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Warning: This post is about religion and dishwashers, and contains strong views about dishwashers.

There was a story in the New York Times last month about how the Episcopalian Church is becoming more tolerant and less popular, haemorrhaging congregants as it adopts an ever-more inclusive stance on a variety of controversial issues. We should be wary of attributing a cause-and-effect relationship to two trends taken out of their very complex contexts, but it’s not outlandish to suggest that religious movements are defined, at least in part, by what they’re against. A cursory glance at the Ten Commandments turns up a lot of “thou shalt not”, and most of them seem like good rules to live by.

If a religion isn’t strongly against anything, it becomes less well-defined in the minds of the public. There’s little chance of stealing or murder becoming legal, so if they’re the only things you’re against, it’s not easy to look like you play an important role in society. Extend the definition of a sin to cover something people can (or might soon be able to) do*, and suddenly you’ve got a cause, and you become important. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, being against something is good for business.

In an age where many seem convinced that the sick and poor do not need (or are unworthy of) our support, we’re bound to like a little bit of intolerance with our religion. It makes us feel like there’s work to be done.

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to religions. Abercrombie & Fitch understand the principal well. They use blacked-out windows, loud music and teenager smell to shoo away old people the way old people use Beethoven to stop kids hanging out at bus stops. Their stores are unfriendly, intimidating places for anybody outside their target demographic. Sometimes, inclusivity isn’t good for business. Sometimes, we buy things because of what they’re not.

Last week, my family bought a dishwasher. We’d been putting off the purchase since buying our house eleven months ago, in part because we couldn’t agree on which one to buy. In the end, the eye-wateringly expensive winner didn’t come out on top because of any specific feature it has: we chose it because it was the cheapest dishwasher on the market without any of the numerous attributes we disliked.**

If you can find anybody who bought an Android tablet, ask them why they bought it. It won’t be easy for them to answer without explaining what they have against the iPad.

This might seem like a negative way of thinking, but it’s frequently a valuable component of productive, positive, original thought. In a creative environment, the biggest challenge isn’t coming up with the ideas. The difficult bit is rejecting all but one of them. A clear sense of “what you’re not” is incredibly valuable here. Unlike an affirmative but exclusive idea of “what we do”, the negative equivalent can inform decisions about new directions, new products and new ideas.

Whether you’re trying to sign the next big artist, speculating on the foreign exchange markets, or making a decades-long unhedged fully-leveraged one-way bet on the property market****, you’re making a guess about something that might happen in the future.

When we’ve spent a substantial amount of time at the beginning of a project collecting information to inform these bets, it’s easy to get caught up in “what we know”. This is troubling when the answers we really want are so rarely contained among the facts we’ve amassed. No amount research will tell you what your house will be worth in ten years, or if anybody will buy your next album. If we don’t take a step back and look at what we don’t know, we can quickly develop a false sense of security, wrapped up, as we are, in a comforting blanket made of irrelevant facts.

Indeed, a focus on “what we don’t know” is the basis of all scientific discovery. Progress is made by disproving one generalisation after another. The history of science is a history of people finding exceptions to rules. To understand scientific progress is to appreciate that the goal is not to make the final discovery that makes science a complete explanation for everything. The goal is to make a small improvement in what we know to be a flawed allegory. It’s not even about believing this allegory to be true – it’s about behaving as if it were true while watching out for a hole in the system that allows for further improvement.

A child born in England 100 years ago faced an infant mortality rate 20 times as high as today. That change, and an 80% increase in life expectancy, are the result of scientists trying to prove themselves (and each other) wrong. It works, in real and important ways.

It may be that some religious leaders have a thing or two to learn from the sense of humility that comes from a world-view that thrives on looking for holes in your world view. Then again, it’s not like all scientists remember this either.

It’s easy to confuse negativity with pessimism, but the two aren’t the same at all. It’s part of a balanced outlook on life. It’s by looking for the downside that we avoid it, and it’s by admitting we don’t know that we find out.

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Footnotes:

* Use your imagination. I have to read and approve/reject the comments, so this is as close as I’m getting to this one.

** This really isn’t central to my argument, but I promised strong opinions, so here we go. Who the hell designs these things? If you don’t need to operate the controls while it is running, why would you put the buttons and lights on the outside of the machine, at eye-level for a toddler, and where it’s easy to spill things on them? What useful information could a screen possibly convey? Nothing else in my kitchen has door handles more complicated and flimsy than the doors on a Lamborghini, and they don’t seem like a good idea here either. Finally, people who design these things, why are the sides always a different colour to the front?

We have had a lot of dishwashers, and they all got the plates clean. The consumer electronics market is so crowded with fundamentally identical products that manufacturers are forced to add ever-more irritating superficial features in an attempt to differentiate theirs. The hope is that the hi-fi salesman will talk you into paying an extra £50 for the one with X-Bass, whatever that is.***

*** These features tend to drop away again at the very top of the market. Just count the buttons on the front of CD players priced £20, £200 and £2,000 – it’s the £200 one that looks like mission control.

**** Or “buying a house” if you’re not trying to make it sound as terrifying as possible.

Comments

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  1. August 30, 2012

    Fantastic posting.

    I know a number of people using Android tablets. (OKAY I ADMIT THAT I WORK AT GOOGLE.) My immediate manager has owned five; the one he uses is the Nexus 7. Why? He likes the form factor. Which is partly about the iPad being too damn big.

    Me, if I buy a tablet, it will something cheaper than the iPad.

  2. Helen Roden #
    August 31, 2012

    I have two suggestions which bring simplicity. 1) Mindfulness 2) Living in the Now. Oh, hang on, they’re almost the same thing. This brings…..stillness, and everything else disappears. Including the Apple / Android identity crisis.

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