Tag Archives: philosophy

Minimalism 101

It’s that time of year. The time where we become exhausted from running from store to store, buying more things we don’t need, or won’t use after we open them.

Explicitly, we all know that we live in a consumer culture, and we buy far too much stuff. Unfortunately, knowing this doesn’t stop us. Unless we are being conscientious about our money — and most of us aren’t — we don’t particularly pay attention to our buying behavior. We think of our spending habits as harmless, or, at best, view our spending in terms of money alone. But, what if our buying behavior affects more than just our bank accounts? What if it affects our health, and our happiness?

This question is only now being scientifically explored, thanks to those studying consumer behavior. There are, undoubtedly, a number of factors that contribute to our unnecessary consumption. Many may have to due with our very nature, or evolutionary hardwiring. After all, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes quite a bit of sense to want to have a lot of stuff. Stockpiling, storing, and saving things is a way to ensure our future survival. We evolved in a dangerous and changing world, where a fruitless harvest or bad hunt foretold demise. This hardwiring works against us when we buy things. Instead of asking, “would this product make me happier”, we ask, “…could I ever use this”, assuming we ask anything at all. Much of the time we don’t even think about our purchases. We haphazardly navigate up and down tortuous aisles, grabbing all that is on sale, or is “too good to pass up”. Our hoarder-like nature only gets worse from living in a consumer culture.  I’ll spare you the hippie-esque, pseudo-intellectual tirade about logos, success metrics, social media, iPhone apps, business objectives, consumer appeal, consumer retention, viral marketing, emotional economizing, greenlining, greenwashing, paradigm shifts, branding… it would be too much. It is too much.

So, how do we escape it? We are, in a way, addicted to buying stuff. It isn’t enough for us to simply think, “I should buy less”, or “I should only buy what makes me happy”. We have to become diligent and active non-buyers, instead of lazy, passive consumers.

To begin, we can start by tallying up how much stuff we have, and how much of it we don’t need. If, in the midst of this process, you find yourself asking, “Why do I have so much stuff?”, then you are on the right track. Alternatively, we can look at what we own and ask, “Does this really affect my happiness?” In order to answer this question effectively, we have to understand what makes us happy, and why. For example, you might think a big wardrobe, with lots of clothes to choose from, would make you happier. But, there is evidence to suggest that this isn’t the case. Having lots of available options, whether it’s clothes, ice cream flavors, or retirement plans, actually “paralyzes [us] into indecision”, to quote consumer psychologist Barry Schwartz. Not only do we become indecisive, but when we finally do choose, we are often unhappy or dissatisfied with our choice. “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything about the option that you chose”, says Schwartz.

Additionally, we have to recognize that our buying behavior is habitual, and routine. We have to work to break this routine — this addiction — of tireless consumption. There are many ways to start doing this, but a good way to begin is to get rid of what you don’t need. If you haven’t used, acknowledged, or appreciated a particular thing you own in six months or more, then get rid of it. If you are feeling ambitious, go with three months. Further, you can give yourself a minimalist challenge of owning 100 items or less, or whatever number you feel would put you on the appropriate minimal path.

Next, turn to your spending habits. Don’t purchase things on a whim. Don’t buy stuff to fulfill some sort of social function, (e.g., shopping with friends), or an emotional need, (e.g., you are bored and have nothing to do). If you feel like you should buy something, (apart from food), wait a few days and see if you still really want it. After that, wait a week, or a month. If you still feel as if you can’t live without it, consider purchasing it.

Some people are quite ahead of the rest of this in this respect, and they aren’t Zen Buddhists or austere Christian Orthodox monks. They are regular folks who are sick of having so much garbage, and who want to feel real attachment to the things they own. Our world, for better or worse, is one of mass production, cheap labor, and disposable incomes. This has caused us to lose touch with our possessions. Rarely do we look at our purchases as special, or meaningful. If, however, we decide to own less than 100 items, our possessions gain new meaning. We begin to think of what we own as truly ours, rather than some random thing we grabbed off a shelf somewhere. Minimalism is not about being anti-materialistic. On the contrary, its about finding renewed life and spirit in our possessions, and being proud of what we own.

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The Information Generation — A response

By Tatiana Plakhova of Complexity Graphics

For those of you that haven’t read my original piece, you can do so here.

To begin, I would simply like to exclaim my surprise. I am immensely surprised, and grateful, that my article was Freshly Pressed. I’m glad that the WordPress gods decided my article was worthy. While I’m not getting millions of hits, as I facetiously mentioned in my original post, I am getting more than I could have ever expected. I hope that those views are deserved, and that my readers are able to walk away with some sort of meaningful experience.

I have been doing my best to follow those of you that have followed, commented, or liked my blog post – assuming I would want to follow you anyway, of course. Without getting too personal, I have created this blog for two reasons. First, like many of you, I would like to be heard, and “find my voice”, to use a cliche phrase. I have a dream of being a writer, in some form or another, and of contributing content to magazines or websites. Writing — and having an audience —  is one of the few things that make me feel proud of myself. The second reason is, in a way, more personal. Recently, my life has become more stressful than I could have ever predicted, and has gone rather topsy-turvy. Thus, I created this blog as a sort of outlet. (I think Freud calls that sublimation, or something).

At any rate, the point of this post is to let you guys know that every comment, every like, and every follow is hugely appreciated. Honestly, you folks don’t know the pick-me-up that this has given me. On a related note, please go out and look at the other blogs, (besides the ones on the WordPress homepage). There are people out there who are so deserving of followers and commenters, and unfortunately have few or none. We are all fighting to be heard, and sometimes the brightest, funniest, and artistic posts get lost in the battle.

Speaking of artistic, if you enjoyed the images in my post, please visit Cargo Collective or but does it float, from which the images were linked. The main image that was used for my original post was by Tatiana Plakhova. You can see her work here.

After my publication of the “The Information Generation”, I initially planned on responding to every comment. But, upon being freshly pressed, and receiving so many wonderful comments, it was clear that this wouldn’t be feasible. So many comments deserved a well-thought out, unique, and intelligent response. I was excited, and a bit shocked, to find that the overwhelming majority of comments on my post were inquisitive, exploratory, and non-combative. I wish I could say this is normally the case with online comments. I didn’t once think, “What a troll”, when browsing the comments. That is quite a feat. So, given a limited amount of time, and finite brain capacity, I decided a general response might suffice. At this point, I have read roughly two hundred comments. From here, I’ll be identifying some of the overarching themes of those comments, and responding accordingly.

1. Intelligence isn’t only about information.

There is no sneaking past you guys. Many of you were quick to raise your inquisitive fingers, teasing apart seemingly synonymous concepts.  You caught me. I equated, or, at least insinuated, that information is basically the same thing as intelligence. Some of you quipped that an increase in information, and its ease of access, doesn’t necessarily cause an increase in our level of intelligence.

No, not necessarily.

Will reading a bunch of books, necessarily make you smarter? Not necessarily. Will having access to information on a level that has been, up until now, unprecedented, make future generations more intelligent than ours? Not, necessarily… but it probably will.

No one is entirely sure what intelligence is, or how to define it. It seems to have something to do with absorbing, comprehending, and rearranging information in a way that is useful, different, innovative, or insightful. Each generation is getting increasingly better at taking in and manipulating information, which seems to point to an ever increasing intelligence among our species. Some people complain that having easy access to information is actually bad for us. They believe it stops us from really thinking about things, and hurts our memories, since we don’t have to hold onto anything. This criticism of easy access to information — of the Internet — reminds me of a passage in Plato’s Phaedrus. In the dialogue, Socrates admirably recounts the tale of an Egyptian King, who says that writing things down will help neither our memories nor our wisdom. The fact that Plato wrote his work down in a dialogical manner probably speaks to his skepticism of the written word. You see, in Plato’s day, writing was something fairly spooky and foreign to the ancient Greeks, and many of them didn’t particularly trust it.

Now, ask yourself, was the creation of writing bad for our intelligence? Has the written word simply given us easier access to information, while making us less intelligent, or less knowledgeable? Now, extend your answer to our current age: the digital age, or the information age. Doesn’t easy access to information aid our intelligence? Sure, we sometimes get lost in the sea of information that now surrounds our lives, but we are are learning how to navigate that sea. Further still, the fact that we don’t have to remember so much, (or calculate so much), frees up some cognitive space, so we can do the things we enjoy. After all, intelligence isn’t about remembering things, or rattling off facts or platitudes, or knowing what to say and when to say it. Intelligence is about knowing how to manipulate information to get the results that you want. Intelligence is about understanding the world you live in on a fundamental and inexplicable level – a level that the Internet helps us reach. When I browse online, and the information that flashes about my eyes, or pours through my headphones doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. Quite the contrary. The confusion that we experience when we wrestle with massive amounts of information is a jumping off point. All understanding begins in bewilderment.

2. Technology and the Internet are destroying our social and communication skills.

As I mentioned before, I marvel at older people’s ability to hold conversations. People my age are always distracting ourselves with smartphones, or blocking out the world with earbuds. We might seem twittery and awkward during some social interactions, but this hardly means we are socially inept, or that we have bad communication skills. It just means that younger people socialize in a different way.

Allow me to reverse the image for people who are older. If I’m talking to someone online who is over the age of 50, I have to prepare myself. I think, “This is going to be a chore”. They respond only when asked direct questions. They won’t just talk. They don’t use emoticons, (meaning I have no idea how they feel). If I stop talking for a few minutes, they think I’ve disappeared. “Are you still there? OK, well I’ll talk to you later”? What!? What are you talking about? Of course I am still here. Don’t you see the status field that says “online”? Explaining the notion of “online friends” to older generations is even more of a chore. “You met some person online? Be careful they aren’t a pervert”. Why would they be a pervert? Not everyone on the internet is a pervert.

Many of you were concerned that, because your kids are constantly on their phones or computers, they aren’t developing healthy social skills. I understand your concerns. I was — and am — one of those kids, and my parents were like you. I know it is difficult to understand, but let me say, entirely nonfacetiously, that the internet saved my life. If it wasn’t for talking to people online, and developing online friends, I wouldn’t have any friends. I learned how to talk to people in real life via talking to people online. My first date and real relationship resulted from chatting with someone online, because neither of us had the guts to talk to each other in person. Fifty years ago, kids like me were the loners or the book worms. If it wasn’t for the Internet, I would have had no outlet to socialize at all. The socially awkward kids of my generation understood ourselves through exploring the Internet. I know that statement sounds strange, but it is true. Parents shouldn’t confuse a changing social environment — one that now occurs largely on the Internet — for a lack of social skills or social development.

3. The accuracy of Information

This is partially related to (1), but I thought it deserved it’s own post, because it is such a pervasive theme. So many people — especially older people — are concerned with the accuracy of information on the Internet. Again, this is an understandable concern. When surfing the net, it is incredibly difficult to separate the misinformation, propaganda, and outright error, from fact. The Internet is a landfill of opinions – many of them formulated on shakey ground and feeble nonsense. But, how is this any different from the everyday world? Aren’t we regularly surrounded by gossip, rumor, hearsay, and lies? At least when browsing the Internet, you can investigate the validity of what you are reading. In everyday conversation, people become rather annoyed by questions like “Where did you hear that from? What’s your proof?” or, “Why do you believe that?”. Unlike people, the Internet doesn’t mind being pestered about the accuracy of it’s claims. On a related note, I’m happy I didn’t come across any comments that said “Wikipedia is inaccurate, because anyone can edit it”, as if written encyclopedias or other websites are absolutely infallible. At least Wikipedia, while sometimes inaccurate, can be retroactively corrected if something is wrong, or some new discovery is made. (It all reminds me of the “criticism” that Bible thumpers use against science, saying it is inaccurate because it is “always changing”. No, its accurate precisely because it is changing).

4. Analogue will never die.  

If I can be slippery, and post-modern for a moment, I would say that this claim is both correct and incorrect. Many people noted that the world we live in is analogue. Aside from some weird matrix-esque scenario, our world will always be analogue. This is true. We will, technically speaking, always have to transmute the analogue into the digital. I didn’t claim that analogue won’t exist. I said it will be “dead”. It will be “dead”, in the same way that ancient scrolls or hieroglyphics are “dead”. Still, there is an exception to the analogue-to-digital trend that cannot be ignored. That exception is music, and instruments. In a comment on my original post, pragwater wrote the following:

I play the congas, and there is nothing quite like hitting a drum. Actually, instead of the verb to hit, I prefer the spanish verb “tocar”, which also means to touch, which is more descriptive of what a conga player does. Drumming is truly a primeval force, which I believe is in every one of us. I see this whenever a child runs over to my drums and starts beating on them… there is no way that any electronic drum could provide the satisfaction that a drummer feels when they are playing. However, it very well may be that the listener would be just as happy listing to the digital sound as the real thing, provided that the digital version can produce the rich sounds of a real drum.

Pragwater is undeniably correct. Unfortunately, I play electronic drums because I have immediate neighbors, and they just aren’t the same as acoustic drums. Even state of the art electronic kits, which can sound absolutely stunning, don’t offer the same sensation. Some things haven’t been successfully digitized, and they may never be. Only time will tell.

5. Generalization and Stereotypes

Turns out, a lot of you – perhaps most of you – are around that “older” age, that I referred to in my original post. To be honest, I felt strange coming up with a name and a number to refer to the generation that wasn’t mine. Should it be over 40? Should it be my grandparents? Should I say generation X? No age could be entirely correct, obviously. There are eighty year olds that are technology aficionados, and twenty something’s that are computer illiterate. The purpose of my post was to understand – but also exaggerate – generational differences. In order to do this effectively, and without making a million exceptions, I had to generalize and use stereotypes. Today, we think of those as bad things, but generalizations have their uses.

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The Information Generation

RadioSilence, by Tatiana Plakhova

Our world is all but digitized. Analogue is becoming a thing of the past, and will likely die with my parents generation, or my own. It will be seen as something collectible, cool, retro, and unique, but nevertheless, dead. Yes, people still flip through books, buy records, and learn instruments, but for how much longer? The pushing of tactile buttons, pulling of levers, and turning of knobs, is about to disappear. Soon the distinction between being online and offline will fade. There will be no offline, and thus, no online. Everything and everyone will be forever connected. If we want to disconnect, we’ll have to painstakingly go out out of our way to do so.

If you are like me, then you feel amiss when you can’t get online. Usually it happens when visiting parents, grandparents, or rural friends. On one occasion – before I bothered to turn on my laptop – I asked someone what their Wifi password was. They stared at me blankly for a few seconds, before uttering, “Wifi?” The horror. The horror.

But, honestly, there is a certain anxiety that comes over people in my generation when we can’t connect. Technology critics and primitivists usually claim that this anxiety is innately bad, and stems from my generation’s need for instant gratification. But what’s so bad about instant gratification? Should I have to work to find the information I want, or need, when it is conveniently at my fingertips? Shouldn’t information be easy to access?

Then again, maybe I am too “connected”. Half of my daydreaming is spent in my head, the other half online. To an outsider – typically someone over forty – it must look strange. Blue links highlighted. Flashing windows. Twenty tabs open. Music playing. Headphones on. Lukewarm coffee on desk. Occasionally, I feel less like a person, and more like an amoeba that feeds on tweets, notifications, and followers.

Enter my parent’s generation. The first thing to notice is their sociality. Older people are always talking, or always listening. Rarely are they absorbed in some task on a computer, hunched over with a stiff neck and squinting eyes. (That is, unless they are trying to find the vexatious, “forward to all” button). Older generations can get lost in a conversation; yet, their conversations lack something. They tend to get stuck on bits of information that, for the life of them, they cannot remember.

Who was that actresses name? What was that restaurant in San Francisco called? How can we get to the freeway from here? Questions always linger when talking to older people. This isn’t because they have bad memories – though they certainly can – but, because they aren’t whipping out their phones, or flinging open their laptops. There is an odd elegance to this. I have to remind myself that for my parents, the world isn’t about information, or, “instant gratification”. My mother spends her time watching classic films, visiting family, and reading books. My father rides his mountain bike, shoots guns, and fixes things. I can’t tell if he particularly enjoys this last activity, as much of the time it is littered with “fuck”, and “god damn it”. (Edit: he claims he only cusses when he can’t fix things).

My parent’s generation have a laudable simplicity about them. They are sometimes frustrating, asking us to hook up their internet for fix their computers, but those things are essentially foreign to them. Our parents don’t really belong in the digital world, they just visit it. They are record players, and we are iPods. Besides, I can’t pretend I’m entirely used to our digital world either. I still remember the days of connecting to the internet through screeching analogue dial tones, so that I could work on my geocities website into the tiny hours of the morning, or until someone called and I was disconnected. Sometimes I have to remind myself that my generation was the last to grow up before the Internet became truly monolithic. From now on, children will grow up in the shadow of that monolith. While it may be frightening, I think younger generations will be fine. My niece and nephew’s computer skills already rival their parents, and none are over the age of six.

So, how is my generation – the information generation – handling things? How can we begin to answer this question? Information is violently changing our lives. The Arab world has ignited with social protests, partially catalyzed by social media. WikiLeaks has released over 400,000 confidential government documents. The Occupy movement is still going strong, with rallies being organized online. The first digital currency showed signs of being practical. For the first time, Artificial Intelligence is being used widely, (even if it is rather silly). And, somewhere, a twenty-two year old kid writes a blog post about all of it, which could be seen by millions. (I said could.)

My generation is starving for useful, thoughtful, intelligent, and inspiring information. If we want to learn how to do something — anything — we can google it, and be on our way; there’s even a how-to-do-everything podcast. If that weren’t enough, Wikipedia has an entry on just about everything, with all links eventually leading back to philosophy. We can learn about the fundamental stuff of the universe – or whatever philosophers ramble about — with a few mouse clicks. For those of us that don’t like reading, there are infographics and videos on every topic out there. When we aren’t absorbing information, we’re expressing ourselves by the millions, through sites like DeviantArt, Flickr, Tumblr, Etsy, WordPress, and more. Perhaps we are too entitled, too lazy, or too impatient, but, we aren’t stupid. I don’t accept that. We have access to more information than any other generation, and we are using it. We are becoming smarter with the information we are using, even if much of it drips through the cracks of obnoxious YouTube videos and incomprehensible memes. Perhaps I’m being sophomoric, but I think the internet is fundamentally good, because knowledge is fundamentally good. Maybe that crazy greek bastard was onto something when he said, “The only good is knowledge, the only evil is ignorance”. And, if you don’t know who I’m talking about, just google it.

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Money — a moral issue?

Do you think about how you spend your money? Do you think about how your spending affects others? Should you spend money on others? What do we owe others, assuming we owe them anything?

How we answer these questions will inevitably vary, but I find that many Americans — including myself, until recently — have simple ways of answering. They usually include phrases like, “I owe you nothing, you owe me nothing”, “Don’t tread on me”, and “Just leave me alone”. These answers aren’t wrong; rather, they are too quick — too unappreciative of the type of world we live in. Yes, independence is a crucial value to have, but in our rapidly growing world, we must become more aware of our interconnectedness, and interdependence.

Drawing by Peter Jellitsch.

When I was a student, I worked hard, and worked on my own. I rarely partnered up with people for study sessions. I lead the way when it came to group projects. I listened to others when they had problems in their school or personal life. I even managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude, with two degrees under my belt. Does all of this mean I’m an “independent person”? Absolutely not. I relied on my parents for financial help, my friends and family for fun, and my teachers for my education. Everything I have, I owe both to myself and to others. In the midst of adopting this mind-set, I came across one of the most powerful and intellectually convincing essays I’ve ever read: Peter Singer’s “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, which provides a Utilitarian perspective on how we should spend our money.

To provide a quick and messy background, Singer is what we philosophy-nerds call a utilitarian. Utilitarians believes that morality is about producing the most amount of happiness — or contentment, pleasure, et cetera — for the most amount of people. What is ethical, in a Utilitarian framework, depends on the consequences or outcomes of a moral dilemma. For example, a utilitarian probably wouldn’t agree with the statement: “Killing is never ever acceptable, no matter what the circumstances”. It depends, they would say.

So then, what’s all this talk about maximizing happiness have to do with money? Well, Singer tells us by summing up his piece “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

If you are like me, then your reaction to this video — at least on an intellectual level — should have been fairly dramatic. As silly and sheltered as it may sound, I had never thought about how I spent my money until I read Singer’s work. Sure, I thought about saving money up for different things, or how I should plan for later life, but never how my spending — indeed, all of my behavior — may fail to help my fellow-man. I would pass homeless people without giving them money, and justify it by thinking, “they want to be homeless”, or, “they aren’t starving”. (There is some truth to these two thoughts, after all). However, trying to justify my lack of donating to charities wasn’t so easy. What could I possibly tell myself, knowing that only a few dollars might help save a child’s life? The answer? Nothing. There isn’t a thing that can justify my lack of donations. The myriad of justifications I’ve heard for not donating to charity always sound tired, unconvincing, and ill-reasoned.

Many respond to Singer’s views by saying that they deserve to keep all of their money, and no one has the right to tell them otherwise. I’m not sure about this. Even if you legitimately worked for everything you have, couldn’t some of it be used to help others? Is it ethical to keep all of your money, never donating a dime? Some claim they don’t donate to charities because of their inefficiency. But, honestly, how inefficient must they be to stop you from donating? Even if 99% of a charity’s donations are wasted, that still means 1% could be used to help those desperately in need.  Isn’t donating worth it, even if one hundred dollars are lost for every one dollar spent? The only real justification I see for “failing to help”, is if you are already helping as much as you can. I know that not everyone has money to spare. The overwhelming majority of people have expenses in their lives that have to be dealt with before they can consider charity. However, for the minority wasting money on vacation cruises, overtly expensive food, and excessive fashion, there is no excuse.

 
Where does that leave me? Ethics is about applying standards to yourself — not just others. Since familiarizing myself with Singer’s work, I’ve started donating to both homeless people and charities, though in small amounts. My income doesn’t allow me to donate anything substantial — though that may be what I tell myself to feel better. I think Singer’s position is correct, but I don’t think we should expect anyone to donate every bit of surplus they have, leading some sort of ascetic lifestyle. I’m much more devoted to pragmatism than to utilitarianism, and I think that people should try to do their best. Singer himself admits that he could be doing a lot more, based on his level of income. Given the average American’s level of income, it is likely that we can help out others and purchase many of the things that make us happy. We may even end up consuming less, which would be beneficial to everyone. Personally, I’ll be saving up for these nifty headphones, but I’ll also be donating some money, where I can, and when I can.

Ending the post with these pretty headphones seemed less depressing than a picture of a homeless person.

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