Vivek Haldar

Minimalism is not a viable intellectual strategy

There is a wave sweeping through the Internet cognoscenti – minimalism. The juggernaut of technology has brought us to a place where our minds are forced to march to the un-human rhythms of the global machine, our brains sizzling with pellets and factoids, with nary a clean break for a clear thought.

The answer to this, the minimalist pundits claim, is to retreat. Retreat from technology, and retreat from things 1. It’s asceticism, a bit of a sanyaas 2.

I like to separate the recent cry for minimalism into two related strands — intellectual, and physical. They’re manifestations of each other. The intellectual strand calls for minimizing distractions, single-tasking, cutting out aimless surfing and a Zen attitude. The physical strand advocates paring down to the essentials, down-sizing your abode, and living out of a backpack. Less is more.

The zenith of both these strands is a calm geek, sitting in a bare room with a desk upon which sits only a MacBook Air, his backpack of possessions on one side, the broadband internet cable available but unplugged, fingers ready to type into the empty white screen of a minimalist editor 3.

There’s something wrong with this picture.

Have you ever seen a clean, bare creative space? Most creative spaces are a mess, an assault on the senses. There is a story behind every strewn bit of paper, history and context in the depth of the pile.

The intellectual powerhouses of the Renaissance were not minimalists. They immersed themselves in everything they could find.

One of the most common pieces of advice writers give to other writers: read. Read everything you can. Then read some more.

The typical creative professional is not a minimalist. They also immerse themselves unapologetically into the messy organic diversity of this world, into things both digital and analog. It is from this chaotic mess that new ideas emerge.

This is a simple consequence of network math. Ideas are combinations and variations of other ideas 4. The more ideas you ingest, the more you are likely to produce.

Now I agree with most of the premises of the minimalists — that technology scrambles our brains and attention, that the decrease of long-form reading, writing and thinking is a real loss and that indeed to get stuff done we need to unplug sometimes — and even some of their techniques. My gripe is with the way they sell it as a way of life. It’s much more valuable as a periodic phase of life.

Minimalism cannot be a long-term strategy, but it makes an excellent short-term tactic.

A lot of recent commentary makes out the flittering mind to be a curse, when it is the source of plenty we live in.

1 documents one geek’s efforts to find a minimal kernel of physical possessions


3 There is now a minor movement for minimalist editors. WriteRoom started it, but there are also OmmWriter (which plays soothing strains of calm music interspersed with the sound of dripping water), DarkRoom and many others

4 Scott Berkun’s “The Myths of Innovation” does an excellent job of explaining why novelty counts for very little when it comes to innovation