Some 150 years after Henry David Thoreau's two-year retreat into the Walden woods, the rapid drumbeat of technology lures more and more Americans down a glittering path that would have astounded the father of America's simplicity movement.
A raging economy has fueled sales of the latest, greatest, and fastest technological tools. And throughout America's scattered silicon capitals, computer techies have come to represent both new technology's driving force and some of its most enthusiastic consumers.
But now, some of those on the ground floor of the high-tech swirl are taking a hard look at what they really need to get by in life. And in a surprising new trend, many younger techies have become committed to simplifying, uncluttering, and focusing their lives.
It won't be easy. Electronic gadgets and appliances have become so much a way of life that 20-something software engineers can barely fathom life before personal digital assistants, pagers, cell phones, digital cable, and the comforting presence of not one, but two or three computers in their $2,000-a-month Silicon Valley condos. Nor will "simplification" likely be complete. Technology has become ingrained and, in some cases, indispensible.
But pioneers in "stuff reduction" keep popping up.
"Excessive consumption is causing a world of hurt," says Joseph Beckenbach III, a contractor and software engineer in San Jose, Calif. "For me, [voluntary simplicity] is a way of having a grand vision of how I want the future to be, and to be able to tie that to real actions that I can do from day to day."
The deliberate, contemplative movement known as voluntary simplicity may provide the necessary balance to the relentless pace of cutting-edge technology, says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
Mr. Celente, who has studied the growing impact of the movement, says that we only have to imagine the life of an average computer-industry employee to understand why simplicity might have a strong appeal.
"It's no surprise that [high-tech workers] are grasping for elements of a real life away from the grind of their wired workplaces.... When they get home, they want to escape from the wired world."
Simpler living, says writer and simplicity activist Cecile Andrews, is an age-old concept. "It is the examined life, richly lived. Simplicity isn't just about reducing consumerism, but thinking about what kinds of communities we want to create."
Strains of voluntary simplicity have emerged in every major faith tradition in the world. It found early expression in the US through the beliefs of Puritans, Quakers, and Transcendentalists.
"Simplicity was always a part of our culture, from the time of Benjamin Franklin onward. Up to and during the Depression, frugality and simplicity were respected virtues," says Celente. "But that changed after World War II, as we became a massive consumer culture."
Concepts of simplicity were revived in the late 1960s, as an aspect of the hippie counterculture. Duane Elgin's "Voluntary Simplicity" (published in 1981) and the 1987 stock-market crash, are widely credited with jump-starting the American simplicity movement.
Throughout the past two decades, the movement has generated widespread interest, resulting in national conferences, homegrown simplicity circles, a wide assortment of Web sites, journals, and books.
The Trend Research Institute has predicted that by 2005, at least 15 percent of the developed world will be practicing voluntary simplicity in some form.
Simplicity has a great deal of aesthetic appeal and brings immense emotional reward, say technologically savvy practitioners like Catherine Harper, a Microsoft test engineer and Woodinville, Wash., resident.
A self-described "geek for hire," Ms. Harper's fondness for the good things in life has earned her a bit of a workplace reputation. Among other time-intensive activities, she tends to two orchards and elaborate herb and vegetable gardens. Harper spins, weaves, and makes her own clothes.
She also cooks virtually all of her food from scratch and bakes her own breads in a wood-burning brick oven.
"These are things I do for love of them, and things I do for sanity. [I don't do this] because I hate the technology that is such a feature of my work life, but rather to provide some kind of balance," she explains.
For Harper, a central aspect of simplicity is a willingness to ask important questions about one's own life. "What are the things that matter to me? What do I believe in?"
Mr. Beckenbach, who has worked in Silicon Valley for nine years, found himself trapped in a gadget-buying, work-intensive lifestyle before turning recently to a simpler life after coming across the popular simplicity book, "Your Money or Your Life."
It was then that the Beckenbach and his wife, Daisy, began to pay attention to how they were living their life and where their money was going.
The couple had both been working long weeks in Silicon Valley's computer industry. Today, owing to a simplified lifestyle, they are raising a young infant daughter and paying all of their bills on income from one, 30-hour-a-week income.
That has meant cutting back. The Beckenbachs ceased buying luxury items, most gadgets, unnecessary computer equipment, other nonessentials.
Ms. Andrews, the Seattle-based author of "The Circle of Simplicity," believes that technology itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, and that it can easily have a helpful place in a simplified life.
Echoing the critical-thinking emphasis of the simplicity movement, Andrews suggests that techies and nontechies alike need to give serious consideration to electronic purchases as well as the long-term environmental or social consequences of various technological advances.
Her husband, Paul Andrews, is a Seattle Times technology columnist and author of two books on Bill Gates. But simplicity, even in his work life, is of paramount importance.
"People tend to focus on their personal lives and then block out 8 to 10 hours at work as something they can't do anything about," he says. "They should approach their work lives as much as their personal lives and apply this ethic."
In small pockets of the computer industry, that already appears to be happening.
Big Mind Media, an innovative Internet and Web consulting company, moved from Nashville, Tenn., to Washington's scenic, pastoral Whidbey Island in 1998.
Gabriel Shirley, a partner of the company, explains that Big Mind Media's approach to its own employees - as well as to its clients - emphasizes socially responsible business practices and many of the guiding principles of the simplicity movement.
"Simplicity plays a guiding role in most of what we do," explains Mr. Shirley, who was a theology student in college. "Everything from how we get to work each day to how we interact with our clients. Simplicity is always the goal."
Big Mind Media's move to Whidbey Island was intended to promote a strong connection to the peaceful, surrounding rural landscape, and to allow partners and employees to live within walking distance of the company. The company encourages regular telecommuting and participation of employees on all levels of decisionmaking.
For Shirley, simplicity is a worthwhile pursuit in his work and personal life. Even when his occupation demands long hours, Shirley insists he never loses touch with the things that matter in life, including a focus on his spiritual development.
"We aren't against technology itself, but we are very discriminating about what technology we will accept and use," concurs Harper, the Microsoft employee. "It's a questioning process; stepping back and deciding what is going to make your life better, healthier, and more enjoyable."
Where to learn more about the 'VS' movement
The Circle of Simplicity, by Cecile Andrews (HarperCollins, 1997).
Your Money or Your Life,by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (Penguin, 1992).
Voluntary Simplicity, by Duane Elgin (William Morrow and Co., 1981, 1993).
The Simple Living Guide, by Janet Luhrs (Broadway Books, 1997).
Simplify Your Life, by Elaine St. James (Hyperion, 1994).
* * *
The Simple Living Network: www.slnet.com
The Garden's Voluntary Simplicity Web resources guide: www.thegarden.net/simplicity/index.html
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society