Quoth Paul Graham:
Once you've accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around. I know of one couple who couldn't retire to the town they preferred because they couldn't afford a place there big enough for all their stuff. Their house isn't theirs; it's their stuff's.
And unless you're extremely organized, a house full of stuff can be very depressing. A cluttered room saps one's spirits. One reason, obviously, is that there's less room for people in a room full of stuff. But there's more going on than that. I think humans constantly scan their environment to build a mental model of what's around them. And the harder a scene is to parse, the less energy you have left for conscious thoughts. A cluttered room is literally exhausting.
I'm often asked how many blogs I read. The answer: increasingly few, especially after this morning. I've just burnt a chunk of time reducing the number of feeds in my RSS reader from 30 or so to 19. This wasn't the first round of cuts; when started RSS-reading, I piled everything under the sun in there, aiming, I assume, to construct some sort of bustling informational paradise. Needless to say, this setup rapidly grew hopelessly cluttered. Wielding the shears with merciless abandon, I've trimmed my blog garden down to the following:
- The delightfully varied 3Quarksdaily, which I happen to write for myself
- Still the finest curated collection of general fascinating internet things, Jason Kottke's blogioneering Kottke.org
- Paul Graham — like, doi
- Ben Casnocha: The Blog, as if you couldn't already tell by the frequency with which I reference him
- My longest-standing daily read, Marginal Revolution
- The ceaselessly-championed-by-me but somewhat rarely updated Waggish
- Merlin Mann's 43Folders, and though it hasn't been particularly update-y lately, the recent posts merit dozens of re-readings
- Neat-stuff accretion Cool Hunting, which I've for some reason been ignoring until very recently when I happened to take a glance and think, "Hey, this stuff is pretty neat"
- Information Aesthetics, which holds me over between Tuftes
- Robin Hanson's Overcoming Bias, for when I need a hit of humanity perceived as a bunch of mating signals (and I often do)
- Less Wrong, the community version of Overcoming Bias where I'm only a tantalizing eight "karma points" away from posting myself
- Roger Ebert, who has proven to be just as articulate and thoughtful a blogger as he is a film critic, and who is particularly astute on the subject of midcentury midwestern childhood
- Edward Champion's Reluctant Habits, because he has the capacity to get a lot angrier than I can (read: angry at all) about stuff
- The Documentary Blog, as I loves me some documentaries
- The Sound of Young America, for which I also happen to write myself
- The Elegant Variation, the first litblog I ever read
- The ambient trifecta: Ambient Music Blog, Low Light Mixes and AmbientBlog.net
I haven't gone far enough. Nor have I gone far enough trimming back any
of my life's gardens. Nor do I believe I could ever afford to stop:
where my mind once sought a steady ideal and tried to come up with
strategies to realize it, it's now in the simpler mode of constant,
continuous winnowing. This is as true for RSS feeds as it is for the
rest of my media diet — its print journalism component, for instance,
is basically down to The Economist and the New York Times Book review, and I've semi-failed to pay much attention to either in the past few months — as it is for writing — not for nothing is "
the maximum amount of information within the minimum word count" my credo — as it is for day-to-day schedules, physical environments and the stuff that fills them.
But this is a difficult mental routine to maintain, and mastering the art of cutting detritus loose — let alone separating the detritus from the valuable — is even tougher, given the human brain's overperception of loss. When I interviewed Merlin Mann on The Marketplace of Ideas, we discussed a modern fantasy: hiring guys to take all your things away and bring back only what you actually use over the following weeks. How much of our junk would any of us, in all honesty, get back? A third? Maybe half? Moving house, to an extent, provides a natural opportunity for this sort of procedure, which may be why my internal countdown-to-relocation clock seems to be calibrated on a three-ish year cycle. Too much time in one place, and it fills with kipple.
As for time, so for space. I suppose I'm lucky that, while I'm a mid-twentysomething and thus relegated to a succession of small apartments, I also prefer a multiplicity of small, minimally-designed spaces, both aesthetically and intellectually. I fear not that my next place will have too little room, but too much; I worry not that I will have too few possessions to my name, but too many. My dream is to have several available dwellings, absolutely no larger than I require, in select locations across the globe. The homes I desire bear no nooks or crannies amenable to the accumulation of tchotchkes, knick-knacks, whimsicalities and other material of nightmares, nor do they present sprawling stretches of open wall or floor that sing siren songs of "fill me, fill me." While I find the look of smaller, emptier rooms pleasurable, what's more important is that I myself am actually better — sharper, more capable, deadlier — when I'm in them.
A recent epiphany — experienced, naturally, while tidying up — suggested that one's home, as well as all the other locations one inhabits, temporally and psychologically, is primarily an environment for thought. As Graham writes above, clutter exhausts; I personally find that a surfeit of discrete objects seriously get under my skin. The less there is around, the better I think, and that holds for concrete surroundings as well as for computing — as the above-linked Tufte once remarked, "No matter how cool your interface is, it would be cooler if there were less of it" — and for the sonic background — no mistake that I link to three ambient music blogs. This is what repays, and then some, the perpetual effort to excise stuff.
I consider the double-edged-swordiness of possessions to go hand-in-hand with another of the useful, far-reaching (and few) realizations of my adult life: experience is the important factor, no matter what the entity, event or concept considered. Perhaps a representative culinary example. I used to believe that I simply disliked Italian food because, for most of my life, my experience of the cuisine consisted of gigantic portions and relative blandness: enormous bowls of monoflavor pasta; endless punishing, indistinguishable layers of lasagna; monotonous loaves of garlic bread stretching to infinity. Turns out I only disliked the Olive Garden-y treatment of Italian food I'd been getting in restaurants, which, at least in most of what I've seen in the States, hews to quantity and away from quality. There indeed exist Italian joints that I find choice, and they invariably serve much smaller portions.
It's a common populist joke to poke fun at "fancy" restaurants' tendency to charge higher prices for relatively tiny amounts of food when compared to their more mainstream counterparts, but it only works if you consider food to be a fungible good. I don't; in fact, the older I get, the less I consider to be truly fungible. At this point, almost nothing is simply a product to be purchased wherever it's cheapest. Everything has some experience component, and in the case of comestibles, it's a significant one. While it may well be possible to obtain the "same" food, in that it's made of many of the same molecules, from the convenience store down the street as from the downtown eatery, the two experiences bear only a trivial similarity. (The same goes for buying the "same" record in a clean, well-organized shop versus yanking it from the bottom of the umpteenth disorganized Goodwill bin of the day.) Not being immortal and thus obligated to have the best experiences I can, I'm ready and willing to shell out the bucks for a superior experience in any venue. (And in the case of food, reduced serving size is a benefit in and of itself; cheaper restaurants charge less for more, but they tend to serve amounts of food that aren't large enough to produce viable leftovers but leave me on the uncomfortable side of fullness nonetheless, so I'd gladly fork over more money just for the superior experience of a non-distended stomach.)
In Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, the Isaach De Bankolé-portrayed Lone Man frequents museums, viewing only one painting per visit but experiencing that painting to the fullest. (He also, as a matter of course, orders two small cappuccinos in two small cups at cafés, avoiding the inferior drinking experience of a single large cappuccino.) Perhaps that's a suitable metaphor for how I'd like certain parts of life to be: simple, streamlined, focused, unencumbered by obligation and admitting no room for nonsense, vacillation or distraction. The natural enemy of such a state is the immortal creeping kudzu of mediated attention sinks, mental noise and, of course, stuff. I suspect the trick is to build your life in such a way as to let as little of it through the walls as possible in the first place; filters any closer to you are less predictable and much more of a hassle to use effectively. Better a short, incomplete stack in the in box than a tall, comprehensive one to sift through every time you sit down.
When you minimize the stuff, the noise, the shiny baubles and the like, what, then, takes on even more importance than the massive importance it held before? Your mind. I find that the fewer tools of distraction I've got, the greater the difference it makes whether or not I've put my brain's house in order. Spartan surroundings reveal, starkly, whether I'm in a strong mindset or a crappy one; absent distractions, a focused, open mind makes a heaven and a messy, clouded mind makes a hell. And that's the other side of the coin to the pursuit of aesthetic and physical environmental clarity: you have to make your mind an interesting enough place to handle it. Taking away all the stuff that can be taken away underscores how vital it is to cultivate all that can't be.