Minimalism and Competitive Altruism

There’s an interesting situation arising in the tech culture.

We often believe that tech culture is being congruent with Hustle Culture, where if we work hard, we get to play hard. We’ve often seen the images in Instagram, youtube, or other social media platforms that has displayed giving some simple yet deep quote that encourages the values of hard work to get what you want. And you can thank the marketing industry for that.

You’ve probably seen this somewhere

We imagine that the tech industry is inundated with those trying to go for this ‘rise and grind’ stint, and everyone else wants expensive cars, six-packs, and yachts. We have characterized those who want this lifestyles as ‘brogrammers’ or ‘tech yuppies’, and we see ourselves as morally better than them, as my inability to flex therefore makes me modest, and therefore better.

And rightly so.

Our moral culture does stem from embracing modesty and reduction of avarice. Media outlets that do shame materialistic and showy behavior are justified in calling them out for making others feeling worse off and inducing others to engage in the same behavior as they are in order to compete with them. Our pent-up disapproval towards this are often expressed as calling materialistic pursuit as “toxic” or “Machiavellian”.

However, like everything, it’s not that simple. I’ve bolded the phrase “worse off” because that itself is a very complicated claim to make.

We hate on Hustle Culture because we feel bogged down by the complexities and exhaustion we feel of chasing materialistic needs. We know deep in our hearts and Lambos and being a Billionaire will only result in empty flexing (which everyone hates) and unfulfilling relationships. In the midst of our resentment towards those who’ve embraced materialism, have created a whole new set of values and perspectives that lies in our reaction to Hustle Culture. (Nietzsche anyone?) What we get is a growing counter-movement that latches onto the opposite: Minimalism.

And hence, Tech, being the ever-so-critical thinker it is, is becoming increasingly minimalist. From logos to UI: what used to be a complicated logo, advertisement consisting of people, or a bustling work environment are now being reduced to simple geometric shapes and a simple gradient of colors.

This make me feel… simple. I like it.

But not just tech. Almost all aspects of life is receiving a bit of this minimalism treatment. Rather than consuming, it’s hot and sexy to reduce. We don’t want gourmet food, but instead we want local and sustainable. Somehow, Fiji water is now for poor people while water packaged in cardboard is what the cool kids are drinking.

From Paleo diets and Raw Water with our food, to furniture to being plain white and geometric: there is an undeniable shift that our perspectives are shifting away from Hustle Culture toward Minimalism.

But I argue that the shift towards Minimalism is not necessarily better.

I love it when my neighbors show off their Prius.

Said no one ever.

Like most people, you would applaud the cultural shift to popularize the growing abhorrence towards consumerist culture. But we have to take a look at where our shifting attitudes are coming from.

The answer is that our anti-consumerism is coming from the none other than the guys who are trying to make us consumerist in the first place: Marketers.

In our attempt to distance ourselves from the hedonistic material pursuers, we have ‘reactionary attitude’ where we start to value modesty. However, it’s usually not just one person who holds this attitude, rather, a lot of people do. In fact, among the wealthy millennials who come from a higher education background, it’s actually the norm to act in modest ways in order to signal your modesty.

However, at the same time, we have a hidden gut feeling that everyone’s act of modesty, is not modest. Rather, just virtue signalling meant to prove that your modest as an instrumental mean to boost your own ego and your own conception of oneself. Our modesty is nothing more than another way to get what the meat-head tech bros were trying achieve, acquiring ego and a sense of superiority.

It’s true tho

Modesty becomes a competition. And hence this is where start to see a phenomenon known as ‘Competitive Altruism’. And it doesn’t just start with the hippies trying to tell you that they are vegan, it happens in the animal kingdom too, from birds to naked mole rats. We are no different.

But the essence of this is that we are still competing, engaged in an arms race to prove to the other guy that you are more modest, simpler, and think clearer, and therefore is better.

Marketing exploits everything like usual

Marketers are clever people trying to provide arms to our little battles, trying to be a middle man that finds an arbitrage opportunity in the midst of our discontent. And man, have they really hit the jackpoint with our Competitive Altruism. The commercialization of Minimalism has exploded.

Apple’s who appeal is the fact that it is simple to the eyes. And same with Google. And pretty much every other tech company.

These guys know exactly what they are doing

Youtubers and media content creators are probably the other greatest perpetrators of this. From their carefully curated candid shots, to blinding white walls and rooms containing pretty much nothing, they are playing into your discontent with the world and all the show-offy people who are trying one-up you. They know you are unhappy and they offer you the guise of modesty to make you feel like you are worth something.

This is not a critique on Minimalism, but rather the commercialization of Minimalism.

Marketing is the art of selling the feeling of feeling valued. But it’s for money and profit.

They used sell the feeling of being valued with Rolexes and shiny cars. But they are now selling the opposite: white shells around everyday objects and nothingness.

I write this as a stance on the truth that Authenticity is being commercialized, which defeats the very essence of Authenticity. The solitary journey of finding oneself cannot be bought through products but rather inner reflection on what one strives for. It is a competition. Not with others, but with yourself. True modesty lies in the fact you have nothing to show for it. It is never realized, but that is where the genuine good comes from it. The fad where you post how much Garbage you collected was good, but how long did it last? Is there no more value in cleaning the environment around me if there is public applaud that I did it?

If a tree falls and no one hears it, did it make a sound? It didn’t. But the tree itself knows it did. And that’s all that matters to the tree.

Writing some personal insight on how economics affect us in our day to day lives.