We have many words to describe the desirable properties of human-made things: strength, durability, lightness, efficiency, simplicity, power, intuitiveness, and so on and so forth.
But we don’t really have a word to describe things that have all of these properties at once and in just the right balance between them for the given situation.
I would like to suggest that diaphany might serve as this missing term, and to propose that it might be particularly useful word at this phase of our social evolution as a species.
Diaphany is a little bit like the word “lightness,” as applied to an object or a system, but is broader and more conceptual, describing for example:
- a house that is easy to erect and maintain, and recyclable at the end of its lifespan
- a well-made steel-framed bicycle – enough said
- a game with rules that are easy to understand and apply, as opposed to convoluted and ambiguous
Diaphany becomes increasingly valuable as environments are damaged and material resources stretched – it is above all about substituting elegance for brute force.
Ultimately it matters because it is more or less synonymous with maximizing one’s chances of survival and flourishing in times of stress and change.
Historically it has been nomadic cultures that have best understood this, with Westerners inclined to live heavy – I think of the poignant tales of marooned 19th century explorers dragging heavy iron stoves around the high arctic on their way to inevitable starvation and death as the “savage” Inuit peoples around them meanwhile thrived in their diaphanous igloos and kayaks.
Of course, beautiful design has its own energy cost, and can add time and complexity to a project, but the human mind is an amazingly energy-efficient organ. While resources may become more and more scarce in the years ahead the price of cognition remains relatively cheap.
Given current climate, population and resource projections, we will likely need to become more like the Inuit and less like British explorers if we wish to thrive in the decades ahead.