The Astrolabe and Finding Simplicity

Hundreds of years ago, before the invention of the airplane, satellite, or GPS, astronomers sought an answer to the most basic of questions: "Where am I?"

Today we take for granted how easy it is - you can pinpoint your exact location with the tap of a button or even a get view of an aerial photograph. But long ago, the only tools we had were the stars. Their grounded being inspired curious individuals to use them as markers, guideposts if you will.

Enter the astrolabe.


At first glance, it appears impossibly complex and intricate. Useless without proper instruction and training. It even seems to require understanding of a foreign language, one that requires an expert to translate.

Reminds me a bit of today's technology.

For those who actually want to know how this thing works, there’s a great TED Talk that will guide you through it. But the point here is that technology has always paralyzed those who have deemed it too difficult to embrace, not worth their time - they say "just let the experts do it."

But the irony here is that everyday people were facing a need at the time that this technology solved. It not only charted one's position on earth, but it calculated distances, marked the hours of sunrise and sunset, and gave users a variety of other highly useful data points.


The Curse of the Engineer

The hard truth about creating technology (like the astrolabe) is it requires a desire to understand as well as a desire to be understood. The personal computer revolution of the 1970s was painful at the outset because engineers couldn't explain computers to everyday individuals. Advertisements spouted technical details that few users would grasp. Later on, Apple would become the largest company in the world because it made tech understandable for everyone.

Now, it’s hard to believe, but during its time, the highly intricate astrolabe was the most efficient way to tell time. What took astronomers a lot of pain and suffering to figure out is now as easy as glancing down at your phone. The engineer takes on a difficult problem, solves it in a way no one else could, and delivers a simple result. The engineer completes hundreds or thousands of tasks so you can complete one.

Making new discoveries and implementing change is messy business. Someone has to start. As marketing guru Seth Godin would say, you have to thrash early and make a lot of mistakes at the beginning to eventually land at a place of ultimate simplicity.


New Tools, Same Problem

Technology is nothing but this - humankind's endless pursuit of knowledge.

We look at a machine like the astrolabe today and wonder why people spent so much time on something that should be easy. Yet the brilliant minds of the day had no problem building these tools into their workflow, and now we have them to thank. A small link in a much larger chain.

Today, the average person faces the same problems of understanding technology, and like before, we're blind to what we haven't yet solved.


What makes our current dilemma so difficult is the overwhelming amount of choices we face when it comes to managing our digital lives. Throw capitalism into the mix, and you get a chaotic landscape of tools with no clear answer in sight. And in the end, the consumer loses. For example:

Google builds Google Drive and develops 3 proprietary apps designed to replace Microsoft Office: Docs, Sheets, and Slides. Your content lives online and can be edited in real time by dozens of collaborators simultaneously.

Apple builds iWork in an attempt to curb Google: Pages, Numbers, and Keynote. Designed with a more artistic approach, they allow Apple customers to stay in-house.

Dropbox builds Paper with the goal of combining the best features of all the others into a single online format. Keeps users in the Dropbox camp.

Which do you use?


Solving the Problem

We'll never truly arrive at a state of completion.

The sooner we embrace this idea, the sooner we can dive into the problems standing before us and create a better future, not being held hostage to the tools of the past. We arrive at simple answers by tackling complex problems, embracing the difficult paths that lie before us.

What's next?

Robbie Klein