Simplicity, Minimalism, and the Ancient Ascetic

I’ve been fascinated lately by the modern minimalist movement (not the minimalism movement in art, but the more popular minimalist movement careering around the blogosphere). In its purest form, this movement urges people to resist the pressure to acquire things and consume good that is so common in American society.  Appealing to a kind of pop-psychology they see the appearance of hoarders as the most decadent and corrupt form of this need to surround ourselves with things, and calls for us to embrace a kind of practical asceticism. Ironically, some of the more recognizable voices in this movement like Dave Bruno, also encourage us to buy their book (in Bruno’s case it’s his 100 Thing Challenge (Harper 2010)).

As Bruno and many of his minimalist colleagues know, the call to reject over-consumption involves embracing a kind of asceticism, which often carried with it spiritual overtones.  This realization has firm roots in the ancient experience of asceticism. (Here are some nice examples of Early Christian and Byzantine Saints. St. Theodore of Sykeon is my favorite.)  Discarding one’s belongings and moving to the desert eliminated the distractions that made it difficult for a spiritual individual to contemplate God. The most powerful ancient ascetics found that they could not only reject “decadent” luxurious (which would have been fairly modest in a pre-industrial society) and even come to reject food and water for long periods of time. Half-starved, isolated, naked, and deeply committed to prayer, these ascetic warriors steeled themselves to take on a range of spiritual challenges.  Demons, temptresses, deceivers, strangers, and even the pious witnessed the strength of their God-given spiritual power as they rejected so many of the very things that make us human, social animals.

Among these ancient and modern ascetics, one curious group stands out: the technomads. (Sean Bonner, one of the founding fathers of this movement describes its origins here. The BBC puzzles over this phenomenon here.) This curious group has emerged from the minimalist movement and embraced technology as a means to simplify their lives. With their (almost invariably) MacBook Pros in hand, these ascetic warriors leave the security of a settled existence and take off through the world pausing just long enough to recharge their computer and physical batteries. Most of these technomads make their living on the web, and many are professional bloggers or journalists. In earlier decades, of course, this group would be encumbered by bulky manual typewriters, duffle bags of paper books, and pockets full of loose change for filing their dispatches on the pay phone. Today, they simplify their lives through the use of smart phones, wireless network connections, and complete libraries of world classics neatly tucked away on their computer hard drives (or for the true tech minimalist in the cloud; nothing is more minimal than a cloud.)

This group of technomads is a different kind of thing from our possession-sheding, modern-day, spiritual travelers. In place of physical things, these technomads have simplified their lives by rendering as much as possible into digital form. Gritty black notebooks become EverNote files; yellowed paperback books become .PDF files; audio tapes are music files, stacks of tear-stained love notes become carefully indexed emails stored in the cloud, et c.  Whereas the our desert monks could store the complete text of scripture in their potent memories, our technomads embed their world on their hard drives, on smart phone sim cards, and in the ubiquitous, but decidedly immaterial cloud.  Minimalism has become a critique of materiality.

This attitude toward the material world strikes me as strange. In almost every case, objects are the product of labor, and, as anyone who deals even a little bit with databases knows, a digital object is no less a manifestation of work than a t-shirt or a four-poster bed.  Embracing minimalism while, at the same time, filling a hard drive with digital objects hardly seems a path to enlightened asceticism.

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