New technologies seem to be flying at you at an overwhelming rate. Computing, medicine, education, artificial and augmented reality, the list goes on and on. How do you even begin to deal with it all? Try a concept first floated 80 years ago.

In his book Nine Chains to the Moon (published 1938), inventor R. Buckminster Fuller described the idea of ephemeralization: “Do more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing.” He was advancing the concept that you can use technology to get greater and greater output with the same or less inputs.

Fuller is probably best know for popularizing the geodesic dome – a structure that can distribute very heavy loads much more efficiently than other architectures. This is a physical manifestation of ephemeralization: large volumes of space can be encompassed very effectively.

How do we apply this to the on-rush of technology? Brandur Leach notes in his blog post called “In Pursuit of Production Minimalism,” society and the economy would likely be better off if we concentrated more on simplifying. He is a software/computing guy but his suggestions are applicable to most technologies. (Thanks to Adam Lashinsky of Fortune for this distillation):

  • Don’t use new technology the day, or even the year, that it’s initially released. Save yourself time and energy by letting others vet it, find bugs, and do the work to stabilize it. Avoid it permanently if it doesn’t pick up a significant community that will help support it well into the future.
  • Avoid custom technology. Software that you write is software that you have to maintain – forever. Don’t succumb to [the “not invented here” syndrome] when there’s a well-supported public solution that fits just as well (or even almost as well).
  • Use services. Software that you install is software that you have to operate. From the moment it’s activated, someone will be taking regular time out of their schedule to perform maintenance, troubleshoot problems, and install upgrades. Don’t succumb to NHH (not hosted here) when there’s a public service available that will do the job better.

When R. Buckminster Fuller came up with his principle of ephemeralization prior to WWII there was very little in the way of digital things. Of course, that is all different now and counseling more from less fits right into our current and future digital world as described by Peter Diamandis in Abundance.

He claims there are six forces at work that will lead to a surprisingly bright future. Significantly, they all drive toward simplification and getting more from less. Look for them and seize the advantage as ephemeralization kicks in:

  • Digitization– Once something becomes digitized, it can be replicated and sold for close to zero cost.
  • Deceptive Growth– Doubling in growth seems small at first while the technology is in its infancy.
  • Disruptive Growth – Doubling in growth of a small technology results in massive, disruptive growth. As a result of 30 rounds of doubling, a technology will see about 1 billion-fold growth! This is disruptive (think about the massive growth rate of mega pixels in cameras or processor speed in computers.)
  • Dematerialization– This is the process by which technologies and services move from costing money to becoming available for free. For example, think of all the apps on your phone that you used to have to pay a lot of money for; GPS, high resolution camera, high resolution video, video and voice teleconferencing, weather apps, news, books on line, podcasts, etc. A study was done recently that showed that a typical smartphone today comes with free technology that would have cost more than $1 million in the 1980s!
  • Demonetization– Once a technology has become digitized, the cost for that technology drops significantly. A great example is digital photography, which was expensive and marginal quality 20 years ago. This is now “free” and super high resolution on your smartphone. Another example would be cloud based server access and storage capacity – both were significant costs for startups – now it is hardly even a thought!
  • Democratization– As a result of digitizing and demonetizing, the products powered by this technology becomes available for everyone on the planet. There are 3 billion people connected via the Internet today and this will grow to 6 billion people by 2025. Free Wi-Fi is everywhere…we used to have to pay a $1/min.

Ephemeralization is a guidepost for our hyper-technocratic age. But, it applies as much in the realm of personal possessions. The widely influential Marie Kondo promotes the KonMari method which consists of gathering together all of one’s belongings, one category at a time, and then pruning away to only those things that “spark joy” and choosing a place for everything from then on.

Here’s a final thought:

“It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint Exupéry

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