Promoted from the Ricochet Member Feed by Editors Created with Sketch. Does Scarcity Yield Better Results?

 

While at a weekend church retreat, we discussed those amazingly beautiful letters to home written by soldiers of even the lowest rank on either side of the American Civil War. The question arose, does scarcity yield better results?

Did having only a few pages of paper and one pencil (and maybe even a pen!) make the soldier writing a letter home want to write a letter with punch and vigor that said everything he wanted it to say? In contrast, look at the language and diction of tweeting and texting, of emails and even full-on essays in blogs.

Related to this is the amazing (possibly overstated) fact that my Samsung S3 has more computing power than what Mission Control had when they put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. More computing power? I doubt that, but an impressive amount when comparisons of computing power alone are made, maybe. But looking at what the engineers and scientists at NASA did with their RAM and CPU compared to what I do with mine, there is no comparison.

I wonder, did scarcity of resources help yield superior results? I would think that knowing how little they had to work with made the team at NASA work that much harder at getting it right. They had to make every “1” and “0” on every last IBM punch card count.

I wonder if it is better to have dreams that are bigger than the resources at hand. It may make you more careful about what you work towards, and what you do as you work towards it. I ask you, is “an embarrassment of riches” a disadvantage? Does it lead more to decadence and wastefulness than to glorious achievement?

There are 23 comments.

  1. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Edward Smith: I wonder, did scarcity of resources help yield superior results?

    This is almost certainly a “yes” when it comes to filmmaking, and the way filmmakers are taught.

    When I was a student, we got a Canon Scoopic and one roll (3 minutes worth) of black and white reversal film. We had hand-cranked editing benches, and no capacity for post-production effects.

    As a result, we had to plan out our shoot to the second. A good grade was was all about planning, and thinking ahead about how you were going to get on the screen what you wanted to get on the screen. (I excelled by figuring out how to do double-exposures using a camera with no reverse function. It wasn’t easy.)

    The kids these days, on the other hand, get to play with high-definition digital video. They can shoot hours of footage and they can always “fix it in post”.

    I’ve often said to myself, “self, if I have kids, their first computer will run on DOS.” Kids should learn how computers actually work before they get to play any games with ’em.

    • #1
    • May 6, 2014, at 8:25 AM PST
    • Like
  2. Edward Smith Inactive
    Edward Smith Post author

    My second university computer was a DOS system. It effected how I organize my files – into directories and sub-directories, with every file carefully named so that I can identify what is in them.

    • #2
    • May 6, 2014, at 8:36 AM PST
    • Like
  3. Liver Pate Inactive

    The standard of literacy in the 1927 Course of Study in Literature for Elementary Schools is astonishingly high. Poems “for reading and memorization” by first-graders include those of Robert Louis Stevenson (“Rain” and “The Land of Nod”), A. A. Milne (“Hoppity”), Christina Rossetti (“Four Pets”), and Charles Kingsley (“The Lost Doll”). Second-graders grappled with poems by Tennyson (“The Bee and the Flower”), Sara Coleridge (“The Garden Year”), and Lewis Carroll (“The Melancholy Pig”). In third grade came Blake’s “The Shepherd” and Longfellow’s “Hiawatha,” while fourth grade brought Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson, and Kipling. In the grades that followed, students read and recited poems by Arnold, Browning, Burns, Cowper, Emerson, Keats, Macaulay, Poe, Scott, Shakespeare, Southey, Whitman, and Wordsworth. Eighth-graders tackled Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address.

    • #3
    • May 6, 2014, at 9:57 AM PST
    • Like
  4. Pencilvania Inactive

    Your photo reminded me of a highschool copybook I just saw the other day. It belonged to a friend’s great-grandmother in France, and so dates to around the 1890’s or so. These were not penmanship courses she was taking – this was just her note-taking and assignments for other subjects –
    frenchbook

    I wonder what her great-grandmother would think, that her notebook from school was now kept on display in a class case? I imagine a copybook of your own was a scarce thing then; and so, what you put in it had better be your best.

    • #4
    • May 6, 2014, at 10:09 AM PST
    • Like
  5. Jon Gabriel, Ed. Chief

    I think there is a lot to your theory, Edward.

    Years ago I read a short book called The Power of Limits. It highlighted design principles, and veered a bit new-agey at times, but the theses was that limits are often what makes great works great.

    As a graphic designer, I’m often staring at a blank screen with no idea how to begin. One of my tricks is to set unnecessary limits on the job (you have to use two colors only, the final piece must be 3″ wide and 7″ tall, draw a red slash across the page and design around that, etc.).

    Likewise, in college, my best creative writing came when my professor would set artificial, often silly limits.

    • #5
    • May 6, 2014, at 11:48 AM PST
    • Like
  6. Profile Photo Member

    In college I had a history course that had a separate “discussion” as well as the main lecture portion. The lecture had approximately 150 students and each discussion period was comprised of 10 – 15 students. There was always a written assignment due and we had to kept the response to either 120 or 200 words (I can’t remember which). Initially I hated being constrained and disliked having to edit out so much of my response, but about halfway through the course I realized these assignments were some of my best writing. Instead of trying to fill up a 10 page assignment with filler I was selecting only my best material and even then still had to cut most of it out.

    • #6
    • May 6, 2014, at 12:03 PM PST
    • Like
  7. KC Mulville Inactive

    Poetry is, in its own way, a self-imposed restriction that often leads to a more disciplined expression.

    On the other hand, I think it’s worth noting that American speech has changed significantly through the years. The Founding Fathers spoke a language that has a drastically different style than what we speak today. Same goes for the Civil War, the Gilded Age, and so on. Though I’m no expert, I’m told that so much of the language is flattening out because of mass communications. It isn’t just the dialect or musicality of the language; it’s the narrowing of the language in general.

    • #7
    • May 6, 2014, at 12:10 PM PST
    • Like
  8. OkieSailor Member

    That was an era of locally controlled public schools. Parents and community leaders had a no nonsense attitude about who could be employed as a teacher, what they would teach and the example they would set for students. Consequently students spent their time learning reading, writing and arithmetic plus history, civics, morality, etc. That’s why they were able to write cogent letters using logic and English with sometimes only an eighth grade education. Abandonment of those standards is the reason High School graduates and even some college graduates today can’t do so.It has nothing to do with availability or type of materials used.

    • #8
    • May 6, 2014, at 1:47 PM PST
    • Like
  9. Al Sparks Thatcher

    I have a theory that back then there was less literacy per capita, but if you were lucky enough to get an education, you were thoroughly educated.

    The difference between the more educated and the less educated was more stark than today, though getting through life without being able to read was easier than today.

    • #9
    • May 6, 2014, at 1:48 PM PST
    • Like
  10. Jan-Michael Rives Inactive

    It may have less to do with scarcity and more to do with the fact that people were more human back then. That is to say, the cultural inheritance of the previous two thousand years was still in constant use, so not forgotten. People still knew how to write meaningful letters because they read only meaningful books. They still knew how to start a fire, and skin an animal, and build a shelter, because they would probably have done so many times before. For most people, daily life was very nearly as difficult in the year 1800 as it was in the year 1, so the skills that made it just a bit more livable were precious knowledge indeed.

    Related to this is the amazing (possibly overstated) fact that my Samsung S3 has more computing power than what Mission Control had when they put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.

    I once saw a panel with Buzz Aldrin and someone made a similar point. He replied that the Apollo guidance computer was a machine built to a specific purpose: to navigate to the moon and back, and he added, “Try navigating to the moon with your cell phone!”

    • #10
    • May 6, 2014, at 2:05 PM PST
    • Like
  11. Al Sparks Thatcher

    Adding to my last post, did scarcity of education yield better results?

    • #11
    • May 6, 2014, at 2:07 PM PST
    • Like
  12. Edward Smith Inactive
    Edward Smith Post author

    The difficulty of getting that education may have made the ones who could get one appreciate it more, and want to put it to better use.

    John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, may have lived a life that made The Rake’s Progress look tame, but he did care about writing a good poem.

    • #12
    • May 6, 2014, at 2:14 PM PST
    • Like
  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Edward Smith:

    While at a weekend church retreat, we discussed those amazingly beautiful letters to home written by soldiers of even the lowest rank on either side of the American Civil War. 

    That war was a long time ago. Naturally, people would treasure the exceptionally well-written letters as heirlooms, while losing or throwing away the letters that were more poorly written.

    How do you know you saw a representative sample of how people really wrote back then?

    Did having only a few pages of paper and one pencil (and maybe even a pen!) make [writing better]?

    Based on personal experience, my answer would be “not necessarily — and probably not”. You don’t want to see how many drafts it takes me to get a really short, punchy, well-edited piece. That’s a lot of paper! 

    The discipline of composing everything in your head before committing it to paper can be learned to some extent, and I suppose some people become really proficient at it. But plenty of people do better when relying on drafts stored somewhere other than their own head.

    • #13
    • May 6, 2014, at 4:20 PM PST
    • Like
  14. John Walker Contributor

    It is true that for most of the history of computing one of the chief challenges was coping with scarce resources. When the entire program has to fit in an 8K PROM, either you make it fit or it’s a bust. It’s amazing how clever you can be….

    Still, I welcome the effectively unlimited resources we have today. There are things one can do which would have been absolutely impossible a few years before. It is tremendously liberating to not have to constantly worry about exhausting one’s disc capacity. Does this make us sloppy? Well, of course it does, but abundant resources allow us to do things when we stretch them to their limits which we’d never dreamt of before.

    • #14
    • May 6, 2014, at 4:20 PM PST
    • Like
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor

    Edward Smith:

    I ask you, is “an embarrassment of riches” a disadvantage? Does it lead more to decadence and wastefulness than to glorious achievement?

    What do you mean by “an embarrassment of riches?” If you mean just plentiful resources, I would say “no”.

    If you mean “more than we know what to do with”, I would say “yes”. But then is the problem that we have so much, or that we don’t know what to do with it? 

    I’d say the problem is always not knowing what to do with it, whether you have a little or a lot. Not knowing how to be productive with what you have isn’t a problem that’s automatically solved by scarcity.

    • #15
    • May 6, 2014, at 4:34 PM PST
    • Like
  16. Edward Smith Inactive
    Edward Smith Post author

    Misthiocracy has a good idea. Introduce computers of more limited power to children and let them learn the discipline of making do with that before letting them at the more unlimited machines.

    It is easier to appreciate abundance after you’ve experienced scarcity. Tell me I can only use 200 words in this comment, and I count my words.

    Roger Corman, when he started producing his own films, gave his directors (including Ron Howard) tight budgets and schedules, with clear restrictions on what needed to be in those films. No Vincente Minnelli’s, moving the tree at huge expense of shooting time and money when all that was needed was to shift the camera over, for Corman.

    Corman produced crowd pleasers of sometimes low quality. But what the directors who apprenticed under him learned could be used to make more ambitious films – and, frankly, more of them, by being on time and on budget.

    • #16
    • May 6, 2014, at 8:21 PM PST
    • Like
  17. Songwriter Member

    Misthiocracy:

    Edward Smith: I wonder, did scarcity of resources help yield superior results?

    This is almost certainly a “yes” when it comes to filmmaking, and the way filmmakers are taught.

    It’s much the same in the recording studio. An infinite number of tracks upon which to record means the artist doesn’t need to make any choices during production. Creative decisions are pushed back to the mix. When you consider the Beatles produced “Sergeant Pepper” on eight tracks, or that Frank Sinatra recorded most of his recordings straight to mono, singing live with the band in the studio, it’s clear that sometimes having to make choices in the early stages of creating is a good thing.

    • #17
    • May 7, 2014, at 5:55 AM PST
    • Like
  18. James Gawron Thatcher

    Ed,

    It’s not the medium it’s the message. When we get so sure that the medium is going to do it for us, that’s when we lose it entirely.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #18
    • May 7, 2014, at 8:18 AM PST
    • Like
  19. Old Bathos Member

    It ain’t the technology. It’s the culture. Those wonderful Civil War letters were written by people formed by the King James Bible and great works. We lack a similar common core of quality.

    My brother told my about a student visit to Rome in the 1970s. Groups of students from other countries serenaded the pope with various songs from there native land. A group of American students wanted to join in. They compared notes and discovered that the only commonly known songs were the first stanza of a few rock songs and the theme from Gilligan’s Island.

    Technology makes quality works more widely available than ever but also serves baser appetites rather well. It’s the culture. It’s about cultivating the higher appetites and building a common culture on something other than sitcoms.

    • #19
    • May 7, 2014, at 8:50 AM PST
    • Like
  20. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    What is seen vs. what is unseen.

    e.g. How many civil war soldiers didn’t write any letters?

    • #20
    • May 7, 2014, at 8:58 AM PST
    • Like
  21. Edward Smith Inactive
    Edward Smith Post author

    Misthiocracy:

    What is seen vs. what is unseen.

    e.g. How many civil war soldiers didn’t write any letters?

    How many Civil War soldiers turned to other soldiers who could write to write their letters for them, knowing that their families would turn to a friend, neighbor or community member (I wonder how much time ministers spent reading letters to congregants as part of their Pastoral Duty) to read it to them.

    I probably overstate the case, but I suspect that the assumed (and it is assumed) Universal Literacy enjoyed by this Modern Age has reduced the real value of Literacy. Charles Dickens would have called Patricia Cornwall a trash writer. But people think she is good because she’s been published. Twinkies sold by the millions, but they sure ain’t good Apple Strudel.

    • #21
    • May 7, 2014, at 9:08 AM PST
    • Like
  22. Misthiocracy grudgingly Member

    Misthiocracy: Technology makes quality works more widely available than ever but also serves baser appetites rather well.

    Digital technology is fantastic for archiving and distributing quality material that has already been produced. I adore gutenberg.org, YouTube, Netflix, the iTunes Store, Amazon, etc.

    It’s also really useful for polishing and removing incidental flaws in quality material (editing out film scratches and audio pops, etc). Digital remastering is a godsend.

    It also allows a much greater number of amateurs in on the media creation game, which is fun for those people. Home movies are way better today than home movies of the past.

    But it has turned out to not be terribly good at improving the quality of new material produced professionally. In fact, it seems like a step backwards. I get more enjoyment out of a bad Roger Corman monster flick that was lovingly produced on a shoestring than I do out of a cheap-o CGI knock-off by The Asylum, or even multi-million dollar CGI disaster from a major studio.

    • #22
    • May 7, 2014, at 9:11 AM PST
    • Like
  23. David Foster Member

    Igor Stravinsky: “You cannot create against a yielding medium.” Stravinsky’s innovations were nothing if not revolutionary, but he knew that he could not have produced them if he had not be constrained by the traditions of music and the mathematical strictures of tone. “Let me have something finite, definite,” he wrote. “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.”

    from Nicholas Carr in Strategy + Business

    • #23
    • May 8, 2014, at 3:28 PM PST
    • Like