Thoughts on Minimalism

Lately I have been thinking a lot about minimalism and what it means to be minimal. This seems to be a trendy topic on the web as of late, with several great websites and podcasts dedicated to the subject. I guess one could say that I have jumped on the minimalist bandwagon, so to speak, but what exactly does it mean to be minimal? Is it minimalism in the Buddhist sense? Is it minimal for the sake of minimalism, where one needlessly sacrifices great comfort just to say they are minimal? Many people have written about this, all with varying interpretations. That being said, I present my definition of being a minimalist, bolstered by an experience I had at the Apple store.

My definition of minimalism boils down to one word - enough. Exactly how much is enough? This is certainly subjective, since what may be “enough” to one person may not be “enough” to another. That is as it should be. In order to determine if one has “enough”, one should ask the simple question, “Does the tool I’m using get the job done?” In this sense, everything one has can be considered a tool, and “tool” can be applicable here to almost anything. It could be a computer, a gadget, a notebook, a pen, a piece of furniture, a car, or even a house. If the answer to the aforementioned question is "no", get a new tool. If the answer is "yes", one should ask, “Does the tool I currently have get the job done in the most efficient and/or enjoyable manner possible”? If the answer is "no", get a new tool. If the answer is "yes", stick with the tool you have, learn its ins and outs, customize it for you, and use the heck out of it until it no longer works for you.

This simple philosophy hit home during a trip to the Apple Store of all places, but before I get into this, I feel it best to share a little background on my addiction to gadgets. My name is Steve, and I was a gadget-holic. Worse yet, I was a gadget junkie. If it was new and cool, I wanted it. Now for economic reasons, I obviously did not always get every new gadget that I coveted, but nonetheless, I still felt compelled somewhere deep, down inside that I absolutely had to have the latest and greatest. I have also been sort of an Apple fan-boy (since the days before the switch to Intel, when there was only one model of iPod), and why I like Apple's products so much will certainly be the topic of future articles.

Having said that, a while back, my wife and I were at the mall, and as is usual when I am at this particular mall, I stopped in to the Apple store to drool over the latest and greatest offerings from Apple. We made our way to the middle of the store, past the iPod Touches, the iPhones, the Macbooks and iPads, to the iMacs. The 27-inch iMac is certainly a beautiful machine. We played with the Magic Trackpad that was synced to one. While my wife was using one of these shiny new iMacs, she clicked the iPhoto icon in the doc. To my surprise, the icon bounced and bounced and bounced until finally, iPhoto sprang to life. Now, it could have been some anomaly going on with this machine that everyone and their brother messes with on a daily basis, but there were no other apps running, and Activity Monitor showed that everything appeared to be normal in terms of running processes. It could have been my expectation for this rather subjective action of how fast a program should open on a relatively new machine, as I expected it would be instantaneous. However, it made me pause to think about my current iMac and whether I really needed a new one. In fact it made me think about this in relation to all my things. How often have I replaced something that works well just because I could?

My iMac, which I must embarrassingly confess still runs Leopard, is roughly four years old now, having been purchased in 2008 from that very Apple store. As I stood there in front of that shiny, new 27-inch iMac, I thought about the fact that even with its legacy version of Mac OS X, my iMac still performs like it did the day my wife and I brought it home. Even with its gigs upon gigs of Photos stored within its database, my copy of iPhoto seems to open just as fast as the copy of iPhoto on the new iMac at the Apple store. Which begs the question, do I really need a new iMac? The answer is no. Mine still superbly purrs along, and in answer to the two aforementioned questions, it does what I need it to in the most efficient and enjoyable manner possible. Now if Apple stops supporting Leopard for security updates, and/or there are no longer any up-to-date, web standards compliant browsers available for it[1], then I will upgrade to Mountain Lion. However, as it stands, I have no plans to replace the iMac for another two years.[2]

As we walked through the rest of the store, I kept asking myself those two questions about everything we looked at. Do I really need a new Apple TV with which to stream Netflix? Not really, as my Wii works just fine for that. (I am one of those in the minority who does not care about HD.) While I cannot rent new movies and stream them to the living room through iTunes, I can get new releases from Redbox, Netflix (discs), or via iTunes on my iMac.

Do I really need the shiny 11” Macbook Air that, as I walked through the store, was beckoning me to buy it? Again, not at all. My Chromebook (CR-48, dual-booted with the latest stable version of Chrome OS and Ubuntu 11.10) does everything I need it to and then some. This little notebook, other than a weakening hinge, just keeps on trucking, even after being put through a lot of abuse and experimentation. In fact, there have actually been several times that I have passed up the opportunity to get an iPad, as my CR-48 is simply enough.

The same could be said of my phone. Do I really need the newest iPhone? The answer is a decisive no, since my 3GS works just fine. I am excited to see what Apple comes up with in September and am eagerly awaiting iOS 6, but I plan to keep using my 3GS until it dies. I actually like the way it looks better than the 4 and 4S, and it has, due to its design no doubt, survived some drops that I think would have shattered the glass backed on the 4 and 4S.

So there you have it, my philosophy on minimalism and some rationale behind it. I would like to know your thoughts on this subject. Please feel free to drop me a line.

[1] As Chrome, my browser of choice, is no longer supported on Leopard, I am down to Firefox and Opera, both of which are fine browsers in their own right. I have not used Safari on the Mac in years.

[2] When we bought the iMac, our plan was to get six years use out of it. I think this can be accomplished. I use it mainly for graphics editing (GIMP) and as a TV.

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