Neo-Minimalism and the Rise of the Technomads

By Sean Bonner

The Rise of the Technomads
[Photo: Paris, 2010, by Sean Bonner]

By definition, "neo-minimalists" don't have an overabundance of things in their lives. But one thing they tend to have more and more of these days is visibility. Recently, The New York Times talked to some people participating in the 100 Thing Challenge about how it has affected their lives; The BBC looked into the "Cult of Less;" and here on Boing Boing, Mark has been getting down to the nitty-gritty of what the "lifestyle hack" involves. The common thread here is a growing number of people are realizing that our mountains of physical stuff are actually cluttering up more than just our houses. All of this is exciting to me, because it's something in which I have a growing personal interest: I have been taking steps to get rid of the mountains of stuff I now realize I have no reason to hang on to. In fact, I'm not just doing it myself—I'm trying to help start a revolution.

This is a big change for me. I've spent most of my life as collector: comics, records, t-shirts, old Japanese robot & kaiju toys, creepy garage sale junk, art—the whole list won't fit here, let alone in my storage space. But after many years living in the same place, I moved in 2006. In the process of preparing for that move, for the first time in as long as I can recall I had to physically touch everything I owned. I found myself wondering why I was still holding on to so much junk.

Since then, I've been on a mission to un-clutter my life and get rid of as much crap as I can. The process has been slow going, filled with reflection on individual objects and their value to me. I've been doing a lot of thinking about who I am and what I want out of this life.

I decided to value the gathering of experiences over the acquiring of stuff, and to get rid of stuff which would enable the gathering of more experiences. I'd have more cash from the sale of my stuff, and less stuff to worry about, should I want to move or travel for a while. Stuff gets old and breaks and takes up room in your house, experiences stick with you for life and make you a better person. The more I thought about this, the more obsessed I became. The more I traveled, the more I realized how much less stuff I actually need to be happy, and how much happier I was with less stuff. I knew I had physical clutter, I didn't realize how much mental clutter came with it. The more I travel the less I pack, and the more I realize that increasing what I own is just increasing cruft— and, that I should get rid of it.

What I'm packing
[Photo: What I'm packing, by Sean Bonner]

I started writing about this on my blog and it sparked many interesting discussions (like for frequent travelers, does "home" have to be just one place?), one of which being: technology enables this lifestyle shift, and is changing the way we interact with our surroundings (meaning our stuff, as well as our friends and family).

Fifty years ago I couldn't sell an extra bike in 20 minutes by posting it on Craigslist. Fifty years ago I couldn't tweet that I needed a place to stay in NYC for a weekend and within minutes have offers from 5 different friends. Fifty years ago I couldn't work from anywhere and be just as, if not more effective than if I was in one place. Fifty years ago I couldn't video chat at a moment's notice with my family from my mobile phone while traveling around the world. And If I have all these options open to me now, why am I not taking advantage of them?

As I talked with friends, I realized I wasn't the only one thinking about this. It was clearly a very interesting topic for quite a few of us, and we often wondered aloud just how mobile you can go, if you trim your stuff down to the absolute minimum.

I had some wild ideas, so earlier this year I decided to test the hypothesis. I held a huge garage sale and sold a ton of my stuff, gave up my lease in Venice Beach, CA, packed up a suitcase and a backpack of stuff I might need, and put everything else in storage to be reconsidered at a later date. Then, I set out to travel the world for the rest of the year.

Now, by "travel," I don't mean aimlessly bouncing from one place to another and sightseeing. I mean setting up home base in one city for an extended period of time, living there as I would anywhere else, and then moving on. So far I've spent time in Singapore, New York City, Toronto, and Paris. The rest of the year will see me in Montreal, Tokyo, Vienna and Berlin. All of that with various stops in between.

You may be thinking that this is an easy thing for a young single dude to try out, but with a family it would be impossible. I should have mentioned that my wife is traveling with me. And my son. Who was just born this past March. Yep. Three people (one of whom is an infant), three suitcases. It's totally possible, but it requires a willingness to take some big steps. It's not without challenges, but so far, I have found the rewards to be very much worth it. While we've been on the road, my wife and I keep thinking about the stuff sitting in storage in LA, how little of it we miss, and how much of it we can't wait to get rid of when we get back to town.

A moment on the metro
[Photo: My son, Ripley, meets a stranger on the Paris Metro, while in the arms of my wife, Tara.]

This crazy idea has been top of mind all year for me and my family (well, my wife, anyway, I'm not sure about the little guy), but it seems that we aren't alone in that, either. And that's exciting to think about. . I recently gave an Ignite talk about this and showed these slides to a sold out crowd in Toronto. The audience was extremely receptive to these crazy ideas, and it was very encouraging to hear feedback from so many people excited.

Like any good experiment, I plan to publish the results, and have been working on a book about what I'm learning along the way. But the more I look around, the more people I find asking similar questions, and trying out similar experiments on their own. I decided we needed a community— part support group, part sounding board — so I set up a mailing list for what I'm calling "technomads". It's a new list, but it's active and growing. I think some great ideas and stories are going to come from it. If you find any aspect of this interesting, check it out, and skim the archives to see what's going on. A few of us from the list are also pulling links and info together on the technomads newly launched website as well.

I'll be keeping some notes here as well, posting experiences and advice about things that might make it easier and mistakes I made that definitely made it harder. If nothing else, all of this should make for an amusing story to tell when I'm older.

But going "technomadic" also suggests the possibility of totally revolutionizing my life. Maybe yours, too. Stay tuned.

bad espresso
[Photo: Bad espresso, Paris, 2010, by Sean Bonner]

More at Boing Boing

Technomads: Mobile wireless computing at Burning Man
The nitty-gritty of whittling down your possessions
Extreme lifestyle-minimalists
The extreme minimalist life of the Pete Campbell Mad Men actor
Charlie the Unicorn lip-dubbed
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