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The rise of digital minimalism

The BBC has a story today about the latest in downshifting: digital minimalism. Kids these days are discovering that atoms are for oldsters. Unlike their parents and older siblings, they don't need to lug around shelves full of books, folders full of files, boxes full of CDs. Instead, they live in the computing cloud, replacing all that heavy stuff with everything from "online photo albums to virtual filing cabinets to digital musical instruments."

The irony is that the star of the piece, Kelly Sutton, is a 22 yearold hipster who is clearly angling for a book deal with his blog, cultofless.com. As Rob Horning says over on his blog, this would be easier to take seriously if it wasn't just another iteration of half-baked stunt-lifestylism, from No Impact Man to the guy who did a new job every week for a year.

But I'm struck by the relative absence of any moral or anti-consumerist dimension to this. Unlike the Bonfire of the Brands guy (from 2006) or Michael Landy's infamous Break Down work of performance art from 2001, the digital minimalists seem to be just looking for a new kind of consumerism. Again, I'm inclined to agree with Horning, that it's mostly a form of implicit status-seeking.And as he says,  "Not everyone can be 'minimalist' because then minimal will simply become normal, and some new distinctive posture will have to be adopted."

What pose might that be? It's funny, this came up in my discussion with Dan Gardner during the Ottawa Writer's Festival. I was talking about the successive iterations of Veblenian status-seeking, from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous rebellion to conspicuous authenticity, and Dan asked me what the end point would be, where it goes from here. I didn't have a good answer at the time, but I was thinking on it afterward and I think it probably goes in two directions.

First, we get an even greater fetishization of unique physical objects. You can already see this, with the cult of "artisanal" that has already replaced "local" as the definitive authentic consumer good (for a recent example: artisanal toothpicks). But beyond that, I think we'll start to see the body itself become the site of conspicuous lifestyle display. It's no accident, I think, that Fukuyama followed up The End of History with a book about posthumanism. When our sense of self is no longer wrapped up in world-historical ideologies or isms, what is left of human identity? When we no longer need stuff to express who we are or where we stand, how do we engage in status display? When almost everything of value is made of bits, the last field of contention is our physicality itself, whose tenuous hold on the real becomes the central narrative in the digital age.