What if?


As I wrote a few days ago, I appreciate a good question. My blog ideas folder is largely populated with questions. I have read that many fiction authors start a book by creating some characters and then asking, “What would they do if they were in such-and-such situation?” Some interesting science fiction comes from working out different “what if” questions and most dystopian fiction seeks to answer the question, “What if we keep heading this way as a country/culture?”

About a month ago, we significantly rearranged our open-concept living area downstairs as the result of a few questions over lunch. My wife and I both like it much better and we’ve received several compliments from friends on the new setup. What if we had those conversations more often?

A good question can be a powerful tool. Ockham’s razor, the principle that “plurality is not to be posited without necessity,” is one such example. The basic idea is that in comparing philosophical theories, the one with fewer assumptions is to be favored. In day to day life, it could be restated as the question, “Can I make this simpler?” (Did I just apply Ockham’s razor to Ockham’s razor?)

Donald Norman wrote a much heralded design book by asking, “How can we design objects that are intuitive to use?” It has become such a standard that doors we always try to open the wrong way because of the way they are designed are now often referred to as “Norman doors,” even though it seems a little backward to me—Norman doors should refer to the doors you never get confused over how to open.

In trying to recalibrate my focus at work, I found Cal Newport’s Study Hacks Blog where he explains, amongst other things, why he has never had a Facebook account. Contained in this brief post is the profound question, “What problem do I have that this solves?”

I had been creeping up on this question myself in the past months as I contemplated the purchase of a tablet computer. As of today, I am still using my 6 year old MacBook and my reasoning is very similar to Newport’s question: “What can I do on a tablet that I don’t already do on my laptop?” Most of the answers I didn’t like because they came down to even more portability with the temptation to be ever-more “jacked in” to the internet.

This is also related to a  monk-inspired question I’ve been pondering: “What if we used things until they wore out?” The obvious answer is that people will think you’re goofy. I remember a professor in college who still used an Apple IIe computer for all his writing even though it was 1991, the year after Windows 3 launched. The Apple on his desk was nearly 10 years old, but his reasoning was sound: “Why change? It does what I need it to do and I know how to use it.” When I think of all the time I’ve spent moving data from device to device and learning how to do things in new operating systems and programs, my professor’s words sound like pretty sage advice. Maybe it wasn’t just coincidental that he taught my ancient philosophy course.

Pondering good questions helps us see the world in new ways. In the past few months, pondering good questions has led to me continue using my old laptop to write this blog, but now with a much better view of my backyard and with much less social media distraction. Who wouldn’t want that?


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