The Moral Bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Asceticism

In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo offers simple advice: go through all of your possessions, one by one, and ask yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” If the answer is “no,” then get rid of it. The advice has certainly resonated—the book has sold more than two million copies, and it spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. By my friends’ telling, it’s practically required reading for anyone trying to live in a cramped New York apartment.

There’s something spiritually satisfying about the act of pruning. Who hasn’t dreamed of simplifying their life, committing to minimalism, and limiting their possessions to the bare necessities? Many religious and philosophical traditions contain strains of such asceticism. From Epictetus to the Buddha, from Christian monasticism to Thoreau, there’s a long tradition of trying to make do with what you already have, and maybe learning to live with less.

Silicon Valley, with a futurist and libertarian-leaning ideology all its own, is no exception. This new brand of technologically-enhanced asceticism, however, is based less on minimalism than it is on outsourcing, by building a simple life on the backs of sweatshop laborers and the unregulated sharing economy.

Although he lives in Los Angeles, no one exemplifies the new Silicon Valley asceticism better than Rob Rhinehart, the software engineer who developed Soylent, a “nutritionally complete” liquid meal replacement with a taste that media outlets describe as anything between “flavorless custard” to “like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass.” The central ideas behind Soylent are efficiency and optimization. On “The Colbert Report,” Rhinehart stiffly discussed nutritional biochemistry and explained how Soylent “fit[s] the criteria that people desire in their staple foods.”

This attitude isn’t too far from the kind of decluttering ethic that Marie Kondo would recognize. To explain why he cut cooking from his life, Rhinehart told The Atlantic, “I would rather enjoy things because I want to, not because I have to.” And he reports seeing the most interest from young, educated males who are “busy or passionate about something.” Cooking is labor, he argues, and wasted time. If it doesn’t give you joy, why not get rid of it to make room for what matters to you?

Last week, Rhinehart published a post on his personal blog that extended this logic to his consumption of electricity. It echoed Walden’s early chapters on economy, where Thoreau detailed the materials and expenses of his life in the cabin. (The materials for building the cabin itself cost $20.12½, excluding the “timber, stones, and sand,” which he “claimed by squatter’s right.” He planted mostly potatoes and beans, supplemented with $1.74½ worth of rice.) Rhinehart does similar accounting: $150 for a 100W solar panel; $65 for lead acid battery that holds 12V; etcetera. Everything considered, Rhinehart claims to have spent $1,450 on a rig that leaves him completely self-sufficient.

But Rhinehart isn’t self-sufficient in the same way Thoreau was. Thoreau planted his own food, made his own clothes, and built his own house. Rhinehart outsources. He doesn’t have a car because he takes Uber. He doesn’t go grocery shopping because he buys his “staple food online like a civilized person.” He doesn’t go to the liquor store, because a company called Saucey delivers him wine. Opting out of owning a wasteful washing machine, Rhinehart has his clothing “custom made in China for prices you would not believe” and shipped to him regularly. After a few wears, he donates his “used garments.”

This is an astonishing admission, in part because it clearly highlights the inconsistency in Rhinehart’s brand of asceticism. Surely he can’t imagine that donating his clothes and buying new ones is more sustainable than keeping and washing them himself. Even more, he describes grocery shopping as a “multisensory living nightmare,” and explains that he doesn’t use grocery shopping services because he “cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet.” If Rhinehart thinks paying others to grocery shop for him is unethical, I wonder how he imagines those clothes in China are made so cheaply, and whether an industrial factory qualifies as a gauntlet.

If Rhinehart washed his clothes himself, however, he would need a washing machine, which takes energy, and he couldn’t say he lived on a battery anymore. A commenter on Rhinehart’s post aptly called this brand of asceticism “consumption laundering”; because Rinehart doesn’t do the consumption himself, it doesn’t count. It doesn’t use up his solar-powered battery, so it’s not real. The feeling of minimalism is bought by offloading consumption onto others.

Rhinehart doesn’t have a car because someone else drives him. He doesn’t go shopping because China ships him clothes and an app brings him wine. He doesn’t buy groceries because UPS delivers his Soylent. All were necessary steps for him to ditch his electricity-sucking appliances so that he could live off the power generated by a solar cell, but what does that say other than that he’s in the privileged position of making other people use his energy for him?

Rhinehart certainly means well. Perhaps it’s more efficient to have a few people with cars do the driving, a few people with washing machines do the washing, and a few people with kitchens do the cooking (with Soylent for the rest). It’s hard to feel good about it, though, when that efficiency comes at the expense of those we outsource to, be it your Uber driver or a Chinese sweatshop worker. Avi Asher-Shapiro at Jacobin makes a compelling case against this kind of “sharing” economy, calling it “a scheme to shift risk from companies to workers, discourage labor organizing, and ensure that capitalists can reap huge profits with low fixed costs.”

Few can afford a cabin in the woods; far fewer can afford Rhinehart’s 21st century Silicon Valley upgrade. Maybe we will one day live in a techno-ascetic utopia, where parking lots become parks and power plants become museums because we all use solar cells and drink Soylent and have our clothes shipped to us (efficiently) by drone.

But who will exist on the fringes? Rhinehart’s vision would have us invert the “haves” and the “have-nots,” letting the rich live lightly by offloading the messy business of consuming and owning to the poor. The solution to our problems isn’t to wildly deregulate and make transient consumption so cheap that the rich are no longer burdened by ownership. I don’t want to live the illusion of a simple life because I’m renting the frills.

22 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    What color of Soylent is he using?

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    Bizarre. BTW, you don’t need a washing machine to wash clothes. Sink or tub, water, soap, time, and elbow grease will do the job. Rinse, wring, hang on line.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The most important part of his program is not having to do any work.

  • oaim50@yahoo.com' Don says:

    Soylent Green? Wasn’t it made from people just like us?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    No, that’s disgusting. They first made it from other stuff and it was other colors. You should probably check to make sure it is not green.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    I like his description of grocery shopping, LOL. I kind of feel that way about it, too. But I know to shop on Wednesday evening while everyone else is at church. ;o)

    The dude sounds like a seriously introverted person with some other issues. But how Marie Kondo got into the mix, I’m puzzled about. I just bought her book, and am embarking on decluttering. I filled 3 bags of clothes yesterday as a start. Going to Goodwill tomorrow. Marie is definitely OCD, but I admire her ability to turn her quirk into a consulting business!

    We pretty much have too much, and I think most of us need a bit of downsizing and decluttering. As the daughter of a serious hoarder who finds herself becoming more like mom the older she gets, I need it desperately. But I don’t think the desire to simplify is the same as living in a bubble like this Rhineheart character seems to need to do.

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    This. ^ ^ ^

  • phatkhat@centurylink.net' phatkhat says:

    Or those little hand-cranked washers that supposedly work quite well. I almost bought one to avoid doing it in the tub once. Now I have a washer and dryer, thankfully.

  • I think what Rhinehart is doing positive and interesting. It demonstrates that happiness and a sense of fulfillment does not have to be tied to opulent consumption. He certainly Trumps the role models we usually have before us… That said, your point about recognizing that we all swim in the sea of outsourced labor and sweatshop-based low prices is well taken, only it could be more strongly emphasized that this applies to any First World person, including the relatively poor among us (who also benefit from low prices, though they are also likely much more exploited than others by the current system as well.) I try to do all of my clothing shopping in thrift and second-hand stores (ah, the spiritually blissful sense of combining eco-righteousness with basic Mennonite cheapness) so I really like the Rhinehart types – second only to the thousands of people who buy great clothes and then get rid of them without even having removed the sales tags! Thanks for the tip on Marie Kondo’s book. On second thought, I am not sure I would want that book laying around my house, lest other members of my family read it and start to cast a scrutinizing fish eye in my direction…!

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    This reeks of geek thinking, doesn’t like doing laundry (what about hand washing?) so he gets clothing from the slave labor market in China shipped to him and treats it like disposables. Where is he on the necessity of whoever he donates it to having to launder it so it will be hygienic for whoever ends up wearing it and using it like normal clothing is used?

    His “life style” is a symptom, not simplicity. There are ways to radically simplify your life and radically cut your carbon footprint without it being an example of neurotic aversion to anything you can call labor. Asceticism, especially when it turns on self-absorbed, sanctimony, can be as much of a trap and an expression of ego as anything else can.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    We don’t really need to complain about the individual habits of every person on earth. We should be able to find more important things to argue about.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    What do you think his shtick consists of but complaining about “individual habits”?

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    It’s just someone with some crazy idea that becomes a topic of discussion. I don’t really see it as typical Silicon Valley asceticism.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    Get back to me when they’ve given it all to the destitute who won’t pay them back any of it.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Don’t be so critical of everyone all the time. Just because someone has crazy laundry ideas doesn’t mean that person needs to be supporting the poor.

  • thinkingcriminal@gmail.com' Camera Obscura says:

    How ironic it is when an online atheist troll tells people they shouldn’t be so critical of everyone all the time.

    People who don’t support the poor are the problem, not poor folk.

  • joe_galanko@hotmail.com' Usernameface says:

    I think the author completely misses the larger point. Although Rhinehart seems to take it as a challenge to see how little energy he can use personally, the broader point is that there are big inefficiencies in our systems affecting the masses that technology is in the process of eliminating.

    The author says “The solution to our problems isn’t to wildly deregulate and make transient consumption so cheap that the rich are no longer burdened by ownership.” The rich aren’t burden by ownership, rather the non-rich are. The rich don’t own Porsches and Lamborghinis because owning them is a burden, rather they own them because most people have no choice but to own a car, which is expensive, and rich people buying expensive cars is a way to distinguish themselves from the rest.

    If nobody has to own a car then it helps people with less money much more than people with more money. Not that we’re anywhere close to masses of people being able to live without a car but I’m thinking more in terms of the principle of technology giving us more options and making those options cheaper. There are lots of things people spend time or money on because they’ve historically had no choice and that is in the process of changing.

  • joe_galanko@hotmail.com' Usernameface says:

    Said the person using the biggest labor saving device ever invented, the Internet.

  • joe_galanko@hotmail.com' Usernameface says:

    Thoreau is often romanticized but note that the more self-sufficient you are the more likely you are to be in poverty. It is much more efficient for people to specialize and then trade the fruits of their specialization than it is for everyone to do everything for themselves. If you disagree then stop and think a minute about what your life would be like if you had to do absolutely everything for yourself.

    Note that if Thoreau strictly held to his self-sufficiency mantra nobody would have ever heard of him. All Thoreau did was write his books. Just writing books doesn’t affect anyone other than yourself. You need other people to do the publishing and distributing, etc. And even then, if all the other people in the society spend time growing their own food and building their own house and making their own clothes nobody is going to have time to sit around reading Thoreau’s books.

  • Kinder, Küche und Kirche.

    -dlj.

  • Reminds me of the rich Indian Congress Party politicians, wearing expensive handspun suits, when perfectly good polyester was available. For a tenth of the price.

    -dlj.

  • wd.calhoun@gmail.com' William Calhoun says:

    I’m sorry. Much of what marks classic asceticism is the desire to pare away what keeps us from really being human. Rhinehart’s type strikes me as resulting from the fact he doesn’t like being human: too messy, too uncontrolled, too organic.

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