Treading Lightly

It’s a trend: more people are approaching their dealings with the larger world and especially the Internet with a strategy I would describe as a calculated minimalism. These are people who actively engage with the world but go to some trouble to make their public presence smaller than you might think possible.

This isn’t a new idea, of course. All my life I’ve heard of families who never registered to vote because doing so would increase the amount of junk mail they would get. These days, it is not just being targeted by advertisers that people fear. Every transaction poses some degree of risk. Imagine purchasing a bread machine, for example. You could be put on a list of people who cook at home. The manufacturing and marketing process for the appliance adds something to the global pollution load. The money you spend could end up in the pockets of powerful and unsavory corporations and people. An appliance could turn out to be defective, leading to more work and inconvenience for you in the future. These are small risks, but they add up. The Internet makes it possible to take thousands of actions per day that the world can measure and record. To those who tune in to these risks, they add up enough that it is worth learning how to minimize them by strategically selecting your dealings with the world. For example, if you must buy a bread machine, select it carefully so that there is a better chance that you can buy just one. Or don’t buy it at all if it isn’t really that important. Or wait until you have a chance to buy one at a flea market.

These calculations aren’t necessarily a conscious habit. People tell me they are just trying to live “more quietly,” or minimize their climate impact, but when I look at their actions and listen to their stories, I can see that they are trying not to be noticed in situations where being noticed isn’t necessary.

This is a trend that I didn’t notice quickly because it is so opposite of what I do. If I like a trending topic on Twitter, I add my own ideas without more than a minute of hesitation. You wouldn’t expect the author of Rick Aster’s World by Rick Aster to be shying away from the online spotlight. Yet I certainly have sympathy for those who wouldn’t want to get the volume of unsolicited commercial email that I receive every day or who would want to avoid the kind of harsh comments I sometimes see on social media, and it’s understandable that people are resistant to the amount of data that is being collected on their every move online.

A year ago I saw quite a few people drop out of Facebook — not closing their accounts, in most cases, but switching to a pattern of checking in no more than once a month. This year there is a similar trend of people deleting their Tumblr and Flickr content. I’ve written elsewhere about people whose email addresses are secret, a trend that is more than five years old. Now I am also hearing of people minimizing visits to stores where they believe the cameras are connected to facial recognition software. (In case this sounds like a conspiracy theory, the use of facial recognition to connect in-store browsing to online browsing has become widespread in the marketing field during the last two years, though exactly which store locations are plugged in to facial recognition is a closely guarded secret, and the facial recognition systems have only a moderate degree of accuracy.) When shopping online, they use tracking blocker plugins so their browsing and product research can’t be traced. The DuckDuckGo search engine has boomed in popularity with its promise never its users. At the same time, ad blockers have become a phenomenon, used widely enough that the current Internet era will end when ad blockers become readily available on iOS about one year from now.

Not long after that, we will be seeing a mass move of online documents from HTTP to HTTPS so that Internet spies can’t tell exactly which web pages you are reading. Blogger is getting in on this by enabling HTTPS for every blog it hosts starting next month. As this trend progresses, there is a subtle move away from content providers who don’t support HTTPS for their documents.

It is not just consumers who are reducing their online exposure. Among mid-sized businesses, stealth marketing has become a more common strategy, and without all the fake reviews that defined stealth marketing five years ago. The new focus in stealth marketing is simply going unnoticed by people who are not potential customers.

The Internet trends are easier to measure, but it is people’s actions offline that will have the greater impact. With the high gasoline prices of six years ago, Americans learned to be more strategic about their driving errands including store visits, and they haven’t shown any sign of unlearning that with the current low gasoline prices. Now people are starting to apply the same style of skepticism to ordinary purchases. That, obviously, leads to fewer purchases, and this year it’s showing up in economic statistics in the United States and United Kingdom. The statistics show accelerated deleveraging, as economists describe it. Consumers are paying off debts faster while making fewer major purchases.

Eventually, consumers must make fewer purchases as items bought with the best of intentions end up donated to thrift shops in new condition five years later. You and the world are better off if you don’t make those mistaken purchases, and I think we’re collectively getting better at recognizing the mistakes before we put our money down. This is one of the biggest initiatives of the climate-impact movement, who tell us we could stand a chance of saving the planet from the impacts of climate change if we would just not buy the things we end up not needing.

There are five other recent trends I could mention that point toward this same outcome of intentional minimalism. I believe this will become one of those broad cultural trends that affects all of us in a small way even if we don’t consciously notice the way our habits and expectations are changing.

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