Trend spotting: Tech-savvy minimalism

On Monday, the BBC published the article “Cult of less: Living out of a hard drive” about a group of 20-something hipsters who claim digital technologies have replaced all but a few of their possessions.

One of the men interviewed for the article says he only owns “his laptop, an iPad, an Amazon Kindle, two external hard drives, a ‘few’ articles of clothing and bed sheets.” Another says he only has “a backpack full of designer clothing, a laptop, an external hard drive, a small piano keyboard and a bicycle – an armful of goods that totals over $3,000 (£1,890) in value.”

Owning just a few electronics and pieces of fabric is an interesting take on extreme minimalism. In contrast to most ascetics who eschew the conveniences of the modern world, it’s current technologies that make these hyper-digital ascetics’ lifestyles possible.

[Kelly Sutton of Brooklyn, New York] … says he got rid of much of his clutter because he felt the ever-increasing number of available digital goods have provided adequate replacements for his former physical possessions.

“I think cutting down on physical commodities in general might be a trend of my generation – cutting down on physical commodities that can be replaced by digital counterparts will be a fact,” said Mr Sutton.

The tech-savvy Los Angeles “transplant” credits his external hard drives and online services like iTunes, Hulu, Flickr, Facebook, Skype and Google Maps for allowing him to lead a minimalist life.

However, the tech-savvy minimalists are quick to point out that their decisions have made some aspects of their lives difficult:

Mr Klein says the lifestyle can become loathsome because “you never know where you will sleep”. And Mr Yurista says he frequently worries he may lose his new digital life to a hard drive crash or downed server.

What do you think of these modern minimalists? Discuss your reactions in the comments.

39 Comments for “Trend spotting: Tech-savvy minimalism”

  1. posted by Ann Blake on

    Digital formats don’t last long, in my lifetime I’ve accumulated digital media I can’t open easily–either because I no longer have the hardware or software. Printer inks, even very expensive professional ones, won’t last nearly as long as real photographs have…So, if you are writing a diary for the ages, or family photographs you want saved for your children’s children, you are better off with non digital media. We also should probably print some survival books for real, against the fall of civilization. “I know we could make beer, if only I could search the internet…”

  2. posted by Susmita on

    If the object of minimalism is to simplify your life, it doesn’t seem like these tech-minimalists have done that. In fact, they may be further complicating their lives in some ways.

  3. posted by Sam on

    The DJ in Washington uncluttered himself so much that he has become clutter to other people. Some bum who’s always hanging around my house needing to use my shower, use my wi-fi, watch my TV, and sleep on my couch is way worse than having too many books or dusty trinkets on a shelf. I reserve that kind of generosity for people who have fallen on hard times, not people who refuse to accept their adult responsibilities of self-sufficiency.

    btw- how is scrounging for shelter every day a simpler way to live?

  4. posted by Lilliane P on

    I’ve done that traveling for extended periods of time. I’ve often thought all I need is a hotel room with wifi, a balcony, my electronics, and I’d be all set. I probably would be for quite awhile but this presupposes no family life. I think this is totally viable in your 20’s but beyond that it’s questionable.

  5. posted by John Galt on

    @Ann Blake
    With proper setup (RAID, network backup), your files will last indefinitely. And best of all – they will never degrade in quality, and look as good 100 years from now as they do now. No risk of losing them in a fire, or theft (offsite backup), not to mention convenience.
    You mention files you can’t access. Stick to the well known ones (for pictures I recommend lossless PNG), and when storage media is slowly going out of use – upgrade to new one (though I’m pretty sure you won’t have any problem accessing your pics 20 years from now on a SATA drive).

  6. posted by Zac on

    I think this lifestyle decision just displaces their real world needs on to other people. We’re just not there yet technologically speaking. As pioneers of this ‘way if life’ these people are interesting, but socially they’re creating an undue burden on everyone they know and perhaps each of us if their decisions means they live in homeless shelters. There are people who actually NEED those social services, and making the decision to live of the net but digitally and socially is irresponsible. 10 years from now? Who knows? But the fact remains that we’re not there yet.

  7. posted by David on

    Absolutely absurd. He doesn’t own a bed, so he sleeps at friends’ houses on their couch every night. I am sure the friends are thrilled about his “minimalism”.

    There is being a minimalist, and then there is participating in a fad in order to get attention. This guy is the latter.

  8. posted by Joe on

    I wouldn’t necessarily say that living a digital lifestyle is always a simplification. Digital clutter, at least for me, is far more distracting than physical clutter.

    Physical clutter can be donated, tossed in the trash, or recycled. Digital clutter finds a way of sticking around. Delete all you want, reorganize, start a new folder hierarchy, fire up Evernote, Simplenote, Read it Later, and Instapaper. Scan your Facebook and Twitter feeds, check in with Foursquare, and spend a couple of hours making your way through RSS feeds. Open up 12 tabs in Google Chrome, and never finish reading anything before hopping off to the next link. Lifehacker leads to io9 to Engadget to Gizmodo to Simply Recipes to the New York Times.

    These people featured in the article may not have these problems. There are some extremely disciplined people living an all digital life. But I have found that the digitizing of my information has led to it bleeding into other areas, greatly affecting both my productivity and my general level of happiness. I find it exceedingly difficult to concentrate on any one thing since my digital files, mail, and work are all sharing space with just about every form of media ever created, and all the advertising that comes along with them.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, the digital life can quickly become just as cluttered as the overflowing desk or junk drawer. It’s just hidden away on your netbook, occupying some nebulous space in internet world. And now it can’t be left at home or work. It’s everywhere, all the time.

  9. posted by Kari on

    Agreed with many of the comments above. While this may help with things like books and papers, there is all the stuff of daily life–a place to live, a bed to sleep in, a place to prepare food, a place to clean ones self and one’s clothing, clothes to wear, etc. It seems like people who “give these things up” don’t actually give them up–they expect the people around them to provide them at no cost to the minimalist and at major cost, in terms of money, space and time, to their “friends.” This is not minimalism–it is mooching.

  10. posted by Dan on

    Clicking through to the website of one of the featured fellows, we find that he now has an apartment/room with at least a bed and a couple of chairs. There may have been an end table in the background.

    Perhaps he found that he went too far.

  11. posted by Steve on

    I would say that the object of minimalism is to simplify your life so that you have what you need and so that you get rid of what you don’t, or what gets in the way of the things you find important.

    As such, any kind of movement toward the minimal is going to also present it’s own complications. It’s just a question of whether they are the right complications for you.

    I’ll give you an example: I am a writer and editor. In my own writing, it’s the words that matter, not their format. As such, I archive everything that I write as plain text, using a cloud-based backup service. It’s simple, easy, and as universal as any digital format is likely to be. Could I still lose it all? Sure. Is it likely? No.

  12. posted by Josh on

    Most comments seem to be focused on whether giving up your home and couch-surfing is truly minimalist (“This is not minimalism – it is mooching.”).

    Whether it’s mooching or minimalism, the article’s very premise – that technology has enabled these people to give up their homes – is flawed.

    Technology has allowed some minimalism – you’re able to scan their files and photos, convert your music to mp3, and read books on your Kindle or iPad – but you can’t store your bed or shower or kitchen in the cloud. Technology didn’t enable them to give these things up – they just gave them up, and now they have to find them through other non-technical means.

  13. posted by Gategrrl on

    I would have liked to have heard from Joshua Klein’s wife, who went along with ditching 2/3rds of their possessions to essentially live on the streets of New York. I would have also liked to have seen whether this “vagabond” freeloading lifestyle pertains to anyone other than white males (and their wives). Do single women do this? Is this a trend with tech-savvy young white male college grads only?

    I only get a “poor baby” vibe when I read this article, which is full of privilige. If they have problems, it’s all of their own making. I hope they still have friends after crashing on couches for months at a time. If anything, this sounds like a fad.

  14. posted by Sue on

    Am I missing something? The one guy listed a laptop, ipad, kindle, two external hard drives, but no phone?

    They don’t seem to own shampoo & soap, or other grooming stuff? No one listed a toothbrush? Ewww.

    Is this like the guy who claimed to own 57 things but didn’t count any of his shared apartment items?

    I’m sure I could make it look like I owned very few items if I conveniently failed to count many of my things. Cleaning and personal care products? Those are disposable and shared with my husband so they don’t go on my list. Everything in my house? Also shared with my husband so off the list!

    Sheesh!

  15. posted by WilliamB on

    I’m with Sam: they’re gone beyond affecting their own lives and are now imposing on others’. They’ve become moochers and – I love this phrase – other people’s clutter.

  16. posted by Michael on

    Sounds to me like a lot of common sense in these comments.

    I think Josh is most succinct: “Technology has allowed some minimalism – you’re able to scan their files and photos, convert your music to mp3, and read books on your Kindle or iPad – but you can’t store your bed or shower or kitchen in the cloud. Technology didn’t enable them to give these things up – they just gave them up, and now they have to find them through other non-technical means”.

    But can we pare down what we do need while not mooching on others? Sure. Personal responsibility and maturity matters.

  17. posted by Tasha on

    I like the idea of converting a lot of things to digital formats – it’s sort of what I’m doing now. I put all of my DVDs, CD, LPs, books, photos, etc. on a few hard drives, laptop, netbook, and kindle. But for me it truly is the best way to go – I’m about to move overseas for grad school and there is not much more difficult than packing everything I might want while I’m there, especially since my parents are moving out of the house where all my stuff has been at the same time.
    It’s not like I’ll be without housing or those kinds of essentials though; I’m living in student flats. But I still see the appeal of cutting down on physical things that can be replaced digitally.

  18. posted by e on

    I read this story the other day, and I could NOT figure out how they were able to eat! One of the guys has a website with every object he owns listed – he has some chairs and clothes, but I didn’t see any pots or pans or plates (unless I missed them). So every meal would have to be eaten at a restaurant or out of the house. Sounds like even water would have to be purchased, since there isn’t a glass to hold tap water. To me, that is a very complicated life that would require a lot of money.

    To each his own, but if I chose to have only a handful of items, I would include some silverware and a fry pan.

    If he has these and isn’t counting them, then the whole thing is a publicity stunt!

  19. posted by Sam on

    Right after college, a friend of mine had a problem with a friend that didn’t have anywhere to go. She had a network of places she crashed. When my friend moved from one apartment to another, she got rid of her second bed and her couch so this “minimalist” would quit freeloading off her. This vein on her temple pops out everytime anyone mentioned the freeloader’s name.

  20. posted by phillippa on

    I think we need to read between the lines. Yes. It features (very) young men who are able to minimize their clutter into some hardware. They chose to leave their home. I think the point of the article is the use of technology enabled this mobility. They can pick up and leave if/when they want to (and for the moment, they have). If they decide to go back to a home later, they’ll probably still be fairly mobile, save for the bed/couch/whatever.

  21. posted by Leslie on

    /snip
    “his laptop, an iPad, an Amazon Kindle, two external hard drives.”

    I don’t even own that much now and I run a business off a laptop. While the above may sound like minimalism, it can also be venues for excess. It’s a whole lot easier to click and download books/movies/music than it is to get to a bookstore/library/other brick n’ mortar place during regular business hours. I can download vast mbs of media in seconds what could take me hours to shop for physically. And who doesn’t like shopping at 2 am when you can’t sleep or simply MUST have that latest download.

    While digital media has its benefits-I really enjoy “the sound” versus my old tapes (which I can only listen to in the van as it’s the only tape player we have) and CDs; and with my failing eyesight, the benefit of increasing font size has made it so I don’t have to give up my favorite past time, being “uncluttered” is only in appearance, not actuality.

  22. posted by Trish on

    The mooching behavior is totally absurd, I think we all agree on that.

    But I, too, am in the midst of replacing all my cds, books, letters, and photos with digital copies. I LOVE it. These items were a huge layer of clutter in my mostly clutter-free lifestyle. I have everything backed up to hard drives.

    I am researching geneology for both my family and also my husband’s, and I get so excited when someone sends me a digital file instead of a stack of papers. If I ever have children, I hope they’ll feel the same way about being given hard drives. :)

    I have been able to get rid of 2 very large bookshelves, and 6 huge CD binders! Hurray!

    I do still scrapbook so I have saved a handful of photos (I’d guess about 150 out of thousands) to work with.

    I also am not touching our movie collection. It’s already quite tidy and small and I don’t want to invest in buying digital copies of these.

    I guess you could argue that just turning on the PC is an invitation to check e-mail and facebook, so it does take a little discipline if you are addicted to these things, but I don’t feel that having all my stuff in digital format adds a lot to my time online.

  23. posted by Alix on

    Fact is, minimalism is often anything BUT simple.

    Gotta love these people whose “minimalist” lifestyle is predicated on the fact that their family/friends are *not* minimalist.

  24. posted by amandalee on

    I’m going to echo what a lot of people are saying. If you choose not to own things that you might need in your day-to-day life, that’s fine. Good job.

    But if your choosing not to own these things means you are relying on someone else to provide them for you, then you’re doing something reprehensible. You are someone else’s clutter.

    I know someone who went through a phase of infuriating “minimalism” in college [which mostly involved ridiculing how much stuff other people owned]. I flinch at the term nowadays, and it’s mostly his fault.

  25. posted by Tabbycat on

    I don’t think I would let someone continually mooch off me unless they were contributing to my household, either cleaning or paying rent. If these people are mooching it’s b/c people are letting them. I’m not saying its right, but I would say no if it was me, weather I had an extra bed or not.

  26. posted by Rachel on

    I think to pull this off successfully, this guy needs a bunch of spare cash to spend on eating out for every meal, unless he’s relying on the kindness of his friends and their kitchens.

    I’ve had my patience worn thin plenty of times by the Freddy Freeloaders in my life, but as a 20-something with most of my 20-something friends graduated from college, jobless, and moving back in with their parents in defeat, I’m a little more sensitive to the allure (and sometimes necessity) of couch-surfing. Personally, I couldn’t do it–I like to “nest,” and I’m lucky enough to have a job and a partner to split rent with.

    Ah, first-world problems. :)

  27. posted by Nana on

    My daughter, a wildlife technician in Alaska, invited me to visit her [rented] house. In my honor (and because I’m pretty traditional and 60+), she bought a second plate, a bowl, cup, saucer, and tableware. She had one chair and two lamps, which we moved around as needed. We sat on the floor and ate on the hearth. It was fun…it also was only a week.

  28. Avatar of

    posted by charmed2482 on

    I don’t think they necessarily eat out all the time though, maybe they just get fresh fruit or veggies from the store and eat that, you don’t always need pots and pant and plates and forks to eat.

  29. posted by klutzgrrl on

    Rachael, dead right about first-world problems. We struggle to live simply… others struggle to simply live.

  30. posted by Positive Skeptic on

    These people are not minimalists, they are poseurs (at most borderline ascetics), armed with the latest tech gadgetry. Where their ancient counterparts would carry around a few personal possessions befitting their era (e.g., utensils and journals), they sport MacBooks and hard drives. How convenient that they have non-minimalist friends to mooch off of and compensate for the lack of possessions in their lives. I can just imagine their friends thinking of these “hipster-cum-ascetics” sleeping on their couches every other day as being clutter in their lives.

    In reality, their gimmicky lifestyles qualify for neither minimalism or asceticism. They aren’t minimalist because they have given up their possessions, but also the convenience that accompanies them, thus negating the essence of minimalism as derived by most people pursuing it. As far as the ascetic side is concerned, one can reasonably assert that none of the items that are being commonly used by these trend-setters are essential to survival and could easily be done away with by a true follower of the doctrine.

  31. posted by Emma on

    I find this ‘trend’ disturbing. Isn’t shelter one of most basic things on the hierarchy of needs?

  32. posted by Sue on

    @Emma – apparently not. Looks like having all of the latest Apple gadgets ranks higher than shelter.

  33. posted by Annie on

    I think that some go beyond minimalism into asceticism. Having a computer and digital technology has allowed me to drastically simplify and reduce my life. My laptop is my telephone, my television, my stereo, my book reader and more–all rolled up into one device. That said, I would not consider reducing my possessions to the point of a few clothes, my laptop and a backpack. It may be minimalist, but not very practical.

  34. posted by Michele on

    his laptop, an iPad, an Amazon Kindle, two external hard drives, a ‘few’ articles of clothing and bed sheets

    That’s a heck of a carbon footprint for living minimally. Those computers weren’t made from sticks and twigs; they were made from toxic chemicals, heavy metals, nonrenewable resources — on the other side of the planet, no less.

    The exploited labor issue is another story, but shall I up my rhetoric a little and compare it to the mooching he’s doing on his friends and family, which other commenters have already pointed out?

  35. posted by Patti on

    Agree with the previous posters; minimalism is one thing and an admirable goal, but unless you’re self-sufficient as well, you’re not truly minimalist.

  36. posted by Ren on

    I truly did not see the minimalism at the opening paragraph, the guy has a iPad, Laptop, and Kindle. Couldn’t he just have a iPad or Laptop since each one of those basically do the same thing?

    In the end a computer at home can replace the TV, the need for both music and movie CDs, it is also your stereo system. And I will confess during the winter it is my only source of heat generation.

    So in essence if a person has one computer and none of the other things I listed… that would be a much better focus for this article on “going digital”.

  37. posted by Mike on

    “I think this lifestyle decision just displaces their real world needs on to other people.”

    Well, add an apartment rental and some minimal folding furniture, and there is no displacement anymore.

  38. Avatar of

    posted by djk on

    well said, Patti, “…unless you’re self-sufficient as well, you’re not truly minimalist.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  39. posted by nmrosycheeks on

    What about deodorant? Shampoo? Toothpaste? Laundry detergent? I’d prefer a clean, pleasant-smelling, self-sufficient man with a few well-chosen possessions.

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