Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.

– N. Eldon Tanner


Featured artist: Akvile Magicdusté

Dense Discovery
Dense Discovery

Welcome to Issue 188!

View/share online

When I recently walked past a charitable second-hand shop (we call them op shops in Australia) I spotted a sticker on the door that read “Of service to those in need”. And that made me think about what ‘being of service to others’ really means.

Anyone who’s read some books or essays on happiness would know that acts of selflessness are key to leading a content life. Mahatma Gandhi is often quoted for having said: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” But can we be of service to others without turning ourselves into full-fledged humanitarians? What does selflessness even look like in a society that celebrates individualism and thrives on competition?

Most of us today think of ‘service’ in a business context, where help is offered on a transactional basis. You pay, I serve. That corporate notion of being of service makes its way into lofty mission statements that usually have a veneer of altruism, mostly to give employees a sense of purpose: ‘Helping creators realise their potential.’

Outside the customer service context, random acts of kindness can be… confusing. We’re so used to transactional and reciprocal service that we feel either suspicious or awkwardly indebted when a person offers help without asking for anything in return. To avoid confusion we came up with a label that makes clear when help is given freely: volunteering is, I think, a legitimate way to be of service and something more of us should consider.

In The Pursuit of Emptiness (also see below), John Perry Barlow suggests that selfless service doesn’t have to involve grand gestures but instead can be easily integrated into our everyday lives through small behaviour changes:

“…following the training we receive in schools and workplaces, we have come to regard service as self-suppressing obligation rather than a self-fulfilling responsibility. It doesn’t have to be that way.

I think a related problem is that we tend to approach service the same way we approach exercise programs, in lunges and spasms of temporary idealism. We raise the initial bar too high. We fail to see that they also serve [those] who, while not quite heading off to Calcutta to comfort dying lepers, merely treat the strangers miscellaneously at hand with a little humour and kindness. You don’t have to be Gandhi to be a good guy. There are few things that make me happier than successfully resisting the impulse to snarl at some idle transgressor and elevating myself into an actively benign stance. Such opportunities arise almost hourly. (Not that I always rise to them.) The habit of small kindnesses is immensely rewarding.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line between truly selfless service and transactional service. Our system conditions us to see the former as an outlier and the latter as the default.

I like Barlow’s theory of normalising selflessness in small doses and lowering the bar for what ‘being of service’ means. There are plenty of situations where offering a kinder version of myself could make someone else’s day better. It’s nice to think of it as a way of serving others. Anyone who has been on the receiving end of that ‘service’ knows how powerful – and infectious – it can be. – Kai


Become a Friend of DD →

With a modest yearly contribution you’re not only helping keep Dense Discovery going, you also receive special discounts and get access to the DD Index, a searchable catalogue of past issues.


Dense Discovery is a weekly newsletter at the intersection of design, technology, sustainability and culture, read by over 43,000 subscribers. Do you have a product or service to promote? Sponsor an issue or book a classified.


Book More Meetings SPONSOR


Here’s a secret: A lot of startups (and unicorns) don’t write their sales emails. How do we know? Well... because we do it for them.

Successful businesses hire their sales reps to close deals, but partner with Inbox Ventures to get more meetings. We write cold emails that feel warm, because outreach should feel like an in-person chat.


Apps & Sites

Ethical Design Network →

Exploring ethics in design

A new community for those interested in ethical design (i.e. every designer) featuring an online meeting space (Slack channel), a mailing list, online events and a growing list of resources.

Gmail Row Highlighter →

UI upgrade for Gmail

Thanks to McKinley for recommending this tiny, handy browser plugin: it simply highlights the row of your Gmail inbox that your cursor is hovering over. (Chrome version here.)

Accessible Social →

How to share accessible content

A wonderful resource on how to make what we share on social media inclusive and accessible for people with disabilities. I just quickly scanned the section about emoji use and already learned a lot.

Here Before a Million →

Music (video) discovery

A lovely, human-powered recommendation platform for discovering new music: “The music videos featured on the website all have less than one million views on YouTube. Once a video’s view count exceeds this limit, it’ll be removed from the library. In this way, the library will constantly evolve to showcase less popular/under-appreciated music videos.”


Worthy Five: Cennydd Bowles


Five recommendations by designer and ethicist Cennydd Bowles

A piece of advice worth passing on:

I find myself saying “pull every lever” all the time these days. The vast challenges our world faces need responses at all levels. Systemic change, collective change, individual change. All of these matter. Pull every lever.

A question worth asking:

‘What experience would you enjoy more?’ Since we can’t beta-test major life choices, we need heuristics on what to do. Although there’s more to life than hedonism, choosing a path that leads to more enjoyment and happiness is surely a sound principle.

A concept worth understanding:

Reflective equilibrium: in philosophy, this is an idealised model of how we forge principles from real-world judgments, then apply them to future situations. From one to the other, back and forth, nudging here and there until they’re finally in alignment. Isn’t this how all reasoning should work?

A book worth reading:

Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a lyrical, capricious, but touching novel about existence and love. I’m happy I came across it at the perfect time in my life.

A recipe worth trying:

Nigel Slater’s white chocolate cardamom mousse: sweetness and earthiness in perfect balance, served in moreish doses.


Books & Accessories


The Coddling of the American Mind →

The psychological failures of ‘safetyism’

I almost missed this fascinating-sounding new book, co-authored by Jonathan Haidt: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths – and the resulting culture of safetyism – interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development.”


Imaginable →

Imagining the future without fear

Coming to terms with the fact that climate change is not an issue but an era means changing the way we think about the future. This brand-new book dives into the psychology and neuroscience required for this shift and offers practical tools to help us feel prepared. “Imaginable teaches us to be fearless, resilient, and bold in realizing a world with possibilities we cannot yet imagine.”


Overheard on Twitter

Can tell I’m 37 because I’m getting a 4:30 PM coffee with somebody and structuring my whole night around it like we’re doing mushrooms in the desert.



Food for Thought

Our misguided obsession with Twitter →


Twitter’s is not, as Musk claims, a de-facto town square but a privately owned ‘spectacle’ – Cal Newport argues here – whose popularity is propped up by a small group of mostly privileged and powerhungry users. “It might be tempting for the rest of us to leave the hyperbolic partisans sparring on Twitter to their diversions and move on with our lives. The problem with this platform at the moment, though, is that too many people in positions of power remain hypnotized by its stylized violence. Academic and business leaders will enact wild shifts in policy or practices at the slightest hint that these digital combatants are aiming weapons of virality in their direction. Politicians, for their part, seem to increasingly craft their behavior, and sometimes even legislation, to please not their constituents but the platform’s radicalized tastemakers.”

The Pursuit of Emptiness →


If it’s true that Germans are conditioned to accept a kind of collective suffering (the so-called Weltschmerz), it is also true that US Americans are primed to believe that, if one just tries hard enough, happiness is the natural end result. In this reflective essay, John Perry Barlow argues that a constitutionalised right to seek happiness leads to the exact opposite: an aching emptiness. “Openly agitating against the very pursuit of happiness was considered a sedition of the most insidious hazard. Because nearly everyone feels its weird invisible pressure – driving them to the fatigue that is despair, in order to acquire possessions that possessed them, money that turned their friends monstrous, addictions that turned them monstrous – nearly everyone feels that secret shame of not trying hard enough to be happy.”

Have iPhone cameras become too smart? →


How fascinating to read about the way new smartphones change some of the fundamental principles of photography. The cameras of modern smartphones are less about capturing a snapshot of reality than they are about computationally generating an aesthetically pleasing composition. “For a large portion of the population, ‘smartphone’ has become synonymous with ‘camera’, but the truth is that iPhones are no longer cameras in the traditional sense. Instead, they are devices at the vanguard of ‘computational photography’, a term that describes imagery formed from digital data and processing as much as from optical information. Each picture registered by the lens is altered to bring it closer to a pre-programmed ideal.”


Aesthetically Pleasing

❏ ❏

If you’re a space fan, don’t miss this gallery of the Top 100 images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope (and read the captions for mind-boggling space facts).

❏ ❏

Known under the moniker Globe Painter, the French street artist usually paints giant murals of playing children on walls of buildings.

❏ ❏

Facing Life tells the stories of eight different people who were released from life sentences in California prisons because of a policy change. Using subtly animated GIFs and short videos, the project shines a light on the pervasive and systemic issues caused by mass incarceration. (via)

❏ ❏

Acid Grotesk by Folch Studio remains one of my favourite modern grotesque typefaces – now with even more weight options. Friends of DD enjoy a 25% discount. Become a Friend to access specials like this.


Notable Numbers


The sale of NFTs fell to a daily average of about 19,000 last week, a 92% decline from a peak of about 225,000 in September, according to the data website NonFungible.


A 15,000-person study showed that professionals now spend more than half the standard workweek – a full 21.5 hours – in meetings, an increase of 7.3 hours a week just since the pandemic began.


To reduce carbon emissions, the French government has become the first large economy to ban short-haul flights where a train or bus alternative of two and a half hours or less exists, a move which could eliminate 12% of French domestic flights.



Feeling stuck? Sign up for this free newsletter on how to have a happier, more meaningful life.

Spending too long on social media? No idea on the performance of the posts? Try Pur Social. A social media scheduling, posting & analytics tool that saves time and tracks results.

Create content once, publish everywhere. With a CMS like WordPress you can’t do that. Download the State of Content Management Report and learn about the benefits of a headless CMS.

The Daily Invitation is the perfect graduation gift. An elegant blue box holds a deck of 60 words, written in expressive calligraphy. A simple tool for perspective and reflection.

Classifieds are paid ads that support DD and are seen by our 43,000 subscribers each week.

Book yours →


The Week in a GIF


Reply or tweet at DD with your favourite GIF and it might get featured here in a future issue.