The contradiction of digital/technological minimalism

Why is digital and technological minimalism such a trend? It’s because computers are inherently excessive. Modern computers are not built to do one thing well, or to do just enough. They are built to do many things, to do more than is required. Widgets, apps for every imaginable use (usually in many flavors), massive hard drives and powerful processors, gaining in power while decreasing in price. Moore’s Law flies in the face of doing more with less: instead, we are continuously doing more with more, more, more.

Digital minimalism is an attempt to return to the minimalism of nature. But it’s a fundamental contradiction: trying to rely on less with machines built to do as much as possible. Minimalism is about finding that perfect balance of enough. Computers are designed to always provide more than enough.

Writing should be a minimal affair. All it takes is something to write with: paper and pencil, or a stick in the sand. Yet programs like Word make it much more complicated. So minimal writing apps exist that try to make writing simple again. This is necessary because computers have made something simple into something complicated and advanced.

Books excel at displaying uncluttered content. No links or buttons or ads. No widgets, or prompts to share. The internet is the opposite. So certain blogs pride themselves in minimal designs with minimal clutter, and sometimes no comments. Services like Readability and Instapaper can remove everything but the text.

Technology allows us to do a vast number of amazing and previously impossible things and it makes a lot of things easier and more efficient. It would not be the same world without technology. I would not be writing this post and I would not be sharing it with the world. But technology also adds excess and clutter and distractions. It adds even if nothing is missing; filling gaps that were never empty. We often use technology because we can, not because we need to.

Computers and technology make simple things complicated (although the inverse is also true). They attempt to add features and options and choices to things that have worked perfectly well for hundreds of years.

Digital minimalism exists because we’ve lost sight of natural minimalism. Real minimalism. We’ve lost balance in our relationship with technology. Do we use technology, or does technology use us? Is digital minimalism an attempt to take back our lives from technology? To restore balance?

I don’t have the answers. But I can see in my life that my relationship with technology, especially the internet, is often unbalanced. It’s supposed to be a tool, but I often use it without purpose or reason. I use it because I’m bored or lonely. Is technology an escape? It can be. But it should be an opportunity, an extension. A tool is meant to carry out a particular function or accomplish a purpose. When I turn to technology without purpose or intention, I’m letting it control me.

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