Michael Wolf
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Minimalism and Self-Reliance
Last edited - 2020-07-25

This is going to be a long post and perhaps not particularly coherent. The bulk is some rambling about the value of minimalism and self-reliance in post-industrial society and particularly where they come in conflict with each other. This isn't about minimalism the visual style though I suppose there could be some vague correlations there. Furthermore, I'm not going to approach it in an academic way, it's mostly going to be based on a dialog I had with a friend. I hope it doesn't come off sounding like I'm making him (or anyone else) sound superficial. I don't consider myself some holy person who always does the right thing for the environment. Anyway, this post has been a long time coming, so bear with me.

I was recently (though recently is a long time in 2020) on a camping trip in Tahoe National Forest with a friend who is an industrial designer. I'll call him Sven. Sven and I had some long inebriated ramblings into the evening about the importance of building things that are durable. Having both grown up in an era of cheap plastic doodads and living to see the ecological repercussions of them, we found that we both agreed on choosing durable objects when at all possible. It's not always economically feasible for someone to reach for the long-lasting clothes/tools/systems, but for those with the means, it feels like a quasi-moral imperative to reduce consumption when possible.

Sven, being an industrial designer, worked in the mindset since his school years, where all projects in the arts college kept sustainability near the top in evaluation criteria. I developed the drive to reduce and reuse by growing up in a thrifty house enamored by auctions and dumpster-diving. Growing up to learn about systems theory and long-term thinking only solidified my perspectives.

Sven was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance during this trip and related the story (I haven't read the book so sorry if I butcher it) of the narrator's friend John purchasing a top-of-the-line BMW motorcycle. This thing can run for thousands of miles before needing a tune up so he decides not to learn how to make it run. Meanwhile, the narrator drives a beat up motorcycle that breaks down fairly often. However, when the narrator's motorcycle is having issues, he can diagnose and fix it himself leading to a higher confidence travelling long distances. We were gnawing on this a bit as we started attacking brands we saw printing out expensive junk.

On Apple

Where our opinions began to differ was on the subject of Apple. Sven, as an industrial designer in San Francisco, regarded Apple as the pinnacle of design, creating beautiful, minimalist products that are built to last a lifetime. "But they don't," I remember saying, a bit rudely. "They break down, they become obsolete and they get thrown in the dump just as quickly (if not faster) than other machines." His response was that their build quality allowed them to last longer and not really need repair. But that's where I had my issue with the company. I brought up the excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Having volunteered at the Cincinnati Computer Cooperative, a recycling/refurbishing shop, throughout college I understood just how hard it is to tear down those old fishbowl Macintoshes to get the hard drive out. They aren't made to be repaired at home. They're made to make Apple more money when they break or make Apple more money when they become obsolete.

"Abandon home, all ye who touch this!" From the Cincinnati Computer Cooperative circa 2015. Probably not a mac, but you get the point.

Apple, and every other consumer products company, is rewarded for churning out more devices. They need to sell more which means a wider audience but also to the same people they already sold to. Many companies have trade-in programs (Apple, Google, Sony, Amazon), but they hardly serve the same objective as a proper reuse program, they just help get devices out of the hands of potential consumers.

Now I don't want to say recycling is bad. It is eco-friendly and valuable for those products like glass, aluminum, paper, and the precious metals on circuit boards. But the competing goals of the era for sustainability but also capitalism can lead to some awful outcomes like single-use plastic recycling and the Pacific garbage patch. The case of Apple suing a recycler for reselling usable products was right from a contract-standpoint, but wrong from an environmental one. Companies like Amazon can't be trusted to do the right thing when it impacts their bottom line. The time spent sending has questionable value toward sustainability. It can be argued that if it's that hard to recycle, it is probably better in a landfill (especially when considering the future of landfill mining).

Back to the campsite, my argument against Apple products dug mostly into how hard they make it to repair and refurbish their systems in the name of "ensuring the highest quality." As someone who has kept around pretty much every computer component I've purchased, I've found that while the all-in-one it-just-works systems tend to hang in there longer, once they have problems, they're tricky to fix-- from the proprietary screws and cables to the evil layout of the internals. Much like machine learning systems, they're simply not understandable. On the other hand, given enough non-Apple desktops to account for varying connectors and slots, any given computer can be reassembled. Thus, while having to defend myself against my wife for having a shitload of half-full computers and bringing more home fairly often, I'm able to recreate a system at will that needs to runs some software from X years ago. Meanwhile I'm still trying to track down a damn ADB cable for my Macintosh Classic. Sven came back by explaining that Samsung and their ilk are no better with their hardware. I certainly didn't dispute that but held that Android OS at its core at least allowed for rooting, homebrewed improvements, and an existence without the benevolent approval of a megacorporation.

Sven's defense of Apple turned toward their removal of the need for physical items by the movement of systems into the phone. MP3 players (though still fashionable imo, shoutout to the Sandisk Sanza Clip), point-and-shoot cameras, voice recorders, calendars, calculators, PDAs, pagers, flashlights, and even desktop computers for some people have been merged into a single device, the smartphone. This is wonderful in terms of creating lifestyle minimalism and reducing consumption. Seeing the (blindingly) bright Apple store or Microsoft store with their nearly empty tables is satisfying when coming from an era of doodads and thingamajigs and school back-to-school lists that are three pages long. The concern I raised here was about the sense of personal loss when a phone is missing/stolen/broken or even when we lose reception. So much of our cognitive ability, so many of our emergency tools have been offloaded to our phones that it can be challenging to collect ourselves without them. Minimizing items doesn't seem to be enough to achieve minimalism. But I discuss this further on.

On The Cloud

As someone working in operations in Silicon Valley, I was quick to share my reservations about cloud systems, particularly ones that are free or tied to one-time-purchases. In order to offload so many of our items onto the smartphone, companies offer online services and storage. These services are clean and easy-to-use to the end user and much of what we consider "the culture of the Internet" goes into them. However, these services don't last forever. The Internet, its services, and its data cannot be trusted to companies that are able to give up ( Yahoo, Yahoo (again), Kongregate ) or just make a mistake ( Myspace, Garmin, AWS ). Karl Voit makes an excellent point that public forums are driven by the wrong incentives. Futhermore, when certain services go offline, they can turn physical items into junk. When the servers turn off, the electronics hardcoded to talk to them do too. In this regard, I do give credit to Apple for being willing to support their services much longer than Google, Google (again), Belkin, or the hundreds of IoT vendors out there whose cheap network devices become paperweights when the company goes under or decides it doesn't want to support the systems anymore. And Sven did tend to agree with me here. Despite the seemingly eternal presence of companies like Apple is not guaranteed by mandate. Their time in business is a minute compared to that of human history. There is no telling if Apple or Google or Facebook's content will be available for future generations, with now becoming a more permanent digital dark age.

I think I proceeded to go on a rant about the importance of the work that is done by the Internet Archive and Archive Team. I've been inspired by Jason Scott in my meticulous personal archiving of memes, podcasts, photos, PDFs, and papers (see some here and here). When content is distributed and placed in the physical realm (as it was with published books, newspapers, photos, and letters) it is much more likely to survive after an individual's death or the death of an Internet service. Cloud-hosted content feels similar to oral tradition. It isn't truly preserved unless it's printed out, but it's at least safer on the hard drives of a hundred people than a single server point of failure.

So on the topic of home computing I'd like to digress into the subject of repair. I've had deep respect for those who are capable of taking a machine that isn't booting and get it to run. Despite my personal efforts to improve, I find myself capable of only troubleshooting rudimentary issues with electronics and solving structural or mechanical problems in the most duct-tape fashion. Knowing a number of Commodore 64 enthusiasts who have been able to breathe life into dead boards and handyfolks who can build a shed in their backyard with easy truly puts me to shame. I highly value this virtue of self-reliance and craftiness and hope that my skill will improve once I buy a home and start needing to follow YouTube tutorials to get things done.

On Marie Kondo

So clearly as my personal life shows, acquiring the spare parts needed is not always enough to justify them for self-reliance (though I may one day achieve that level of skill), but minimalism is more than cleaning out the house. At the campsite, I brought down a diatribe against Marie Kondo. Her approach toward tidyness seems to me to be in the same vein as corporate recycling programs: a short-term solution mainly geared toward making the consumer feel better. "But her focus is more on finding items that have duplicated purpose and removing them," Sven countered, "they would likely find actual use in another household and prevent them from needing to buy that item new." And this is a good point and I would never want to dismiss reuse stores given how much I use them, but they exist near recycling in how close they come to making waste. So much of what is triaged at a thrift store drop off doesn't make it to a home or goes on an expensive journey to somewhere that doesn't really want it.

My issue with the Marie Kondo approach is the short-term mindset that goes into the expulsion of unwanted goods. Laying out all of your clothes and throwing away the pieces you don't like doesn't do anything to prevent you psychologically from acquiring clothes you don't need in the future. Really, it just frees up closet space for you to continue being an active consumer even though you have every bit of clothing and more than you need. As for removing machines of duplicate function, this works until you need a spare or a replacement at which point you will need to go buy said replacement. For items in which replacement or repair with spare parts doesn't make sense, it's probably worth considering whether a more durable solution exists.

Toward Deeper Minimalism

To me, a set of sewing supplies, a case a super glue, a box of hardware fasteners, and duct tape are admirable home objects. Spending time to make something serve a purpose longer purpose even when a replacement is cheap seems to be a virtue. Calling back to the simple living of Thoreau (whose Walden Pond cabin I've had the pleasure of visiting) minimalism and self-reliance necessarily need to be in conflict. Those with an interest in computers are obviously going to need more things than Thoreau had at Walden, but I don't think that crosses one off from integrating that mindset.

Assorted hooligans increasing the complexity of Walden Pond

The liberation of minimalism extends beyond the physical realm. It's a mental view that marks the difference between a hoarder and one who is self-reliant. I feel it has to do greatly with regaining ones focus from social media, outrage, politics, television, fashion, and trendiness in general. There are enough blog posts and articles out there about the freedom people have felt when turning off social media so I won't go on ranting about them or the psychological systems in place to drive engagement. I find the practice of manipulating users in this way to be repulsive and I'm glad I don't have to work in a place that makes me deal with that sort of technology.

To be clear, I don't think I can or should change anyone's lifestyle. If celebrity news and Instagram gives you joy, who am I to tell you that you are living incorrectly. However, I find that for those battling anxiety and depression or just being overwhelmed by the distracting but fleeting disasters that wash over our consciousness, there are solutions. Stepping away from social media, reducing screen time, and finding hobbies or activities that require your attention to be held for long periods of time can be incredibly satisfying. Reading books and long-form articles rather than news snippets will stick with you much longer and provide a more stable foundation for your perspectives. For those who feel lonely, especially in these quarantine times, there are group chats and decentralized platforms that are at least free of the manipulation and concocted outrage seen elsewhere online.

A friend of mine had an idea for a pedestrian wayfinding tool that rather than mapping you directly to your destination via the most efficient route, it would simply glow brighter as you approached your destination. It would allow you to wander, taking more time to arrive, but treating that as part of the full experience. Walking, studying street signs and metro maps, paying close attention to scenery, and exploring is how one gets to know an area and find those places that they fall in love with. The joy of exploring a new place versus hitting the major points like a guided tourist is irreplaceable. Finding your destination without a phone dictating you the directions not only allows you to find new places to explore and even change your whole day's plans if you want, it provides a sense of self-esteem and confidence that you were capable of finding your destination and you could find your way back even if your phone gets smashed into a million pieces.

I suppose that's the goal of what I consider minimalism-- an enjoyment of life that doesn't require piles of consumer goods, social obligations, or a Facebook account. The self-reliance part provides the self-esteem that one can solve problems without relying on their phone or a specialist. A reduction of waste is deeply entrenched in these. The scale at which one approaches this can vary wildly. And complications like the covid-19 pandemic can cause all manner of setbacks. Wasteful Amazon purchases are through the roof. Despite this, it seems like a solution for many of those who feel disenfranchised by the growing complexity and ecological disasters of the world.

On Extreme Minimalism

In an excellent article, in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Wynes argues that the greatest impact a human can make on global CO2 levels is to not have children. As someone who doesn't eat meat, rarely drives, and tries in most regards to be eco-friendly, the proposition of not having children is a difficult one. I do want to have children. It's hardwired in human instincts. It's our reason for being here (so says Darwin) even if some of us have aspirations for the human race pointed at the stars. But damn, it's suggested to be 10x or 100x as effective at reducing carbon emissions over a human's lifetime. Looking back at how much waste and CO2 I've generated, it's pretty clear that despite my efforts to be a good human, I'm still a human.

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement cartoon by Nina Paley, from Wikipedia

So what? Stop all reproduction? I mean, maybe. I think the main issue is that, much like the Shakers, those who have the mindset to care so much about the planet aren't the ones that will be raising the next generation. I have a note somewhere in my journal that reads "anti-natalism is the intersection of emo and analytic philosophy." There was a point in my life where definitely considered this route seriously-- nearly to the point of suicide, but something changed either in my mental health or reproductive drive that pulled me back to being okay with having one or two kids. Once I make that choice there's no going back though.

I find myself at parts feeling great disdain for humans: those clearing rain forests for pastureland, those driving unnecessarily beefy pickup trucks, those scattering glass bottles on the street and plastic bags in highway medians. It's anti-social and certainly anti-capitalist to take such a negative view on humanity, but I think a certain amount of long-term thinking can be applied here. The Earth has seen tremendous upheavals in its climate and biome before. We, as the creatures of the Earth, will either adapt or perish as the Earth resets itself. If we adapt, great, the change was not too much. If we perish, well that's not so great for humans, but our hubris was too much for the resource we considered infinite. One can only hope that what we leave to the next sentient lifeforms to arise here will take care to learn from our mistakes, assuming they aren't buried too deep.

On Some Kind of Conclusion

I have a fairly dire outlook on the climate, but I trust that the Earth (and possibly humanity) will sort things out in the long term. That may mean consequences for the next generation, but hopefully that just makes the truth unavoidable to those in power. There is still so much beauty out in nature. I trust that it will survive, even if we don't.

In the meantime, I feel it remains useful to pursue the psychological minimalism and self-reliance I've danced around in this blog post. Minimalism is often tainted with elitism, but the world would be a better place if it could be brought to be within reach of everyone. I'm not so political to say we should call for taxes on cheap plastic non-essential shit but I'd definitely vote for that.

The reduce and reuse in reduce, reuse, recycle have fallen by the wayside due to the financial drives of the economy. Modern consumerism often comes under the guise of reduction or minimalism by replacing (perfectly good) items with ones that are smaller, sleeker, and often not even owned by the individual (in the case of the cloud). While the potential externalities I've raised in this ramble won't prove themselves out in full for a few years, I'm glad I at least got them out so I can formulate them better the next time I get drunk with some friends in Tahoe National Forest.

Warm regards from, Canyon Creek, Bowman Lake, Tahoe

UPDATE 2023: Related blogpost about a long-lived shovel