Tag Archives: object hygiene

The Binary Privilege of Technology

Dear Sara,

I’m cooking chicken and keep coming back to your insight about Apple Watch’s design: that it lets you record a message and send it as either voice or text, but not both. I think this is actually a great example of how privilege normalizes cultural choices.

Form influences design. The fact that designers made an exclusionary choice rather than an inclusive one is a reflection of the underlying binary structure of digital technology, and desire for efficiency in business culture. They’re models that prefer on/off choices, and that value is reinforced in everything from the structure of the code itself, to the ways most technologists are encourage to write it.

Design propagates value. Designers’ choices present as the users of technology as the ideal choices. When we follow the directive value system of a product’s design, we propagate that value into the world, and enhance it with our authority.

Volume influences preference. Propagated value gains momentum by more people expressing and receiving it, as technology adoption standardizes, and two things happen. 1) People who prefer the available options (which currently omit a lot of the sensual experience), amplify their use of the technology. And 2) the volume in the feedback loop influences the cultural norm around that value, making people less likely to demand an alternative.

I bet most people, most of the time, choose to send text, since that has already become the standard of non-phone-call communication. I’d be curious to find out if that’s true or not.

I guess this is just a long way of the saying “the medium is the message” but I feel a certain urgency to have more discourse (collectively) about it. The underlying cultural assumptions that drive our behavior often change much more slowly than the adoption of new technologies. The asymmetry of that tension is bound to have some consequences, yes? It feels like we’re turning the crank on the fault line. Glad your big brain is on this.

Refactoring the Identity Machine

The life cycle of cultural experience: novelty > benefit > standardization > bondage > reinvention >

Kevin Kelly has been “trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched”. I have been a big fan of Kelly since I stumbled across his Cool Tools blog years ago. I was working as a product manager, I loved how he thought about products. I love how he thinks about other stuff. This post is a response to Kelly’s article, The Technium (which is quoted throughout). To you sir, I bow deeply.

I’m listening to my humanity, and what my humanity is suggesting is that it wants to be watched.

The Identity Machine
Our inner experiences and outer actions are getting much longer, and more visible half lives through their instantiation as digital artifacts that we copy, push, aggregate and endlessly revise. Digital technology, and social media in particular, are bringing our insides out, capturing our behaviors without context, and creating a fossil record of our impermanence. We are using the world’s largest copy machine, primarily to make copies of ourselves.

Consider this behavior in the context of just a few questions relevant to our time:

  • What does immediate and always-on connection with a population larger and more diverse than anything we’ve ever had access to mean for our human experience?
  • What does the accelerating environmental instability and natural resource reduction – driven by us – mean for our environmental security?
  • Why do we routinely use medical technology to extend our lives, even when the quality of that life is very poor?
  • Why, despite the incredible abundance created by our scientific and financial advancements, and the existence of a high-functioning global distribution system, have we not distributed this abundance to the many, many people who are still struggling with basic needs for their health and safety?

And ask yourself, why has our cultural response to these and similar questions been to create and propagate more versions of ourselves? We actually have a great tool to solve the big questions of our time, but haven’t popularized it to solve questions much bigger than what we like.

Most prosumers still produce and consume in the pattern of the mass market era – we act out the message of the medium, which today mostly involves us copying ourselves on the internet and then staying very busy iterating all those copies. So the copy machine has become a pattern machine, and a pattern machine is an identity machine. We are creating strong patterns, in our private and collective channels, and for me the a really interesting question is, why aren’t we designing technologies to disrupt our patterns instead of continually reinforcing them? Perhaps the best way to prepare for an unpredictable future is with technology that is designed to serve impermanence.

“It’s hard to convince people to take that long-term perspective because the future is so uncertain,” Kelly tells us, and he is right. But one way to frame long-term planning is by designing values instead of objects. You can’t plan for a future based on durable goods and discrete services – their obsolescence begins the moment you name them – but you can plan for the values that serve a caring humanity, serving a sentient planet, and start designing technology that either mutates or eliminates itself in service to those values.

The Trouble with Humans
We can use the technologies of identity proliferation and privacy collapse, not to reinforce our notions of self, and our values around privacy, but to break them. These are two aspects of the same coin. The urge to reach out and share is innately human; it is beautiful. In a networked age, the need for digital identities were a necessary first step to compensate for the lost intimacy of proximity that the web allows us to leave behind. But in doing this, we immediately introduced the uncomfortable experience of profile decay: watching our former selves die, via the asymmetrical change rate of our profile and emerging self. In an effort to alleviate the dissatisfaction of our innately human condition, we quickly learned to amend, revise, and version our profiles to match the myriad contexts and developments of our constantly emerging lives. We’re already experts at doing this with our memories, but our digital memories are more resistant. In service of this Sisyphean task – capturing our complex and ephemeral nature with a tool that makes permanent a fraction of what we are, after it’s already happened – we willingly give more and more information away.

We are using our digital tools in a way that creates an unsatisfying result, but it is so, so close to our human experience, that we mostly haven’t noticed that throwing more information at the problem of impermanence, isn’t working. Creating a better versions of our past selves is not going to make us comfortable with whatever is bothering us right now. Through our digital communication, we are trying to recreate the human experience in a non-physical context, and it’s frustrating the shit out of us, because we exist in a physical context. Digital versions of ourselves offer the tantalizing promise of a cleaner, more sterile, less painful humanity, but this is also a despairing one because such a thing does not exist. Our bodies force the full reality upon us, through our emotions, through our illnesses, and, of course, ultimately through death. In trying so hard to exorcise the the painful, we are also forfeiting joy and beauty, all the fresh and luscious life of a complete and present life. We’re so caught up in using our hyper-consumptive tools to craft a more accurate version of our human experience, that we haven’t noticed they’re failing to serve our humanity. We look around and say, hey, where did all the lovely virgins go? Oh, we sacrificed them.

We reinforce our identity patterns with technology that recommends we consume and act in the same way our past selves did. Sure, we can influence the algorithm, but we don’t, because it’s just too difficult to resist a medium that continuously delivers a recognizable, incomplete (often preferable) version of ourselves back to us, based on who we were.

And it’s not just our identity we’re consuming though the content. The medium is payloaded with the identity of an elite design class that disproportionately values technology and the business models predicated on that technology; people are an afterthought, and we tacitly adopt the same position when we adopt the technology.

Information is compressed experience. Design is a compressed, and directive, value system. When we consume these things we consume the experiences and values of others, but we are not, by and large, asking if the those are the right values and experiences for us, in the lives we want to live. The values of a twenty-something who makes a lot of money designing technology, works with other bright and talented colleagues, and is swaddled in a closed feedback loop and the extended adolescence companies like Google and Facebook provide their employees, might not be a very close match to lives and values of the population that adopts so much of what they make. This is not a judgement of what is “better” – neither one is – but they are different, and this difference is amplifying the identity gap we already experience when use this technology to look at ourselves. So when we consider if technology is helping us achieve what we want in our lives – financial security, a healthy environment, more leisure time, and greater intimacy with our loved ones, come to mind – we should consider if these are also the most immediate and felt concerns of the people who are designing the technology, and setting the cultural standard of use, for the rest of the population.

Orthogonate
We have accelerated the rate at which we replicate ourselves, and it’s become a compounding mechanism to reinforce the same identity patterns we are used to. But it is not so hard to imagine that we might rotate the lens to get a very different view of things. That we might collide the personal Higgs Fields of our identities with enough awareness to shake loose some perspective that is broader than our assumptions about the well-practiced self.

If we run our pattern archive through a technology designed to disrupt, rather than reinforce our behaviors, what will we learn about ourselves? What will we learn about each other? If there were no privacy filters on Facebook, and we had access to the social behavior stream of the third largest, most diverse county in the world, what would we see, and how might this inform our actions in the world? What would happen if we took the amplification power of our pattern machine, and used it to start producing insights about our behaviors, instead of more of the same behavior.

The future doesn’t pull, we spring it. Our patterns pull, in that we fall most easily into the highest volume practice of our past, but the future isn’t a force in its own right. We make it up based on our choices, and our choices are based on awareness. And because technology is increasingly becoming a ubiquitous and near frictionless accomplice to our pattern making, we are loosing our ability to even think about it as a disruptive, awareness-creating force, which is frightening. Because the technology runs all the time, if we follow its lead, we will come to the manifest destiny of singularity – but not because it was a forgone conclusion. It will happen because we forfeited our power, our human perspective as a partner to technology, and blindly followed our own invention into letting the fraction of the life we designed it for, become all of the life we live.

The questions about how we handle digital overload, and how we protect our privacy are valid. It seems strange then, that our primary response has been to design and use more technologies that interrupt us so that we can give away more information. Despite our protests, our actions indicate that we are in a fairly willing collusion with our technology. If we are going to continue on this path, and it’s hard to imagine we won’t, it is time to start asking what do we want to happen as a result? We need to design the human future we want, and then design and use our technology to help us create it. We have ceded so much of our power and perspective, that our primary solution to these problems is how we might make the same tool more efficient at creating a result we don’t fucking like. Instead we might ask: In a future where everything is known about me, how to I want that society to treat me? A perfectly reasonable cultural response to that question, for instance, is to create a society in which we have eliminated shame, and the devastating consequences it brings. Shame is a social disease, it’s only contagious if you spread it, and our poor, our ill, our addicted, and our abused die from it every day.

Scaling Identity to the Collapse Point
“…it’s very common to see these network effects kick in where…the more you have, the more attractive you become…and so you have explosions…We shouldn’t be too envious of that kind of scaling, because it’s a very ephemeral thing, and it’s a very natural thing.” Kelly wrote this about the growth patterns of technology companies, but it’s equally true about our personal identities. The most glaring examples of this are the substance of celebrity media, but as prosumers, we are all engaged in dialing up the wattage of our personal spotlights. When our identities are deeply enmeshed with a system that scales to super nova – as its natural mode of operation – what should we be preparing for in terms of our human experience with our digital selves?

We have made some very useful things, and it is time to take a look at what we’ve done. We have made a magnificent tool to study ourselves, but in order to do so, we must change the technology to encourage reflection, rather than replication. Reflection is not the same as consuming our own performance. What is the design that will allow us to truly turn the technology on ourselves? What is the design that will foster space for the attention to our inner experience, instead of encouraging us to simply document it?

In a world where there will “be more minds and artificial minds everywhere” we are ready to start designing for the collective consciousness, instead of the user experience. Let us design for the human experience, for the sentient experience. It is time to question our complicity in exploiting ourselves back to the market as data-generating commodities, and start designing and demanding technologies that treat us like the gorgeous, interconnected beings we are. It is time to design the cultural reaction we want, in the future we are creating.

Culture Tax

A few things came up over and over, during the Clarity exercise.

– Physical objects are vessels that bear abstraction
– Physical objects obscure complexity
– Physical objects last much longer than the states they were acquired to satisfy
– We approach a culture of abundance with a scarcity mindset

One of the consequences of global culture is the abstraction from the most elemental parts of our life, like our food and other energy sources. For many of us (in the West at least) this abstraction has also led to tremendous abundance. Mechanization, technology, and the extreme fungibility power of a shared monetary system, have created a world where, with relative ease, time can be turned into almost any object or service. We spend some time doing something someone else values, we’re given some money for our effort, and then swap that money for a dazzling array of goods and services in a marketplace that is more or less always available. Yet, if I am any indication, we are still largely engaged with this monumental change in our living circumstances from a scarcity perspective.

The Abundance Trap
Physical goods represent past investment and future opportunity, and getting rid of them conjures up the fear of future regret. Thoughts like, but it works fine, or I might need it later and then I’ll have to replace what I already had, emerged over and over as I sorted through the things in my home. Our physical objects become a tangible stand-in for cognitive and emotional security, and the vessels that bear our memories. It is as though our abstract models for synthesizing reality must be anchored in, and buttressed by, the material. We instantiate what we love, the things that matter, in, well, matter. It is an astonishingly literal and straight forward way to surround ourselves with our world view and personal narrative. I actually find it oddly charming, almost childlike for it’s simplicity. But the sweetness in it also seems naive in a modern context of abundance. My fear of being wasteful, led me to actually being wasteful, by accumulating, and keeping, more than I can use.

The reality of my situation is closer to this: I am not going to start cycling anytime soon, and those padded bike shorts I still have from when I was spinning six years ago, can go. And if I do take up biking again, those shorts probably won’t fit anymore, or the spandex will be too deteriorated anyway. AND, it is also insanely easy for me to either purchase new ones, or with a little more effort, get them very cheap or free from a thrift store or freecycle.org. But still, I think, well, it’s always possible… Doubt, particularly the positive doubt that allows our future self redeem to the choices and aspirations of our past self, gives staying power to physical objects that are currently irrelevant. With shows like Hoarders and Storage Wars we have turned the viewing of other’s excess into a commercially viable sport predicated on sanctimony and excitement. And like so much of our media, it reflects what we cherish and revile, what we ourselves do at a scale small enough, that we only dare explore it through the magnified reflection of some one else, safely distant from our actual lives.

Food, my most direct and important energy source, is freighted with complexity and abstraction. What is crucially intimate, is also frighteningly foreign; this is the paradox of our time. I know almost nothing about where my food comes from, who makes it, and whether or not it will be good to eat after a seemingly arbitrary date, stamped on the packaging, has passed. I am being duped into unnecessary waste (and more purchasing) by the manufacturer, or is it actually not safe to eat, or safe, but lousy tasting? I can’t believe how little I really know about my food. Why would dry grains that once served as currency, for heaven’s sake, expire? I store it to the point of waste because it’s easier than using it. I buy Japanese soba noodles to try in a recipe and then let the rest sit in the cabinet for years, because they don’t quite fit with what I normally eat. Globalization and accessibility have made it easy for me to trifle in experiences outside my dominant culture, but the steel gossamer of my own native patterns makes it difficult to see those liaisons through to an honorable conclusion. My life is littered with the wreckage of my love affair with information – the noodles I bought to make a recipe in Gourmet, have outlasted the publication!

We buy in bulk at box stores for convenience and value, but this also obscures our consumption rate. It feels like we use less, and spend less because we don’t have to go through the uncomfortable exchanges of giving away our time and money every time we want another roll of paper towels – and the side effect of that is we don’t live in close contact with the true cost of using them at the rate we do.

The abstract nature of the abundance further divorces us from the relationship between what we do with our time, and how we come to have the trappings around us. I might talk and write about an idea that someone else builds, and someone else buys, and through the magical power of commerce and other people’s labor, have a house full of things I don’t maintain, and food whose origin is a mystery. I have more of everything, but I am distracted and lonely, because I have so little relationship to myriad things that surround me. I am constantly fighting my eagerness to find it in the next shiny object, or tantalizing idea, but I inevitably begin the cycle again, blindly, with the same model that landed me here in the first place. The abundance around me – in my home, in my media, in my schedule – tugs and taps and winks, a million microns of attentional gravity, pulling me into a perpetual now of nothing.

Learned Instinct
As a species, we are terribly impoverished in the realm of instinct. We’re born knowing how to eat, cry and clutch, and nearly everything else has to be learned. When we think of “trusting our instincts” it almost always applies to a personal, subjective experience, and does little to reliably contribute a predictable offering into the world around us, like say a spider’s web, or a bird song. But instinct is awfully useful, and so we do our best to approximate it through social organization: culture is the collective instinct of any given population – a family, a town, a nation, a gender…

Culture is learned, and preserved, through deep repetition and social reinforcement, which is why it is so hard to change – it requires collective practice against the already existing (usually unconscious) pattern. It is often vaguely linked to safety – physical (don’t eat this) or social (don’t say that) – and strongly linked to identity (we do, or don’t do, X). And because it’s also linked to the power structures of any given system, there are painful consequences for dissent, ranging from time-outs to execution. The immediate social and psychological benefits of belonging are so powerful that being counter cultural seems not only like a lot of work, but also dangerous to one’s wellness and security. As the saying goes: One doesn’t sip cyanide just to see what it tastes like.

The dominant population in America is one who has exchanged the cultural identity of their linage for a personal identity of hope. The origin stories of most non-Native Americans start with leaving the culture of their heritage, either willingly (often because things were so bad abandonment was the best option), or by force (because they were dragged away in chains). The American mythos is that of the pain/hope cycle: that merciless combination that drives astounding feats of achievement. Americans, by and large, are gambling on the exchange of a less-than ideal now, for a perpetually better future. This has been an extremely successful model for generating vast amounts of wealth, technological advances, and scientific discoveries, but we’ve mortgaged our humanity along the way. The chafing from our nobly-intentioned sacrifice further drives us to abandon the status quo just as quickly as we can identify it, in the hope that the arrival of the next future will make us happier right now.

Even when we can see our unhappiness, the prospect of trying to step out of this cycle is terrifying. For starters, it produces so much convenience and prosperity; the abundance we’ve created allows for a near frictionless (and presumably infinite) feathering our nests with goods and services that subtly reinforce this pattern. But stickier still is the emotional attachment we have to belonging. As humans, we long to be part of a narrative that is broader and longer than our own. It is very hard to leave the only home you’ve ever know, even when you don’t want to stay there.

The cycle times of these cultural narratives run at a much slower pace than the cycles of our markets. Our stories of sacrifice and improvement enjoy the dual benefits of an early introduction and constant repetition in the way they’re (often silently) enacted around us. Against this behavioral backdrop, quarterly earnings capture our attention over and over, leaving little room to consider the less urgent, but deeply pervasive, patterns that drive most of what we do. We eat the values of the market, and subsequently grow the culture that perpetuates them. If you’re at least third-generation American, you’ve probably got a family story about the Great Depression, and you’ve probably got some personal values that relate to behavior associated with economic hardship, and you are likely enacting those values in a way that also supports the perpetuation of personal abundance. For those of us who have been eclipsed by the abundance we’ve helped create, I offer that it is time to stop refining – and start redefining – the model that creates it. Rather than continuing to look at everything through the same lens, we must consider the lens itself.

America is a culture exquisitely primed to consume connective and information-pushing technologies that feed our cultural instinct for more. It’s no surprise that we have invented so many of them – it’s what we value. And this, in and of itself, might not be so problematic if it were not for the clutter of objects that accompany our frenetic pace of acquisition. In material form, these objects are crippling and overwhelming our environment, and in abstract form they are crippling and overwhelming our human spirits. The impact of object proliferation is finally reaching an impact point painful enough to contend with the painful risks of culture change. Abandoning our cultural narrative of acquisition for a better one would, in fact, be a very American thing to do.

So what, then?
The good news is that if our instincts are learned, they are also mutable. How do we learn in a culture of abundance, to accept the abundance, and shift our attention elsewhere in order to solve more pressing problems, including the problems of abundance? What will we loose by doing this? How do we even think clearly in the din of our economic engine?

One possibility is that our excess will actually allow more of us to live well, by living more simply – but we must choose to do so. In a world where we no longer need to hedge against basic needs that aren’t secure, and put our energy into the attainment of physical goods, we have to retrain ourselves step off the gas, and practice living in the (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy of our own lives: Cooking our own food, raising our own kids, cleaning our own homes, and actually BEing with the people around us.

Successfully switching to a culture of being, from a culture of doing, requires reducing, among other things, the number of relationships that we claim for intimacy. Americans are loathe to surrender to the limits of their capacity – because it is pleasurable (and mythological) to live in the abstraction layer of abundance afforded us by ubiquitous technology and financial capital, not to mention the righteous fantasy generation of that little meat computer between our ears. It has become so common to do this – it is so culturally supported – it’s difficult to even recognize how dominant it is. Culture is transparent from the inside out, like a one way mirror.

Significant change usually comes from a place of emergency, disgust, or impoverishment; otherwise we’re just not motivated enough to undertake the effort. And it is a lot of effort. Sitting still long enough to discover these things within ourselves, requires patience and tolerance and kindness for oneself – not exactly skills that we get a lot of chance to develop along the way. Class, we will now sit still for an hour and practice recognizing and accepting our fear and self-loathing with loving-kindness…

Our values and intentions are difficult to quantify because the inner experience is so subjective. And we live in a culture that is crazed for quantification because that is how we convert nearly everything into financial currency, so it can go through the abstraction exchange that powers abundance. Americans are some of the hardest working, most creative and driven people in the world, but our cultural narrative is so fixated on expansion and achievement, we trample the development of our humanity in the rush to prove how great we are. We call the normal, second adolescence of adult psychological development a midlife crisis. How did a culture founded by pioneers, inventors, entrepreneurs, slaves and exiles become so disdainful of questioning the world around us, that is, the one we created? I actually find this heartbreaking.

The world will re-balance itself, to be sure; either through a catastrophic failure (likely in the economy or environment) or through the deliberate work and attention of humans – the same way we got here. I would prefer the latter, but it’s not as attention garnering as cataclysmic disaster. I’m not sure how you give kindness, generosity, compassion, and self-awareness mainstream appeal and commercial viability.

For my part, the best idea I have come up with, is simply to practice in the ordinary context of my ordinary life. Practice is like pulling that loose thread, before you know it, a whole bunch you weren’t expecting is undone. I am learning humility in spades, and pitching fits with every lesson. And I am doing the other, equally small and simple thing I can think of, which is to write. To tell my story, which is a story about being human. The hurt and hope in my pressable flesh, and ethereal spirit, are not so special as I fancy. We need voices of relief, voices that throw contrast against the crystalline instincts of our culture, so that their forms might be seen. Voices that name what’s already slumbering in the hearts of others, so that it might be known to them.

January, Clarity

The super-self me project is underway, and January is dedicated to the value of Clarity. I am suddenly feeling very self-conscious about publishing this – but I’m at my deadline, and rather than evaporating while trickling my way to perfection, I’m going to see what happens when I follow my own rules. Nothing wagered, nothing gained, right?

I had a hard time selecting a single word to represent this theme. I’ve been talking about it as “cleansing and purification month,” but what those actions are about is creating physical space and mental clarity. In the end, it all more or less reduces to cultivating clarity in the causes and conditions out of which my reality arises.

Intention:
This was a natural fit for January, when the excess of the holiday season makes it easy to embrace cleaning out and cleaning up. I also liked the idea of having a clean space and a clear mind as my baseline for the undertaking of this project.

The physical environment of my home seems like the most controllable condition that contributes to my experience. I enjoy having uncluttered space. I love needing something and knowing exactly where to find it. I am a little bit compulsive about wanting things cleaned up and put away. Sharing a house with a husband who works from home a lot and three kids under six, results in a space that’s much busier and messier than I would choose to live and work in, all things being equal. I get overwhelmed by how much stuff there is, I accidentally buy things we already have, and I spend more time than I want to maintaining, and thinking about maintaining, the objects in our lives. There isn’t enough pregnant emptiness into which new thoughts and actions can be born, so enslaved am I to bounty we already have.

I want the objects in my environment have a specific purpose in my life. I want to enjoy less, more. To the extent I can, I want to create a crafted, purposeful environment. My house feels like a choking ecosystem. It’s a nice little house, it’s just all clogged up with the detritus of busy, inattentive living.

The most immediate desire I have is to reduce the labor and attention I give to object maintenance. When I was getting paid for my work, and I worked outside of my home, what I had and who took care of it was not something I paid a lot of attention to. George took care of the lawn, a rotating set of Brazilian women cleaned my house. Smiling, Portuguese-speaking apparitions who, I’m ashamed to admit, were as interchangeable to me as they apparently were to their boss. Now that I have chosen to BE RESPONSIBLE FOR MY OWN THINGS, I am feeling the crush of my leveraged lifestyle collapsing back on top of me. When other people cleaned my house and clipped my lawn, I consumed at a rate greater than one person because I outsourced the effort of ownership.

I want to have a serene space in which to live and work, but I still don’t want to spend a lot of my time maintaining it. So this month is about the over-due reckoning of living within my means, but beyond my capacity. I gotta own my shit, and this means removing obstructions that prevent me from placing my awareness at the deepest level available to me. A big part of this month’s activities is about doing this literally, by reducing the things in my home, but I also want a clearer internal baseline. The more I meditate, the less I enjoy drinking. The pleasure is briefer, and the side effects are more obvious. I also think it has a bigger impact on my mood stability, physical comfort, and energy level than I wish were true. So, I as I clean up the distractors around me, it seemed like a good corollary to stop putting chemical distrators in me.

I want to have more meaningful relationships with fewer objects. As I’ve slowly (often begrudgingly) settled into the intimacy of my own life, I’ve realized how much pleasure and wonder there can be in simple tasks. One of my fondest memories from this past summer was sweeping a batch of tiny brown, papery husks that fell all over our deck from blossoming tree. At the time, there was a big orb weaver in residence, and I noticed the same husks caught in its web. The next morning, a small batch of them were scattered below the web; overnight, the spider had meticulously picked out each one and repaired the silk threads. The symmetry of our actions was so beautiful and so moving I started crying (surprise). I felt such camaraderie with that eight-eyed, eight-legged little cleaner. I felt intense gratitude for this quiet offering of validation that, yes, I too was part of the nature of things, and I thought Holy shit, this is what it feels like to really live inside my own life. This is amazing. I want to keep doing this.

January Activities:

  • Abstinence from alcohol.
  • Exercise 3 times a week, 30 minutes or longer.
  • Remove all unused objects from the house.
  • Find a place for all remaining objects.
  • Establish a system for maintaining space and clarity.

Expectations:
Some of my expectations seem really tangible, like spending less time cleaning and less time thinking about cleaning, but some of them are extremely vague, even foofy, like feel happier and lighter. Part of what’s good about trying to identify my expectations is the simple act of seeing how unspecific they are. They’re almost more aspirations, but for the (almost) non-judgemental record, they also include:

  • Be less bothered by the (mostly kid) mess around me, because there will be less of it, fewer conditions for it to arise, and because I will be more ok with it by the end of this month of practice. I expect my perception will shift in a way I can’t quite articulate, but I think it will end up more accepting and relaxed, for having exposed some of my own ridiculousness.
  • If I sincerely, consistently live the behavior, my kids will start to copy it
  • Enjoy the visual and functional aesthetic of less clutter.
  • Become more aware of my consumption patterns: buy less, enjoy it more, and actually consume it. I.e. eat it, wear it, wash it away…
  • I expect it won’t work the way I think it’s going to, and expect I’ll be a little disappointed about this.

I had to really resist the desire to over-work the four questions. I wanted to make sense of them up front, refine them into a more palatable, more likely list. Some of them don’t make a ton of sense relative to this theme, some of them are in conflict, but it feels right to try to grab it as a rough snapshot of where I’m at.

What do I Value?

  • Opportunity – which to me seems inextricably linked to open space. A chance for something new to emerge.
  • Truth – seeing as complete and unobscured of a reality as is possible for me.
  • Trust – being calm and secure that I have done as much as is reasonable to enable seeing clearly.

What do I Want?

  • I don’t feel like I’ve hit my stride yet, and I’m sort of herky-jerking along. I want there to be something more, something different. This might be something new in its own right, or just a new dimension to what already exists. There is a sort of icky-seeming sense of wanting to be “saved” buried in that desire. Ugh.
  • I want more time for my independent adult life, writing, reading, meditating, seeing friends, etc.
  • I want better focus.

Where is the Resistance?

  • I’m not sure I want to be ok with messiness. I have a sense of pride about myself associated with high standards, hard work, and excellent performance. I’m sort of a controlling person, I stink at letting go.
  • Staying perpetually engaged with the mundane is a great way to ensure nothing I care deeply about will go wrong, for it never goes at all.
  • I have a sense of frugality and conservatism that I’m attached to. I don’t like to throw things away because I don’t want to be wasteful. It’s so ironic that that an undertaking to have less would challenge my sense of frugality. It’s because my idealism about being frugal is about to get called onto the carpet, packed up, and donated to a worthy cause.

What’s Gained and Lost?

Gained

  • Time for my personal projects. If I have less to maintain, I will spend less time on maintenance. It is so, so much more expeditious to do housework when the kids aren’t here, and I spend precious solitude on cleaning instead of writing, meditating, connecting, etc.
  • Satisfaction… (red flag!) I struggled to articulate this any further, best guesses included: at having changed my patterns and habits / having accomplished “it” (no idea what it is) / walking into a clean room.
  • Appreciation for what I have – Making intentional choices about the purpose of the objects I keep will allow me to understand the value and use they provide.
  • Humility – Having to confront the amount of stuff I have that I don’t need will help me acknowledge the degree to which I take more than is necessary.
  • Acceptance – doing the work has a way of exposing what’s at the top of the “let it go” stack.

Lost

  • A sense of cultural convention – I live in a middle-class suburb – drinking while socializing, and consumerism are just part of the vernacular.
  • The soothing and time consuming activity of shopping – I use it to kill time and get my kids out of the house on long days together. It feels satisfying to have “done” something like get groceries and gives me a break from the non-stop requests for attention, snacks, help, etc. when we are in the house.
  • Security – I tend to keep stuff out of a “just in case” sense that I will need it later.
  • Ease – I have a family that – loving as it is – is not quite so interested in this exploration of pseudo-asceticism as I am. Giving away their stuff on my behalf might not always go over well.
  • Old values and relationships – I’ll have to say goodbye to the emotional payload in objects I don’t value, or need, anymore. This one is going to be really hard.

Sidebar…

Possible Gotchas

  • I’ll just find different things to distract me. Distractions are internal, I’m just a lot better at noticing the outward manifestations.
  • I’ll spend more time with fewer objects, and get no net gain on free time. (The whole concept of “free time” is silly enough for me to cringe when I write that, but it has a valid colloquial meaning of: activities I’m unwilling to stop doing.)
  • I won’t reduce nearly enough stuff to make a tangible difference.

A Question to Watch For:
How much of the mess is generated by people, rather than the proliferation of objects? As I wrote this piece, the whole thing started to have a wag the dog feeling. It’s possible I’ve got it all backwards – that the people will generate the same amount of physical disorder no matter what, and no matter how much I get rid of it won’t matter.

The Quantified Five Year Old

Pre-filled behavior chart, predicting the future.
Colin, in an attempt to earn a toy gun, has started drawing out behavior charts. Days with check marks are good days, and days with X’s are bad days. The most charming (disturbing) part about these, is that he fills them all out in advance.

He drew this one this morning. Today started out as a good day, but then got X-ed over to a bad day, after he had a meltdown that Jack was being taken out for a special birthday breakfast. Halloween, is prominently featured as a good day, and his upcoming flu shot, a bad day. I asked him about the row of bad days at the end of the chart and he said, That’s August, when some bad stuff will happen.

So, apparently, at five we have in place the mental process that can anticipate good and bad things happening, and start planning our reactions accordingly. What’s amazing (disturbing) to me, is how much I still do this throughout the course of my own day. I like this, I don’t like that. I agree with this, I don’t agree with that. I’m looking forward to this, but not to that. This is good, this is bad. We do so much of this checking and X-ing that we pre-program our experience before it even occurs. Thank goodness for logic, so we can retroactively clean up and refactor the mess that we created. Time travel ain’t got nothing on our imaginations.

During the rolling tantrum that ran all morning, Brendan and I alternated between offering compassion for Colin’s hurt feelings (hugs and validation), and trying to sooth him with rational explanations (you had a special birthday day last week, now it is Jack’s turn). By drop-off time for school, we were simply relieved to not have to endure his unhappiness anymore, or our failure to alleviate it. He understood all the reasoning, but it seemed to offer no relief at all, and that is distinctly different than my adult experience. It’s pleasant and easy to share in someone else’s happiness (or at least be neutral), especially if I’ve recently had a similar experience myself. I don’t worry about getting my flu shot, because the discomfort is a small price to pay for the security of vaccination. In fact, I worry about not getting it. Sometimes, logic is the only salve I know how to apply. Not so, for Colin.

Watching my kids grow up is like witnessing the super-slow-motion implosion of the human psyche, or as it’s commonly referred to in western psychology, normal cognitive development. With each additional skill of abstraction, they create another surface onto which they can layer experience. But then they need a set of filters for making sense of the abstracted reality, and integrating it back into their model of the world. The more elaborate the model becomes, the deeper their perception of separate self. Fast forward another 30 years, and perhaps they’ll be hitting the break point, where the accumulated model reaches its limits.

Is there a better way? Is it possible to re-infuse these stages of development with some of the beautiful simplicity of the direct experience they’re shedding? Can that be done, without also limiting them? Maybe the truths of growth are always hard won, and painfully released, and it is simply our job as parents to offer safe and loving shelter.

Object Hygiene

“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.