I’ve been intrigued by the concept of minimalism, which I see mentioned occasionally.
It’s not a simple issue, because although the first thing that comes up is an uncluttered living/working space, and having a “the fewer the better” approach to things, it’s not necessarily about “less is more”, when you dig deeper. If anything, it’s about reducing dependency, reducing resource drain, and reducing clutter.
However, I’ve seen people who purport to live a minimalist lifestyle, often living in either a very small apartment or even a van, and if there is a trend there, it’s that they compensate for the lack of space and assets with greater investment in time and work, basically having to re-arrange things all the time just to retain a functional environment, and they have to use extensive workarounds to get things done. If I’m watching the people who just prefer to get things done, there’s another trend: they tend to have a large number of various specialized tools, and they don’t care that one could probably do with less; no, they have just the right type of a hammer or an axe or a chainsaw for just that particular type of job, and it’s better. Also, there’s always an inevitable amount of clutter around them, because that’s what happens when you actually do things, but there’s always order to the madness; all the things are normally stored in very specific, often labelled places, and after you’re done with them, they are returned to their specific place. It’s just that you don’t return everything immediately; you leave things around you while you work, and you clean up afterwards. A certain amount of chaos obviously has to accompany the creative process, because you can either focus on what you’re doing, or you can focus on cleaning up, but not both at the same time. Sure, you can do it, but the quality of what you’re doing will suffer. For instance, when I’m writing, I couldn’t care less about the empty cup of coffee or a bag of peanuts on my desk, or if everything is aligned perpendicularly to create the illusion of order. I care about what the keyboard feels like, what the monitor feels like and what the mouse feels like, because that’s what I’m using to create. If there’s a problem with those things, it interferes with my concentration and impedes my creative process, but a certain amount of chaos might actually help, because it doesn’t impose the subconscious stress of trying to keep things orderly all the time.
Also, I could have only one computer, and that would be a minimalist way of doing things, but I don’t; I have multiple computers, specialized for what I use them for. A desktop machine is completely silent, it’s comfortable to use, and it’s powerful. It’s something that just gets things done, and it can cool itself easily even if I push it at 100% for days. Then there’s the 15” laptop, which becomes the primary computer when I’m on vacation. It can do everything the desktop machine can do, except gaming, and you can ask why I don’t just use that for everything, because I could plug peripherals into it and it would do just fine as a desktop machine, but it would overheat, it would be noisier, and it wouldn’t last. So, I’m already at two computers, just for the convenience of not killing the laptop with a 16h/day regime. Then there’s the ultralight laptop, which I use in bed because the 15” is too heavy and cumbersome, or for reading or doing things from a couch or in some weird position. It’s an awfully specialized thing to have a dedicated machine for, but I do, and I find it incredibly convenient, for the same reason I have several types of pocket knives, and several different types of shoes. Sure, you can do everything with just one pair of jeans, and just one pair of shoes, but I find that awfully inconvenient, and although it seems simple and elegant, it forces you to constantly adapt to the inadequacies of the equipment you’re using, and it introduces stress, hassle and just breaks your concentration from the things you actually want to do. Sometimes less is indeed more, but if you ever tried to fix something that unexpectedly broke, you’ll know how convenient it can be to have a certain amount of junk somewhere that can be adapted to fix something. If you don’t have your small personal junk yard, you’ll be forced to go drive to a store every time you need a SATA cable or a screw for the SSD or a nail to hang a painting, or a wood screw to fix something that got loose. No, it doesn’t look elegant, and having capability to create or fix things will not make your place look like Apple store, but at some point you need to ask yourself if minimalism is actually contributing to or detracting from your productivity. So, no, less is not more if you need that spare SATA cable, and it’s definitely not more if your one and only computer unexpectedly died and you don’t have a secondary one to look for possible solutions on the Internet.
That’s where I departed from the conventional interpretation of minimalism, and started thinking about defining it as something more akin to self-reliance, or not depending on others to solve your problems. A minimalist approach in that sense doesn’t consist of having only one computer, and it being an elegant iMac or a Macbook Pro. It consists of using generic components you can source locally to build your own computer, building it in ways that make it easy for you to repaste the CPU, change noisy fans, clean up dust, install and set up the OS yourself, and be able to maintain the whole thing without anyone’s help. Sure, such a box doesn’t look elegant, but it becomes very elegant if you need to take off the CPU cooler and change the paste, because the whole thing isn’t glued in behind the screen. It’s two big screws to remove the side panel, and some more screws to remove the cooler, and everything is big enough to work on comfortably and quickly. Essentially, the more elegant and “clean” things look, the more pain in the arse they can be to maintain if something goes wrong with them, and sometimes you can’t even fix them at all, you’re expected to just throw them away and get another one, because that’s also “elegant” and “clean”.
The same goes for software. The older I am, the more I tend to use the most user-unfriendly, basic tools imaginable, such as connecting to a local server via ssh, connecting to the database via shell tool where I type all the commands manually, with no fancy GUI tools, I type code in pico editor, rsync it to a production server, and it all works the same regardless of what computer I actually use to do it – I couldn’t care less whether it’s a fancy and elegant Mac, or a Raspberry pi board connected to other shit with wires hanging. What is minimalistic and elegant in this approach is that I don’t rely on having lots of secondary shit installed on my computers, and I don’t try to maintain a super-complex software system that is supposed to make things “easier” by complicating everything to the point of a bloated mess. No, make things simple by learning a few tools that work everywhere, and reduce the number of intermediary steps I have to take in order to get things done. You may think that a nice fancy GUI with icons is a more elegant way of getting files across than rsync, but it’s only elegant if it works, and those things have a tendency to break in various creative ways just when you have to do something quickly, and you can spend a whole day trying to fix something that is really not essential to your primary task, fixing some environment instead of writing your code. So, yes, compared to some “elegant” thing such as an iPhone with user interface chimps and cats can be taught to operate, my ideas of simplicity and elegance can seem counter-intuitive, but guess what? I maintain my own mail server, web server, blog and forum without anyone’s help. If something goes wrong with any of it, I fix it myself. If something goes wrong with my computer, I fix it myself, whether it’s a software or hardware problem. If I have to choose between elegance and self-reliance, I pick self-reliance, because “clean” solutions have a nasty tendency to just displace the messy parts of life somewhere else. Also, if I have to choose between practicality and productivity on one side, and simplicity and elegance on the other, I prefer to just get things done and not let minimalism get in the way. That is how I personally see the desirable kind of minimalism: it’s minimizing the number of things that interfere with the creative process.