Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism

Paul Raven @ 17-08-2010

Seems like you can’t have a good idea these days without it turning into some sort of cult or movement… maybe that’s always been the case, but 24/7 journalism and social media certainly speeds up the process. Aaaaaaanyways, here’s a BBC article on technohipster types who’re shedding the majority of their material possessions in favour of computer hardware and cloud-based communications and data storage.

It’s kind of romantic, in a somewhat smug and self-aware po-mo kind of way: the New Nomadism! A reaction to the consumerist lust-for-stuff that helped bring us to global financial collapse, etc etc. What it fails to take into account is that there are hundreds of thousands living just as nomadic a lifestyle, only without the luxuries of a fresh Macbook Air and a custom-built fixie; having too much stuff is very much a #firstworldproblem, and as much as it’s satisfying to see a turn away from that, it’s frustrating to see how, already, it’s destined to be repackaged and sold as a lifestyle trend.

If I was in the cloud computing business right now, I’d be thinking real hard about how to market (and mark up!) my tools and services to precisely these sorts of people: people who are financially and geographically fortunate enough to see sparse living as something worth paying for (as opposed to being the only game in town, as it is for most folks living out of a couple of bags).

That said, I can see the benefits… hell, I’ve even experienced some of them. My own recent relocation saw me sell off my entire music collection, for instance; I realised I never played my CDs in a player, so I just ripped them all to a hard drive and sold them off. There were nearly a thousand of them, and do you know what the biggest surprise was? How hard it was to get people to buy them, even priced at just £1 each. Another couple of years (or even less), and you’ll have to give physical music media away. Even now, as new promos keep pouring through my letterbox, I increasingly view them as an imposition on my space… like a meatspace version of bacn, I guess.

It would have been much more pragmatic of me to replace my books with an ereader, but there I drew the line; my library is my major fetish, the last real outlet for my deeply-ingrained middle-class collector’s impulse, and while I may have culled a lot of crap from it, there’s a lot of books that I simply can’t bear to part with. It’s irrational, but I don’t think a bit of irrationality is all that harmful to anything other than my own bank balance… though ask me again after the next time I have to move house. Close to a thousand books is a whole lot of heavy boxes to shift, and they take up a lot of space.

What the BBC piece (and the technomad quotes that prop it up) skips over is the infrastructre that makes such a nomadic lifestyle possible. Ubiquitous wireless broadband, for instance; I’m guessing these people wouldn’t be so keen on living the way they do if they couldn’t remain connected to the world from wherever they’re currently laying their hat. And there’s a whole bunch of unexamined Western privilege beneath the surface: safe places to crash or couch-surf, cheap places to rent over short periods, comparatively low incidences of property theft, kitchen utensils cheap enough to throw out or give away each time you move… these hidden costs are carried by the societies these people live in. Which isn’t to portray these people as parasites (far from it!), but it’s worth bearing in mind to counteract some of the digital_Beatnik utopian vibe of the thing.

Going back to my own downsizing, I found that necessity was the motivator… I inherited a real packrat mindset from my late father, and it dies hard. But now I’ve started, it’s easier to see other things that I know (rationally) I could (and indeed should) get rid of. But emotional attachments are very powerful things; whatever you might think of Buddhism as a religion, that’s one aspect of human psychology it really nails. It can be done, though; Futurismic‘s very own peripatetic columnist Sven Johnson tells me his possessions consist of a desk, a decent ergonomic chair, a computer and a duffle full of clothes. As a freelance industrial designer, he doesn’t really need much else – and it means moving to where the work is becomes a much less painful process.

What would it take to make you give up the majority of your physical possessions? And what’s the one thing you really couldn’t bear to part with, even though you know you don’t need it?