Minimalism is harder than Maximalism

All the chatter has been around AI for some time now, but I'm thinking a lot about first principles, in part by way of AI.

AI tools have proliferated over the past year and the advice trends towards embracing the maximalism of it all. It is an age of new tools and new features being released every week. This puts us into a reactive mode, feeling like we need to keep up with the pace of everything hitting the airwaves. What feature did OpenAI release this week? What new tool is everyone talking about?

All this puts us into a tool-searching mode, asking about features and capabilities and making it easy to lose sight of goals and process.

A minimalist edtech isn't a prescription or mandate, it's a framework for questioning the status quo.

Every choice in technology requires tradeoffs (that's software engineering 101) and I think we get lost in the specifics when new technologies suddenly leap into awareness. It's happened recently (and continues to percolate) with AR, VR and the thing formerly known as the “metaverse”; it's been frothing now over ChatGPT, DALL-E, now Sora and the various non-OpenAI versions of generative “AI”. As everyone sees what's really involved, how these things work, we'll get some sort of equilibrium. Some uses will pass into transparent everyday familiarity (for better or worse) and others that seemed inevitable will fall by the wayside. Still other variants and adaptions will arise that have not yet been predicted clearly. (For that last category, keep an eye on the fact that we're moving from experimentation time to production time and where rubber meets the road. The infrastructure around generative AI development still has a long way to go, but all the major tech players have skin in the game, and open source versions of these things are iterating rapidly.)

Approaching educational technologies (or technology in general) in terms of minimalism and the network of ideas around that (including sustainability, class, labor, etc.) demands uncomfortable questions of existing practice. Not “is this minimalist” but rather “why do we need this?”, “what does this get us?”, “how does this align with what we value?”

In general, I don't think the answer is always that we value less in the sense of less capabilities or stripped down. Minimalism in itself can be incredibly difficult to achieve and require large expenditures of time and energy. It's not any different in education. To get something that looks like a direct line to some set of values could in fact require massive amounts of preparation or even a fairly large does of technological augmentation. It's a shifting target too, insofar as what reads to others as minimalist can shift with time, situation, and context. To take a favorite example of mine for the importance of context, a top of the line typewriter from 1969 was decidedly not minimalist at the time. It was full of features and suited to particular kinds of office and writing work. But nowadays that same machine is a ludditean fantasy when compared to a MacBook or Ipad, devices that are minimalist in relation to other knobby and overgrown computers of a certain type. That mid-century typewriter is emphatically maximal in its mechanics, but those mechanics overall have become a retro-minimalism marker, where not being connected to the mass of material on the internet or the constant interruption of push notifications on an electronified device is more significant than the internal precision of springs and levers.

Minimalism is one in a constellation of ideas. We might measure technology against its simplicity, its ease of use, its transparency, how straightforward is the connection between mechanics and output, its clean footprint in the world at large. These variants are neither mutually exclusive nor always in sync. They can be counter-indicating. For example, a minimalist interface often requires significantly more labor to produce than something clunky, full of data fields, and taking little time to design. Straightforward UX in particular is an achieved state requiring a lot of work. This is not different from certain minimalist or stark aesthetics in art, architecture and design. Clean lines can require significant shaping or engineering to hold in place. The marvel of the temples of the ancient world, for example, was both that they were large but also that, against the rough edges of the natural landscape, they had straight lines. The pyramids of Giza were perfection in geometry fit for the divine. I think about Art Speigelman's Maus, where Speigelman honed lines and worked with magnified images in order to achieve what in the end would look more spare than the detailed illustration he could otherwise produce (see MetaMaus for more). That technique of wearing down is one that I think of quite a bit. It's similar in many ways to iterations as a teacher, where each run through can allow for a refinement, such that the end result might look effortless or spontaneous, but only because the current group of students hasn't seen the previous ten years worth of trial and error and careful editing and experimentation.

I see a minimalist edtech in similar terms, as a form of long-term whittling, sculpting, crafting. Education is craft, not merely transactional, and a focus on minimalism helps us with that process as well. It is not merely whether we should or shouldn't use a particular tool or technology, but rather that we are committed to honing it finely. That may mean rejecting some things. That usually means using things in ways they weren't necessarily intended or in working with parts of things.

In an age of AI-generative work, as it makes its way into everyday practice, the question isn't whether or not to adopt or not adopt a tool. The question is how we practice the craft of whittling down practice to the most effective moves and gestures.

That human work of iterating and reducing, of simplifying through learning may not be something that can be sped up by technology, though there are plenty of products that are promising such individualization and efficiencies. The question is not then whether a particular AI tool can do x or y in a classroom or for students; it's whether and how we shape the maximalism of the present into considered and intentional practices of the near future. That's a harder task, a longer job, and urgent work.

Experiment away, but let's keep a focus on worthwhile targets. Impact with less work. Better outcomes, not more tools.