Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism

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.

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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?

7 thoughts on “Living with less: digital lifestyles versus consumer materialism”

  1. This is well timed. My wife and I have been going over all the ways that we can reduce expenses. Like you, I roll my eyes at the idea of a ‘lifestyle’ around this stuff, but that’s cause I’m a cynical Gen-X’er. It’s the way of my people.

    Anyway… lifestyle gimmick or not, many of my peers are similarly anxious about the future. There isn’t enough money and we can’t live like consumers. While that shift has been happening (for us) slowly, over time, it’s becoming more important than ever.

    But like you, the books aren’t going away any time soon.

  2. Pshhh, I’ve been doing cyber-zen for the past ten years. I don’t own anything other than a couple computers and toiletries: everything is digitized – books, photographs, everything. If only the “gimmick” had caught on earlier, we might have skipped some of that “a 5-room, two bathroom house for every family of three!” subprime nonsense. And maybe some of that mindless consumerism meaninglessness University humanities departments are always on about. Guess I’m playing the girl-who-liked-Nirvana-before-they-were-big card, oh well.

  3. “The cloud” strikes me as something that is crucially dependent on the availability of *all* of a long list of complex lower-level services that in our lucky first world we take for granted (e.g., low-cost mobile wideband connectivity, internet access, suitable hardware, even electrical power). Transferring all of your informational possessions to “the cloud” means that any serious societal/economic/climate/political disruption (and we certainly can imagine some of these coming in a few tens of years 🙁 ) will have you losing all of them. On the other hand, in such a case you will probably have more important things to think about than your family photos or your collection of ebooks… and, if the collapse is local and you have the means to go elsewhere, you will be able to retrieve most of your possessions there!
    That said, I too I am (slowly and painfully) turning all of my music into an electronic form, and I am eagerly waiting for ebook hardware to mature enough to “make the switch 😉

  4. First time I saw an inkling of this was a sidebar in a piece on refugees from the Balkan wars in the NYTimes maybe 12 years or more ago. One young man broke down his computer and carried his hard drive with him as he became a refugee. He’d loaded it up with all the data he needed to start his life again.

    Bruce Sterling in his last Viridian Note also pushed hard for dematerialization of the non-essential. Get a good bed, he advised, but rid yourself of most unnecessary possessions (

  5. This is timely indeed, and I too wish all this had happened ten —or even twenty— years earlier. Ironically we are having to lug around several hundred maths and computing textbooks that my other half refuses to part with.

    As for my own library: I got rid of all the SF classics years ago when it looked like we’d move but ended up staying put. I still pine for them. Perhaps for our generation (late baby boomers) e-book readers and mp3 players aren’t quite substitutes for the real thing.

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