The following is a series of scattered notes about this post-modern geek-flavoured minimalism that appears to be increasingly present in many Web places I frequent. I meant to write a long, more robust essay, but in the end I’d rather publish this material — hopefully food for thought and debate. Please consider it as it is, a written equivalent of thinking aloud. Nothing’s definitive and surely more notes on the subject will follow.
Lately I can’t help noticing a resurgence of a minimalist ‘less is more’ philosophy. There are really a lot of fairly recent websites out there imparting advice on how to make our lives better by decluttering, getting rid of useless stuff and generally of all things that are just burdens, slowing us down, on a literal and spiritual level.
While I tend to agree with these sites and authors (I don’t give specific examples on purpose, because that would be a partial list, and I don’t want to give the impression that I’m singling out someone in particular), I’m not entirely convinced by the less-is-more principle itself. In other words: is what affects our well-being and productivity a matter of sheer quantity (lots of stuff to deal with), or is it just a matter of quality?
Some minimalists may tell you that reducing quantity is a step towards quality, and for some it may be true. Over the years, my personal experience has been more along the lines of organising quantity is a step towards quality. I think ‘organise’ is a broader term than ‘reduce’, and is more open to possibilities and grey areas. Sure enough, reducing the amount of stuff one has is indeed part of organising it better, but in my opinion it doesn’t necessarily have to be the starting point.
My view tends to take a step back and focus more on how to organise something, how to improve it. That’s why I believe in a Better is More approach, rather than the abused ‘Less is More’. Having less stuff around, both in the real and in the digital world, is one way of improving things, but not the only one — and sometimes it may not even be the best one.
A couple of provocative tweets I wrote some time ago:
- I appreciate the minimalist philosophy. But lately I’m increasingly pissed by what seems empty ostentation of it.
- This latest geeky-minimalist wave is starting to feel a little too self-indulgent for my tastes.
The bare desk as a work space must be a reflection of yourself, of the way you work. It must be a pictogram of your forma mentis, otherwise it won’t work. You might be intrigued by the emptiness of the desks of some minimalist geeks, you might be tempted to copy them and you might even achieve some good results. But you may also end up creating an unfamiliar work space, thus hampering your productivity.
This tendency, this willingness to virtualise everything on one hand is really admirable — and in some cases understandable. On the other hand I perceive the risks of losing a lot, in the process. I mean, a side effect might be an increased forgetfulness — if everything is reduced to a series of bits on a hard drive, everything gets levelled out, things lose their personality, their value, their physical presence, their power to make you recollect, remember, think, etc. See again this article where I quote Nassim Nicholas Taleb on real books vs. digital books.
Paring down all of one’s clothes to point where they all fit on one clothing rail is good, but the reason it’s good is not that an excess of clothes tarnishes the soul. It shouldn’t be conspicuous and self-congratulatory. A minimalist lifestyle does not make you a better person.
But it may make you happier. It is not a weight off my soul, but it is a weight off my mind not to have too much to worry about.
Actually, in the case of digitising things and getting rid of their physical counterparts, I think I might have less stuff to worry about, but at the same time I’d be more worried about it; about its survival, about its integrity, etc.
I like being able to find stuff. It’s easier to organise a small amount of stuff. It’s easier to find a specific thing when there’s only one place it could be.
This is very true. But in my opinion, the key word should be organise, not necessarily less. Continuing with the example of digitising material, am I the only one who has found himself looking for a damned file I know I have somewhere, without being able to find it as quickly as I’d thought? Too often, a specific thing should be in only one place, but when the place is “in the computer”, everything gets immediately trickier. I know the author of the quote means differently and is referring to having less stuff in your home. I know he means that it’s easier to find a specific thing when there’s only one place it could be in your home (or office or studio).
I was making a different example because an increasing number of people believe that things gets easier if you digitise your stuff and put it on a easily-searchable place like a hard drive. In my opinion and experience, they do not, or at least there may not be the palpable improvement one hoped for. The root of the problem is in one’s ability to organise. If you’re not good at keeping your stuff organised in the real world, don’t expect things to improve magically in cyberspace. Sure, computers can help with searches, but you still have to know what you’re looking for.
That’s why I often say that in the digitised space of hard drives you search, while in the real world you find.