We live in extremely busy times. Or at least everyone “appears” to be busy or always in a hurry to get somewhere. In our frenzied and hectic schedules, sometimes there are hardly any gaps. No voids, no spaces. Everyone has got to be doing something. At all times. Even if it’s just the mindless scrolling of a social media feed or absent-mindedly checking your mail, slack etc. However, does this have to be this way? Can we instead revel in the pauses, linger between moments, find the meaning in silences, only if briefly?
Spaces to the rescue
Even from the narrow utilitarian point of view, spaces and nothingness have a utility in themselves, sometimes even more so than their exact opposite, which I will refer to as “some-thingness”, for lack of a better term. A vase or a pot is useful because of its hollowness; its emptiness is exactly what gives it its value. A room needs its windows to be complete. In fact, even though I don’t have an iota of architecture know-how, I will hazard a guess that understanding spaces and emptiness is an integral component of professional architecture courses.
Spaces in art
Spaces can be aesthetic and that is probably why they have been employed to great effect in various art forms. As Hugh Jackman points it out in this interview, the greatest music composers likely had a great appreciation for not just the notes, but for the silences between the notes as well. In fact, each one of us has experienced this: the concluding crescendo of a song has an impact only if it is preceded by relative quietness. Similarly, the impact of a climax in a movie or a play is directly proportional to the mundanity of the events preceding it. Great story-tellers, be it novelists or filmmakers, know how to pace the tempo, when to accelerate, when to hold back. They know that sometimes it’s not what the characters say, but what they don’t say, that is more impactful. It may sound cliched, but silences sometimes do indeed speak louder than words¹.
Spaces in Software Engineering
Software, at least so far, has had a very utilitarian existence. Customers have certain requirements, and engineers build “features” in the software to fulfil those requirements. As requirements continue to pile, so do the “features”, until the software becomes so complex that it actually starts to become less useful, a real-world manifestation of the aphorism — “Less is more, more is less”.
Therefore, it becomes important to know when to draw the line, when to limit adding features or in fact, even remove features for the overall good of the software product. It’s easier said than done though as it requires restraint, and it’s much easier to just act rather than exercise restraint. It also requires a certain degree of self-conviction as it can be hard to measure the impact of omission of a feature, the consequences of which may not be visible for long. On the contrary, adding features is relatively easier as building features implies activity which is easy to misinterpret as progress, at least in the short term.
The benefits of limiting features is especially stark in the mobile app space where the most popular apps are invariably the ones that have imbibed the Unix philosophy of doing just one thing and doing it right. Be it WhatsApp, Uber, Google Maps or Gmail, they all focus on one thing and do it exceedingly well. Maybe, there are a few lessons to be learnt here for the enterprise software industry which invariably ends up churning out products chock full of features to cater to every Tom, Dick and Harry.
Spaces in Life
No matter how busy we think we are, it’s probably not too far from the truth to say that as in other spheres, we need spaces in our lives as well. The busi-ness probably needs to be punctuated with pauses for the overall quality of life. However, creating these spaces is hard as its pre-requisite is the courage to say no to activities that can intrude into those spaces. Acquiescing tends to be much easier. So, maybe, if it helps, one can try the mental trick of treating even these spaces as “busy activity”, albeit more important than the ones we ought to say no to. The benefits may not be apparent in the short term, but hopefully, in the long term, they will be realised.
- 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson
- Laws of simplicity by John Maeda
- My wife, Shruti, who often tells me — “Take out time for yourself!”
- Watch this movie, Dil Se, a personal favourite of mine, to see how Mani Ratnam employs silences as a powerful medium to convey the feelings of the protagonists, wonderfully enacted by Manisha Koirala and Shahrukh Khan.