Spring Cleaning

"If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. "

As that time of year falls upon us like a piano thrown from a 5th floor window, we like to recall the advice of Bruce Sterling to the Viridian Design Movement (c. 1999).

Do not lug around an enormous tool chest or a full set of post-earthquake gear unless you are Stewart Brand. Furthermore, unless you are a professional emergency worker, you can abstain from post-apocalyptic “bug-out bags” and omnicompetent heaps of survivalist rations. Do not stock the fort with tiresome, life-consuming, freeze-dried everything, unless you can clearly sense the visible approach of some massive, non-theoretical civil disorder. The clearest way to know that one of these is coming is that the rich people have left your area. If that’s the case, then, sure, go befriend the police and prepare to knuckle down.

Now to confront the possessions you already have. This will require serious design work, and this will be painful. It is a good idea to get a friend or several friends to help you.

You will need to divide your current possessions into four major categories.
  1. Beautiful things.
  2. Emotionally important things.
  3. Tools, devices, and appliances that efficiently perform a useful function.
  4. Everything else.
“Everything else” will be by far the largest category. Anything you have not touched, or seen, or thought about in a year — this very likely belongs in “everything else.”

You should document these things. Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again. Store those digital pictures somewhere safe — along with all your other increasingly valuable, life-central digital data. Back them up both onsite and offsite.

Then remove them from your time and space. “Everything else” should not be in your immediate environment, sucking up your energy and reducing your opportunities. It should become a fond memory, or become reduced to data.

It may belong to you, but it does not belong with you. You weren’t born with it. You won’t be buried with it. It needs to be out of the space-time vicinity. You are not its archivist or quartermaster. Stop serving that unpaid role.

Beautiful things are important. If they’re truly beautiful, they should be so beautiful that you are showing them to people. They should be on display: you should be sharing their beauty with others. Your pride in these things should enhance your life, your sense of taste and perhaps your social standing.

They’re not really that beautiful? Then they’re not really beautiful. Take a picture of them, tag them, remove them elsewhere.

Emotionally important things. All of us have sentimental keepsakes that we can’t bear to part with. 

We also have many other objects which simply provoke a panicky sense of potential loss — they don’t help us to establish who we are, or to become the person we want to be. They subject us to emotional blackmail.

Is this keepsake so very important that you would want to share its story with your friends, your children, your grandchildren? Or are you just using this clutter as emotional insulation, so as to protect yourself from knowing yourself better?

Think about that. Take a picture. You might want to write the story down. Then — yes — away with it.
You are not “losing things” by these acts of material hygiene. You are gaining time, health, light and space. Also, the basic quality of your daily life will certainly soar. Because the benefits of good design will accrue to you where they matter — in the everyday.

Not in Oz or in some museum vitrine. In the every day. For sustainability, it is every day that matters. Not green Manhattan Projects, green moon shots, green New Years’ resolutions, or wild scifi speculations. Those are for dabblers and amateurs. The sustainable is about the every day.
Now for category three, tools and appliances. They’re not beautiful and you are not emotionally attached to them. So they should be held to keen technical standards.

Is your home a museum? Do you have curatorial skills? If not, then entropy is attacking everything in there. Stuff breaks, ages, rusts, wears out, decays. Entropy is an inherent property of time and space. Understand this fact. Expect this. The laws of physics are all right, they should not provoke anguished spasms of denial.

You will be told that you should “make do” with broken or semi-broken tools, devices and appliances. Unless you are in prison or genuinely crushed by poverty, do not do this. This advice is wicked.

This material culture of today is not sustainable. Most of the things you own are almost certainly made to 20th century standards, which are very bad. If we stick with the malignant possessions we already have, through some hairshirt notion of thrift, then we are going to be baling seawater. This will not do.

You should be planning, expecting, desiring to live among material surroundings created, manufactured, distributed, through radically different methods from today’s. It is your moral duty to aid this transformative process. This means you should encourage the best industrial design.

Get excellent tools and appliances. Not a hundred bad, cheap, easy ones. Get the genuinely good ones. Work at it. Pay some attention here, do not neglect the issue by imagining yourself to be serenely “non-materialistic.” There is nothing more “materialistic” than doing the same household job five times because your tools suck. Do not allow yourself to be trapped in time-sucking black holes of mechanical dysfunction. That is not civilized.

Now for a brief homily on tools and appliances of especial Viridian interest: the experimental ones. The world is full of complicated, time-sucking, partially-functional beta-rollout gizmos. Some are fun to mess with; fun in life is important. Others are whimsical; whimsy is okay. Eagerly collecting semifunctional gadgets because they are shiny-shiny, this activity is not the worst thing in the world. However, it can become a vice. If you are going to wrangle with unstable, poorly-defined, avant-garde tech objects, then you really need to wrangle them. Get good at doing it.

Good experiments are well-designed experiments. Real experiments need a theory. They need something to prove or disprove. Experiments need to be slotted into some larger context of research, and their results need to be communicated to other practitioners. That’s what makes them true “experiments” instead of private fetishes.

If you’re buying weird tech gizmos, you need to know what you are trying to prove by that. You also need to tell other people useful things about it. If you are truly experimenting, then you are doing something praiseworthy. You may be wasting some space and time, but you’ll be saving space and time for others less adventurous. Good.

If you’re becoming a techie magpie packrat who never leaves your couch — that’s not good. Forget the shiny gadget. You need to look in the shiny mirror.

So. This approach seems to be working for me. More or less. I’m not urging you to do any of this right away. Do not jump up from the screen right now and go reform your entire material circumstances. That resolve will not last. Because it’s not sustainable.



Jon Wesenberg said…
On a similar note, there is the Swedish practice called 'Döstädning' (death-cleaning), which is the removal of clutter from one's place so that when we die, we don't leave a cleanup burden to the next generation. We need this in a big way on the cultural and civilizational levels.
Joe said…
Take their pictures, their identifying makers’ marks, barcodes, whatever, so that you can get them off eBay or Amazon if, for some weird reason, you ever need them again.

How silly. If you ever did need them again, wouldn't it be better if they were right where you last left them, safe and dry in the barn or on racks in the shop?

I live on a small farm. I have multitudes of stuff that you and Sterling would advise ditching, like my stack of spare lumber and plywood, cut off chunks of steel, stockpiles of old roofing and left over T-posts and hog wire from fencing jobs past. Many times beyond counting I have gone to the 'boneyard' and found just the right stuff to supply a new project. The most recent one was a loafing shed for a new ram, built with "everything else" already on site.

A better rule for spare stuff would be to keep anything that you might need in the future and that can be kept safe and dry in a place where you can find it. Every household needs spares, from light bulbs and circuit breakers to spare parts for the tiller. Many of those things will not be needed except on a periodicity measured in years.

Then, if one considers the fact that in extremis, after a typhoon, earthquake, war or financial collapse, eBay and Amazon won't be there for anyone. Everyone will be stuck with what they have on hand and what they can produce with their own hands from their immediate surroundings.

A better rule would be to be aware that since there may easily come a time when money will be useless, make room and keep on hand all the things you would really like to have when that time comes. And yes, a deep pantry of freeze dried food or rice and beans might really be nice to have on hand if that quick trip to the grocery store can't happen and FEMA never comes. It might just keep body and soul together while the getting the garden, greenhouse and field crops maxed out.

Jon Wesenberg said…
I do have a hoard of useful raw materials (metal, plastic, wood, fabric), as well as a large stash of all sorts of tools (hand and power), gardening equipment, indispensable books, about 2000 CDs and records, camping equipment, cold weather gear, etc. All of this is potentially useful, either to me, my heirs, or others one of us may sell, give or barter away to. I have no intention of getting rid of that, uless I run out of room. I also have lots of things which still have some intrinsic value, but I know I'm never going to use them again. I also have things which might have been worth keeping, but are past their use-by date (parts for long-gone cars and appliances, for instance). That's the stuff I'm currently trying to shed. I also can't see much point in speculating about what to buy to survive dozens of different kinds of disasters, all of which might require very different responses and hardware. Loading up on one of everything isn't a very wise use of limited resources. Those are the kinds of things I think of when I read about concepts like the one in today's blog.

Experience has taught me that I'll need about 2% of the stuff I hoard, and it's impossible to predict which 2% it will be. Periodic purges are healthy and necessary.
Annie said…
My county does cleanup twice a year. You get to go through all your stuff and put whatever you're ready to stop hoarding out on the kerb. Usually people start putting stuff out a week or more in advance so other people can pick up whatever they want from your discards. On the last day the garage trucks come and haul away whatever nobody wanted. Then they go through all that stuff and whatever is salvageable they put up for sale; the rest goes to the dump. Twice a year you get to purge, you get to think about what you really need and what you can let go of. Or, you can join the parade of drive-bys and add other people's junk to your own collection...

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