“Possessions are a responsibility,” Ali says. “My dad taught me that when I got my first car.” One of the things I love about Ali (and there are a lot of them) is her ability to state the obvious in a way that allows me to actually hear it.
Since that conversation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the notion of object hygiene – the practice of healthy object management. Objects, both material (our stuff) and abstract (our thoughts) occupy our attention, and consume our energy. The more space that current objects occupy, the less room there is for new objects to emerge. If my (mental or physical) space is cluttered, it’s hard to notice, use, and enjoy the objects around me. Clearing objects from my space creates the emptiness that is essential for growth, healing and creativity.
I’ve started paying a lot more attention to what’s got my attention. Who, or what, am I thinking about? How frequently do I revisit a thought? What am I touching? I am constantly moving and maintaining the physical objects in my life. A LOT of my energy goes into keeping track of things, and putting things away. My kids have really poor material object hygiene, but pretty good abstract object hygiene. I’m fairly lousy at both, but getting better.
Objects have an attention intensity – the amount of attention being allocated to an object. How frequently do I “touch” an object, either with my mind or my body? The objects that consume the most attention, it seems, ought to be prioritized for processing.
I’ve also noticed also a temporal weight to objects, especially material objects. Newer objects are harder for me to get rid of. “Oh, but we just got that…” The newness seems to distort it’s actual value.
Simplification of the the complex, and abstract and material inversion. Sometimes, physical objects get represented by an abstract object, or vise versa, especially when they’re complex. Humans are fundamentally lazy, or brilliantly efficient, depending on what kind of spin you want to give it. It’s a lot of work to pay attention, and constantly readjust our mental schema to account for new information. Everything around us, and everything we do, is a complex object chain – a series, or compound, of abstract and material objects. How sensible to, then, to create a shorthand version of reality to keep things moving along. Unfortunately, sometimes we also edit out information would benefit us. It’s like filleting a fish with a chainsaw and deboning it with an ax – fast, but coarse and wasteful.
Behavior – our reaction to objects – is itself a complex combination of abstract and material objects. For example, running an errand (behavior) requires a mixture of thinking and interactions with material objects (including our bodies). Because even a very simple task is such a complex object chain, we simplify it in a “single” abstract object (go to Target and buy mattress pads). (Even the words that make up that thought object are complex objects. “Target” represents a complex physical object (the store) a complex abstract object (the business) and also the outcome of my own abstract process to purchase my mattress pads there, instead of say, from Amazon. The words have both an abstract representation in my head, and a physical representation on my screen, and yours. But I digress…see why it’s so helpful to have shorthand objects?)
The reverse is also true, material objects can come to represent complex abstract objects, often feelings or experiences. The piece of jewelry that represents love. The graduation gift that represents years of hard work and achievement. When material and abstract objects merge this way, they get super-sticky. Material objects become much harder to clear, when I have an emotional attachment to them. And removing the physical, does not necessarily remove the attachment to abstract object. But maybe it would help? I’m not sure how that correlation plays out…The primary attachment is to the emotion, I just transfer that attachment to the object. Why is that? Because the immediacy of the physical representation is satisfying and always available? It doesn’t change or slip away on me like thoughts and feelings do? It’s a simple way to revisit a pleasurable memory – we are pleasure mongers, after all. We like fixed states because they’re simpler, I think. It’s the same reason we editorialize reality into simpler narratives, it’s less work, but it’s also pleasant to feel like we understand things.
The more hygienic I am, the less mental rent and physical energy objects consume. Some objects, like tasks, are easy to clear just by executing them – these are good to do as quickly as possible, lest I waste mental energy (ineffectively) pre-processing them while they sit in the queue. Others, like working out my theory on object hygiene require a lot more time and attention to process – I have (want) to develop the object before I can dismiss it. There is a nourishment quality to this. I feel good when I grow the object, I want to invest in the object, and doing so is satisfying to me.
Objects it would seem, have a life cycle, and, I think, an inherent (but probably relative) value based on the cumulative effort (attention) applied to the object over its life cycle. This is what makes memes so powerful, and economic crashes self-fulling – they’re just concentrated, collective attention. It’s also the reason why businesses misvalue so much of what they do and produce. A lot of (unintentionally) miscalibrated value-attachment happens, from the cost of meetings, to accurately amortizing business assets. I see this in publishing all the time; content is frequently misvalued. The cost to produce something is not the same as it’s market value, and market value is not static. The financial economy and the attention economy are increasingly interdependent, making it all that much harder to quantify what makes products – and how we create those products – successful. Context also influences value – culture and need are just two contextual components of an object’s value; I’m sure there are many more.
So, objects come into my space, and how I process them impacts how much attention they consume. But I can also control objects, by controlling my space. Fewer physical objects require less maintenance. Working from the office, instead of working from home, strongly influences my abstract objects and behaviors.
Material objects are easier for me to control. On Wednesday, I rearranged my kids’ rooms and cleaned out a lot of toys to donate. Our whole house (or at least the main level where the bedrooms and living space are) feels more spacious as a result. It’s stayed much cleaner over the last few days. I have more objects I’m excited to reduce. Killer categories include clothing, dishes, and paper. Clothing and dishes require a lot of regular maintenance – gathering, sorting, washing, putting away. They also take up room, we have closets and cabinets full of them, for special occasions, for different seasons, for different sizes, for kids and adults. It’s starting to become too much. And paper, my God, paper for all kinds of things: financial paper (bills, statements, catalogs, coupons, checks, cash), work paper (concept sketches, presentations, business cards, player rosters, meeting notes), kid paper (artwork, funny things they said and I wrote down, school reports, school notices), behavioral paper (to do lists, appointment cards, phone numbers to call), edification paper (books, magazines, recipes). So much paper.
I couldn’t believe how many toys we had. Where had it all come from? Brendan and I had only purchased about 30% of it. What is it about me, about our family, that attracts so many objects? Why do people give us so many things? How will my object hygiene start to alter my object frequency – the rate and types of objects I attract? I also suspect that we each have a different object tolerance – the volume of objects we can comfortably interact with.
There are fascinating implications for how technology influences object hygiene. Digitization allows us to concentrate and distribute objects with unbelievable intensity and speed. The natural throttling that used to occur through the physical embodiment of an object (a manufactured book, an in-person conversation), is rapidly diminishing. Objects can be condensed into a teeny, tiny physical representation, and shared broadly and rapidly. We are suddenly able to hyper-amplify abstract objects, and hyper-replicate physical objects.
We end up in this digital wraith space where the abstract and the material get really blurry – objects like email, videos, blog posts and tweets seem physical because we can see them, and we experience them through a physical device, but they’re really mostly abstract – they’re other people’s thoughts. Our old processing mechanisms for physical items and mental thoughts, can’t keep up with the object assault; our objects are exponentially outpacing our ability to process them. In the digital age we are all, increasingly, producers, distributors, and consumers of digital objects. It seems wise to think about how to do this responsibly, so we don’t all go insane, trying to keep up without ever being clear about what’s actually happening.