Plasticity of Minimalism

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What is minimalism? I think it is many things to many people. To me it is a matter of expanding personal plasticity or flexibility. Here’s what I mean: For every functional item you ditch, you have to compensate by learning a new skill. If I ditch my GPS, I need to learn to read the stars and the sun. If I get rid of my dishwasher, I need to get skilled with brush and towel. If I get rid of my car, I need to adjust my radius of movement so I can do the walking.

Minimalism isn’t about reducing our possibilities. It is about adapting to challenges by making use of the single most advanced piece of technology we already possess: our body and our mind.

In that sense, minimalism is total democratization.

The hunters I work with in Siberia rarely sell their hunting dogs. Why? Because these animals are priceless. They are not groomed, and they have no GPS collars. They don’t come with stuff. But every time they go out for a hunt, their skill level increases, and with that increase in skill their value grows to the community. At five years of age a dog becomes priceless.

The world is full of hardships and challenges to be overcome, and the market economy works hard every day to provide us with new external crutches to buy that would make life “easier” for us. And sometimes they’re right. But not always. If you’re cold, you can do 10 pushups for free, or you can buy a heater for $200. If you’re bored, you can take time to really speak to a friend, or you can subscribe to an audio book service for $15 a month. If you need to recall an interview, learn a memory method, or buy an audio recorder for $300. Essentially, many of our amazing gadgets offer alternative solutions to problems that we’ve had solved in simpler ways for millennia.

Our inbuilt adaptive capacity, our plasticity, or our internal ability to adjust to external problems or challenges, is at least as great as the countless technological solutions thrown at us everywhere. The questions is, which of the crutches we live with can be discarded without the loss of what truly matters to us? Can we become more like a Siberian dog — a lean, mean, pricelessly skilful hunting machine?

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not opposed to technology. In many ways, my iPad is just like a body. It has all kinds of potential — built in. I can buy a thousand accessories to tack on to it, or I can simply adapt my workflow to maximize the value of its already built-in features. Most technology is relatively static (with the exception of firmware updates and modular systems), but the user’s body and mind are organic, dynamic, stretchable. Not only can I get used to stuff by coming up with new coping mechanisms around static objects, but the organic plasticity of my being allows me to grow muscle, bone mass, stamina, etc. as an adaptive feature. Cognitive plasticity allows us to invent new and previously unanticipated (unorthodox) uses of common objects.

The door stopper is a good example here. You can buy one, but I bet, you already have one. Reducing redundancy shaves volume, weight, maintenance, and clean up time. Objects have many uses. The more we find for them, the more minimalist we become. A jacket as a tote. Shoes to compress garments. A hood as a stuff sack. A hat as an electronics case. A virtual keyboard as only keyboard. A touchscreen as only mouse. A phone as sole computer. All these things are already here, but they take skill to come alive. And it takes experimentation and time to figure out how far we can push our adaptive capacity. It also takes reflection to figure out when consolidation makes sense, and when it doesn’t.

So, for me, minimalism is about the built-in flexibility that we come shipped with as organic animals.

By alexoehler

I am an environmental anthropologist at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.