediocre phone today, the 128k Mac gave us one of the first intuitive, human-friendly computer experiences—perhaps because of its limitations. I think it was project leader Bill Atkinson who noted that the Mac’s small RAM footprint forced its application programmers to be brilliant, coming up with new ways to solve interface challenges, for example, while still making the device a practical tool.

Fast forwarding to today, there are some who are finding that constraints can actually improve the digital experience. The notion of a selective social network—forcing us to think before we post—is appealing, since it can in theory improve quality and relevance by limiting noise.

Well, I did say it was a theory. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, has not stopped us from just saying nothing more often. Instagram is a tad better, thanks to its single-image upload limit. Cinemagram and Viddy similarly limit content size—forcing us to be more thoughtful about what we post.

If the quality of social media can be improved this way, then so can our more serious content. I doubt that a solution can be purely technological, but surely we can find ways to be wiser with our words. Let’s experiment with such limitations—perhaps arbitrary ones at first—to see if we can say and do more in less digital space.

Moore’s Law has given us a gigantic page upon which to write. Rather than fill it all, let’s try a little Haiku.

–John Parsons

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