The design team at Facebook thought it had a winning strategy to defeat Twitter – offer users everything that Twitter has, and more. What they didn’t realize is that Twitter’s base were fans for one key reason – it was less. The resulting firestorm has Facebook scrambling to regroup. This may seem like an isolated situation, a simple business decision gone wrong, but it appears to be something more. Observed from the perspective of general trends in culture and the arts, minimalism appears to be the fashion and thought of the day. The implications extend far beyond one software product.
Minimalism is, at its heart, an ethic of stripping everything down to its essential elements. It’s different from utilitarianism in that in minimalism the structure and essence speak for themselves, creating a style that goes beyond the simple use of an object. There is a philosophy at the heart of minimalism, a plan and ethos that is not unadorned, but the ornamentation grows naturally from the essence of what the thing at hand really is. In short, form closely follows function.
In music, Phillip Glass and John Adams exemplify this approach. Repeating figures create a rhythm, and the melody springs naturally from the sense of time. Harmony is built through rising and falling figures, hypnotically moving forward. The essential elements of music are united into one structure that holds together completely on its own. The result is sparse and yet rich, daring the listener to put the pieces together in their own head.
Writing is more naturally suited for minimalism, since the earliest storytelling was often very terse and focused on the basic plot. The tenants of minimalism are unity and a consistent honesty, relying heavily on “show, don’t tell” as a way of telling a story. Examples include Chuck Palahniuk, and Samuel Beckett. The essence of the form is to set up the situation and characters in a way that allows them to simply do what they do naturally, revealing the plot and the inner personalities in a way that flows like water. Dialogue becomes a staple of advancing the story and revealing the motivations of the characters. Like minimalist music, the key connections are formed in the mind of the reader as they absorb the work.
Software that has the minimalist ethic is not much different in its approach. By keeping things simple and allowing the user to put themselves and their needs into the program, a programmer can create something that fills a fairly narrow niche that has a lot of room to grow. Flexibility and customization are usually key points. This is very different from the early days of Microsoft, when the rapid addition of new features to an ever-expanding program was seen as a key business strategy. Today, small programs that meet the user on their own terms are considered more valuable.
Does this mean that rising minimalism is heralding a new era? The basic ideas are heavily modernist in origin – form follows function. The picture shown is one end of a 1960 teak desk from Denmark, which I own, that clearly shows the minimalist ethic. What takes minimalism into a new era are times when the central point of a work of art is not to express a particular idea or aesthetic but to bring the reader or listener to a greater understanding of their own place in the universe. Minimalist software comes the closest to this, through customization, but minimalist music clearly invites exploration of what music itself is.
More importantly, will minimalism as an ethic lead to a complete restructuring of our concepts of institutions such as corporations, churches, or government? That’s harder to tell at this time, but it seems logical. In a Depression, large organizations that are difficult to manage will almost certainly be stripped down to their essence, focusing more on their exact mission.
There is little doubt that the aesthetic of our time is, more and more, a minimalist one. We see it in the arts as well as the products that we use every day. This has the potential to be something much more than a fashion trend, and may yet become a way of life as we go through a difficult restructuring. It may also be the foundation of a new era that defines nearly every aspect of how we live.