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Living A Real Life Virtual -- From Materialism to Virtualism

by Henk Boot

Uncluttering is rapidly becoming a buzzword. You cannot enter a bookshop without running into a display full of practical guides about how to unclutter your home and life. The Martha Stewarts' of this world all want you to get rid of unnecessary stuff and sloppy habits in exchange for a happier life. Throw out the dust-gathering cute figurines and replace them with a how-to-unclutter manual! But you can unclutter much more than you think as we enter a new millennium. So let's see how Less Is More was never more true.

The doctrine of materialism began around 500 BC with Democritus of Abdera who hypothesized that all matter was built out of very small indivisible units called atoms. These atoms have fixed properties, such as size and shape, and are the building blocks of the physical world. The physical world, and all its atoms, are located in the Void; i.e., that which we call space. Democritus considered all changes in the world to be the result of the rearrangement of atoms in the void. Centuries later, in 1687, Newton published his "Principi", still based on the old Greek Atomists' idea of matter being passive and inert.

That very matter, built of "solid, massy, impenetrable" particles, became, with the help of steam and iron in the Industrial Revolution, the new Mammon. The more matter one can call his own, the more power he has. In the past two and a half-centuries, this materialism, now known as capitalism, has conquered the world. Even relatively long-term experiments like communism have finally surrendered to the power of the atom.

But just 50 years ago, a new movement surfaced. It was fired by the inexorable evolution to control matter according to our will. Of course, this was the creation of the computer, which has been rapidly miniaturized where it now fits even within the palm of your hand. With computers everywhere, individuals, without doing any hard labor, can acquire more power. This power, visualized in bank notes and credit cards, enables us to purchase goods spit out by highly automated factories and plants.

As all this material wealth, though unequally spread over the world, is now clogging up our society. Commuters going from their nice urban residences to workplaces to gather yet more wealth are blocking our roads almost day and night. In order to pay the upkeep for those controlling agencies known as governments, all material goods are more or less heavily taxed. Non-material goods are even censored in some situations in order to protect the General Wealth. Calculate for yourself how much tax you pay even after tax. We are caught in the matter spiral: The more money we get the more matter we gather the more money we need to store that matter.

Let's get out of this spiral and enter the new millennium.

Just after W.W.II we learned about a new school of thought called Existentialism. During the period of rebuilding Europe and remembering all the dead, some writers and philosophers, like Albert Camus, Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, fought their own wars. Their conflicts were based on their strong beliefs in Living: The free will of mankind; life as a series of choices leading to stress where few decisions are without any negative consequences; and "if you make a decision you must follow it through." All the foregoing can be considered the basic tenets of Existentialism. Just as all the apostles of existentialism died during the 1960s, so too, did the movement they created die with them. Other new philosophical and social movements came and went but never lasted. Remember the 60's students and Provo, the 70's hippies, and the 80's punks? We hardly can suggest a 90's group other than some weak extracts of all that came previous. The attention span is shrinking and shrinking.

In the period starting in the second half of the 1980s that we call the Information Age, material goods are less and less valued. Services and Knowledge are the new matter of importance. As non-materials are much easier to carry and protect, the adage that Knowledge is Power has become reality. More workers are using features of the Internet to do their jobs, but they are still commuting and their acquiring of goods continues. In the beginning of the century illiteracy was a major problem, but now computer-illiteracy marks the dividing line between the new Haves and Have-nots.

Modern times also enables us to make new choices, and one of these could be an adapted form of Existentialism, or "Virtual Existentialism". The "old" existentialists put the emphasis on Freedom and Free Will, even though interpretation of these two values varies from person to person. After these Freedom issues comes Personal Responsibility, another basic value in the "old" existentialism. Every decision is a personal decision and all consequences from making it are to be expected, as are the risks associated with that decision. On the other hand, personal risks taken in any decision should not affect others, at least not without their consent.

The translation of the above "old" concepts to Virtual Existentialism creates a very important new role for the Internet. The Internet and its related World Wide Web are the only truly global places where both individuals and groups can communicate and exchange ideas freely. The absence of censorship (in most cases) should be protected as the highest value. This also means accepting other's ideas that might be offending, discriminating, or even worse, a basic expression of Freedom. Freedom also means freedom of materialism. In this respect, the Internet also gives us an opportunity to express our freedom.

Our homes have become places to stash worldly goods. Not so long ago, a house was just a shelter for containing the most essential living elements, such as a fireplace, some cooking utensils and some form of a bed. Actually, this is not so much different from homes in some southern countries where many of us love to spend our expensive holidays. There, we feel good about being away from the rat race and we dream about one day -- after we are retired -- of owning a place just like this. After the holidays we then fly back to our overpacked and heavily mortgaged urban hiding place.

This can all be so different and much more enjoyable, even today, even before you retire. Why not just shed all the excess and live like the Southern Mediterranean? At this juncture, let's take a look at the Unclutter Your Whatever books. Go to a Barnes and Noble during lunch break -- it could also be your last, if you succumb to these writings -- and go through any of these books. What is the basic idea they are giving you? It's that you can ditch almost everything you have not touched, worn or even thought about for the last year or even 6 months. It's that simple. Go through all your cupboards, shelves and whatever else and clean out all the extra weight. All you really need is a roof, warmth, clothing, food, accompanying utensils, one or more PC's or laptops, and some entertainment, like books, records and videos. For sentimental reasons, though, you can still keep your photos and such. Your kids can hold on to some "real toys", like a box of building blocks. These reductions constitute step one on the way to your entering the world of Virtual Living

The next step involves some more work, but it will be very satisfying as you no longer need to watch any more television because you are not interested in buying any more junk. Remember, the basic purpose of TV is to sell you more stuff. As the Internet is accessible from all over the world it is the ideal place to store your personal belongings in "virtual" way. Set up a personal website to contain all your virtual stuff. When you use a free Internet service provider you get all those commercials you don't want, so be sure to choose a provider you have to pay for. Competition is heavy, which gives you the opportunity to choose the best for a very reasonable price. More important, security, speed and availability are better guaranteed when you pay for an ISP.

After your photos are digitized and put safely on your private website, your record and CD collection is next. Unless you are a purist audiophile, converting your CDs into MP3 format and storing them on your website is great fun and highly effective. For the real audiophile, options like headphones powered by small tube amplifiers can be an ideal solution. Storage of CDs can be simplified by removing the crystal boxes and using paper sleeves instead. This way, you can store 2500 CDs in just one Rimowa trunk. Now only your books are left. At the beginning of the year 2000, Xerox will be coming to market with its so called "e-paper". According to Xerox, this is "a thin sheet of plastic in which millions of small beads, somewhat like toner particles, are randomly dispersed. The beads, each contained in an oil-filled cavity, are free to rotate within those cavities. The beads are "bichromal," with hemispheres of contrasting color (e.g. black and white), and charged so they exhibit an electrical dipole. Under the influence of a voltage applied to the surface of the sheet, the beads rotate to present one colored side or the other to the viewer. A pattern of voltages can be applied to the surface in a bit-wise fashion to create images such as text and pictures. The image will persist until new voltage patterns are applied to create new images." See http://www.parc.xerox.com/dhl/projects/epaper Thus, when e-paper printers are available or even e-paper-books, there is no need to have all those books on your shelves. Simply have them all scanned and put on your website. New books will no doubt also be e-published.

Having taken all these virtual steps, when you look around your house you will see a lot of empty space indicating you are now ready for the next level: Why pay a mortgage? Wouldn't it be nice to unchain yourself from this big monthly burden? You would no longer have to be kind to the bank and have to say an obsequious "thank you" to the bank manager. You are free and in charge yourself. But where to live? Since you have now cleared out a lot of stuff you can do with a much smaller rental apartment or house. Or how about a hotel? You think that's too expensive? Hotels have everything at hand. You do not have to do any housework, cooking, or whatever! As long as you have your Internet connection, you're set. Sure, you will have to make deals with the hotel management regarding room rates and telephone charges. But if you indicate you want to stay for an extensive period you will be surprised at the rates you can negotiate. We once managed to have a bridal suite paying only the weekly rate for a whole month -- And you can swap hotels whenever you like.

When you are settled in your hotel room(s) you are ready for the final step to Freedom: living virtual. You are going to work for yourself and not for a boss. Everybody has special skills so determine for yourself what you can do to make a living as John Smith, Inc. What are you doing for your boss now? Can you be a company providing that same service to your former boss and others? Make yourself "brand" instead of a corporate rank and file. Because you don't need to work so much anymore in order to keep all your material stuff, you can work at highly competitive hourly rates.

You used to go to work on a highly scheduled basis, but now you can start and stop working whenever you feel like from your "own" home. Simply begin working remotely via the Internet. There are very few clients who will mind your working at night, just so long as the job gets done. You can even work from the park. And what goes for you goes for your significant other, as well, and even for your kids. Quality education via the Net is very feasible.

Living the life virtual is not just a futuristic idea -- It is a vital jump forward. As this article has shown, our society is caught in an ever-speeding, ever-deepening spiral. It took 2200 years to get from Atomism/Materialism to the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution. One hundred years after that, computers emerged. And 30 years thereafter the Information Age started. We are now in the third millennium and it is time for even more new incentives.

A popular Dutch television program called Big Brother puts nine people, between ages 18 and 47, in a house for 100 days that is surrounded by 40 cameras watching them 24 hours a day, from everywhere. Cameras are in the bedrooms, shower, and bathroom. There is no privacy at all. The inhabitants do not have television, radio or any other contact with the outside world; just each other and a few books. Twenty-four hours a day pictures and sounds from the house are broadcasted either by television or via the Internet. Go to www.big-brother.nl, which although in Dutch, you will still get the idea. The program on TV is watched by one million people every day, which is around 20% of the Dutch workforce! Every week, one of the participants has to leave this wired up house based on the other participants' nominations and the viewers' votes. The last one left in the house gets the show's grand prize of $110,000. This is the ultimate real-life, real-time soap opera. This is indeed virtual living, but not our kind.

We want to be active, free and living our own life, not somebody else's. Modern technology combined with an up-to-date interpretation of existentialism could be the answer.

For the last five years the author and his significant other have been implementing just such changes, and for us it works. We swapped a big house full of stuff in the country for a comfortable and efficient high rise apartment in the city. Getting rid of a mortgage and all that "stuff" feels so good! Working from home most of the time gives us freedom and is very efficient, as well. We also noticed that more work can be done when you can concentrate and without any distraction. The time we saved by not having to daily commute equals a complete working day. And instead of working five days and then having a weekend, our weeks are now much more flexible. Our clients also like it as much as we do.

Truly, less is more when you try to live virtual.

Copyright 1999, Henk Boot, All Rights Reserved

21st, The VXM Network, http://www.vxm.com

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