Stephen Lindberg

Product Designer @ Iterable

28 September 2019

A New Minimalism

I stumbled on the blog ribbonfarm recently, and it’s a rather entertaining read. If you don’t already follow it, check it out.

This particular essay about “acting dead and trading up” struck me, because I think it relates to what I had written about minimalism at the end of last year. The phrase “acting dead” comes from this talk by Bruce Sterling. The gist of the “acting dead” mindset is this: if your dead great-grandfather can do it better than you, it’s “acting dead”, and you should stop trying to outdo him. Examples include composting (your dead great-grandfather is composting himself right now), and minimizing carbon footprint. It seems like most of this analogy is used to argue against hairshirt environmentalism ideas. The advice he gives in the lecture is very KonMari-esque. Buy a nice thing if it’s something you use very often, keep some sentimental things (but only things you want to tell every family member, friend, and stranger about), and get rid of the rest.

This sounds weird against the idea of “acting dead”, and here’s why: this kind of minimalism also has another component: non-acquiring. This is a very acting-dead activity. My dead great-grandfather is a lot better than me at not buying new things. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding the message here, but it’s just one of the issues I take with this kind of advice. Getting rid of the things we accumulate over the years does not put them out of the universe, it merely displaces them. They end up in landfills in the backyards of already disadvantaged communities, thanks to the NIMBY-ism of affluent communities. Of course, this could also be seen as an “acting-dead” activity. My dead great-grandfather is way better than me at not participating in a racist, sexist culture! So should I stop trying? Maybe I’ve simply found the limit of this half-baked litmus test – I do think some of the advice is pretty good. Mainly the “buy nice things” advice. A nice chair, if you work at a desk, a nice bike, if it’s your main mode of transportation, and for goodness sake, buy fresh produce! It will cost you less in the long run, when you don’t have to get heart surgery at 50.

So how does this relate to my New Minimalism? – one things I can do a lot better than my dead great-grandfather is listen to people, share ideas, and act positively (technically I can be more negative than him, too, but I’d like to think that, in this scenario, being dead is the ultimate form of negativity, so you win, great-grand-pappy).

So, I won’t be virtually cataloging all my possessions any time soon, or arriving to the dump with bags of unwanted treasures. I will, however, start savoring the things that I can do while I’m around on this pale blue dot.