The Las Vegas Rules II: Stuff Science

In lifestyle design, your relationship with your material possessions — “stuff” — is perhaps the central issue. Digital stuff is stuff too, since it has to physically live somewhere. Stuff is the locus where theories meet reality. It is not particularly hard to think about money, careers and investments in reasonably clear-eyed ways.  If it weren’t for stuff, execution on those fronts would also be easy.

Stuff is different. Even thinking about it is hard. We don’t even have a good word for it.  If you’ve been living on your own for at least a couple of years, getting a clear sense of all the stuff in your life takes an intense, draining and intellectually demanding exercise like a GTD Sweep (the first stage in getting on the GTD wagon; just spending a weekend making sense of all your stuff). By comparison, developing situation awareness of your finances is as simple as logging into your major accounts. Stuff diseases, such as extreme hoarding, seem to me to be much worse than financial diseases like being over-leveraged.

In lifestyle design discussions, I find that people vastly oversimplify the stuff side.  They pick unexamined philosophies about stuff, like “minimalism” or “go local,” without ever looking at how the stuff in their life actually works. This is like deciding to save $1000 a month without actually looking at your income, debt and expenses. Worse, they try to pitch their unexamined “stuff religion” to others.

So a few months back, I decided I needed to understand stuff and start experimenting with doing things to it, before getting all caught up in pretty lifestyle theories. Understanding stuff is Stuff Science.

Stuff is an Illegible Machine

Stuff Science is harder than finance or career planning, and there are far fewer ideas you can borrow from others because the stuff in your life is a unique configuration of stuff, even if the components are commodities.  Creating a smoothly functioning configuration of stuff in your life is Stuff Engineering. It involves applying Stuff Science, guided by a keen sense of Stuff Aesthetics.

Stuff is multi-dimensional. Your stuff embodies your cultural defaults and unconscious and conscious decisions about a lot of things. Utility, convenience, ideology, personality, marital compromises, class affiliations, beliefs about how things can and should be done, rituals, dietary preferences — everything is embodied in your stuff. Often a single significant element of your stuff, like your main kitchen knife, will embody all those things. Can you visualize the lifestyles of people who might own the following types of primary kitchen knives?

  1. A special-ordered hand-crafted Japanese knife
  2. An expensive 8″ Wustof knife from an upscale store like Williams-Sonoma
  3. An unusual knife (in the West), but still from Williams-Sonoma, like a santoku
  4. A cheap knife from a department store
  5. A “never needs sharpening” ceramic knife only available from TV infomercials
  6. A dull steak knife re-purposed as a kitchen knife
  7. A Bowie knife
  8. A Swiss Army knife

Your stuff comprises what I called externalized mental models in Tempo. This means that despite the connotations of a haphazard jumble, your stuff is actually a complex system of interacting parts that embodies a lot of your thinking.

We don’t clearly understand the complex interactions in our stuff for the same reason we don’t understand the other complicated machines we deal with, like airplanes, computers or cars: they are complicated. But at least with those machines you recognize that there is a complex machine behind the scenes. You may only deal with what product designers call the user experience (UX), but you know there’s more going on, and experts behind the scenes who know how things work.

When it comes to stuff unfortunately, though there is a complex machine behind the UX, there are no experts. If you want more control, you will need to become that expert.

If you choose not to become an expert, your stuff will stagger through life like a zombie, as an unexamined set of externalized mental models, gathering entropy and crud, until it becomes so poorly adapted to your actual life that it seizes up. At that point, you step back stunned, pondering the revelation that your life is a mess.

Even if you do try hard to become an expert, your stuff will remain a somewhat illegible machine, because it was  not designed top-down. It was designed as a series of hacks and modifications to an inherited lifestyle, which itself has been evolving for many generations. Understanding it completely would be like understanding the lifestyles of all your ancestors.

The Stuff-Shock Doctrine

Naomi Klein made up the term “shock doctrine” to describe a macro-economic phenomenon she calls “disaster capitalism.” It’s about how various powerful parties take advantage of big disasters (shocks) like Hurricane Katrina to further their nefarious agendas.

In lifestyle design fortunately, there are fewer interested parties — typically only you and your immediate family — and fewer nefarious interests. So shocks can be a good thing.

In fact they are necessary. Lifestyles are just too complex to understand and re-engineer without them. There is really no gentle, gradual evolutionary approach. Each time you want to make a significant change to your lifestyle, you have to deliver a shock.

I call this the “stuff shock doctrine.”

Without stuff shocks, mainstream lifestyles create an anchoring bias for those who want to try alternative lifestyles. Since these mainstream lifestyles are local optima, small perturbations are useless. You’ll be dragged back to that optimum. To break out of the local optimum, you need a shock.

The stuff-shock doctrine motivates the basic method for getting past the immense complexity of thinking about your stuff. Just do something dramatic like deciding to live out of a suitcase or moving to Bali for a while. You don’t have to fully understand how the stuff in your life works for this method to be at least temporarily effective. You just need to successfully compress your stuff down to a suitcase.

The reason this is at least temporarily effective  is that it knocks you out of a rut and gives you a fresh start. When you arrive at your new city with a suitcase, you may not have everything you need. The illegible machine in your suitcase may not work. But at least you get an opportunity to evolve a small illegible machine, one consciously considered addition at a time, until it works. You may never understand how your old life used to work, but who cares, so long as your new one does. Let sleeping ghosts lie.

But stuff shocks are only temporarily effective unless you do more, because community life is built around shared lifestyles. To the extent that you want to belong to the community around you but don’t want to share their lifestyle, you’ll be faced with a contamination problem. If you are already a minority in some aspect of your life  you’ve experienced this on a small scale.  I am a vegetarian for instance, which means in groups where I am the only one, I often have to be the bottleneck constraint and apologize for making everybody adapt a little to my needs.

Imagine such issues affecting your whole life and you’ll get a sense of the immense pressure involved in a truly novel lifestyle design that is different from neighboring lifestyles in many respects.

Default lifestyles can start to sneak back into a stuff-shock created alternative lifestyle. Meshing your alternative lifestyle with traditional lifestyles all around you is a lot of hard work. Many people either cave under the pressure or simply exit the mainstream altogether, choosing to live in exile communities alongside others with similar alternative lifestyles.

One way to understand the magnetic pull of traditional lifestyles is to note that the value of a locally-optimal lifestyle increases with the number of people practicing it, an unusual instance of Metcalfe’s Law, better known as the fax machine effect or network effect. So even if your lifestyle is in effect a better fax machine, it will be less valuable if it cannot talk to traditional fax machines. If you like, you can even think of communities as basically networks of lifestyle nodes. They are more than that, but for the purposes of this discussion, those additional features don’t really matter.

In lifestyle design, you have to choose a point on a spectrum between isolation and interdependence with respect to people whose lifestyles don’t synchronize well with yours, and whose lifestyle ideologies you may not agree with. Another network analogy may help: in electrical grids, new generators can only join the grid if they are synchronized, in terms of the alternating current they are pumping into the grid.  This synchronization is one of the elements of a larger design practice called impedance matching. You cannot efficiently deliver power into a network that then delivers it to a load somewhere else if you don’t do impedance matching.

Impedance mismatch can be a severe problem for lifestyle design.

The more you lean towards isolation, the harder you’ll have to work to maintain connectivity while minimizing contamination. Due to Metcalfe’s Law and impedance matching this is a practical problem. The isolation/interdependence dichotomy is also a moral problem. But I won’t talk about that today, I’ll simply assume that you’ve chosen a fair degree of interdependence. For a variety of reasons, I believe that is the smart and right choice.

Smart Stuff

I have personally experienced many stuff shocks. I have moved 17 times across 7 cities in two countries in my adult life, not counting periods when my wife and I were in a two-body-problem situation and effectively maintaining two households.

Early on, I used to be pretty dumb about stuff shocks. I hate moving, and each time I moved, I’d swear that I’d never collect so much crap again. But each time, as I unpacked my life and settled into a new place, stuff would creep back in.  Somewhere along the way — perhaps it was the 5th or 6th move — I got more sophisticated in thinking about my stuff, and started managing the isolation/interdependence tradeoff more carefully. I stopped moaning about the fact that my life, which used to fit into the trunk of my car a few moves back, now takes a 10x10x10 storage unit and a truck.

I no longer subscribe to this sort of naive minimalism.

I have given up the idea that you can make up purely abstract beliefs that tell you how to deal with stuff.

Instead, I believe you have to think about individual lifestyle elements down to things like knives and shoes. You have to put more thinking into every act of ownership. This thinking doesn’t just add value inside your head. It adds value outside your head, to the stuff itself. Your stuff gets smarter. More information — the output of thinking — gets embodied by it. Your bits-to-atoms ratio increases. Some people like to think of this as conscious living, but that’s unnecessarily mystical for me. I prefer to think of it as smart stuff. If you learn to peel vegetables with a knife and eliminate a separate peeler, your knife got smarter.

It isn’t the quantity of stuff in your life that matters. What matters is how smart the stuff is and whether it is smart in service of your needs.

A four-bedroom-house packed with smart stuff that you govern wisely is much better than a minimalist backpack that enslaves your mind because you cannot let go unexamined assumptions about stuff. Your behaviors become trapped within archetypes and doctrines derived from stuff. Instead of being a guy who lives out of a backpack, you become a caricature, a backpacker.

When you don’t govern your stuff, your stuff governs you. There are two variants of this, bad and worse. When your stuff is merely dumb, your life merely gets dumb and random. When your stuff is actually smart in the service of the goals of others, your life gets worse than random. It gets toxic, and predatory forces squeeze all value out of it (I wrote about this in The Gollum Effect).

The bad news is that thinking hard to turn dumb or other-smart stuff into smart-for-you stuff takes time and multiple stuff-shocks. It is an iterative process. With each shock,  your stuff  gets smarter.

This led me to a sort of broad goal for Stuff Science. Stuff Science is the study of stuff compression. Compression as in file compression. Shoving more information into fewer bits. It is an empirical and local science. The only way to study it is to subject your life to periodic stuff shocks and thinking about the results each time to design the next one.

When you understand this in a naive way, you end up believing in the religion of minimalism: doing without, cutting away stuff simply because it is illegible, and preaching about the evils of stuff. You end up idolizing backpack-nomadism for its own sake. You end up not taking on challenges that might help you grow simply because they might involve more stuff.  You drop out and avoid challenges and pretend that the relief that actually comes from shying away from challenges is coming from the mere act of giving up stuff. Your life ends up full of little hypocrisies, like swearing by a “small and local” philosophy, but carrying around an iPad that takes the might of the entire global industrial system that you complain about, to build.

When you understand this in a sophisticated way though, you can start to consciously make your stuff smarter. You may possess more or less stuff through life as the challenges you take on change, but you aren’t navigating by some unexamined drive to merely eliminate stuff.

Cognitive Nomadism

If you’ve been following my previous writing, you’ll notice that I’ve snuck in an idea that seemingly contradicts my own earlier idea: that externalizing intelligence makes institutions smarter and people dumber. If your stuff is getting smarter, are you getting dumber?

Not if your stuff is getting smarter because of shocks you are engineering, as Stuff Science experiments.  Stuff-shocks keep you in charge, and don’t allow stuff to grow by unexamined accretion for too long. We cannot think about every ownership decision, but periodic shocks force us to periodically inject a large dose of intelligence into our patterns of ownership.

There are many ways to deliver stuff-shocks to your lifestyle, but the easiest way is to simply uproot yourself geographically and move to a different place. This is one reason nomadism is strongly associated with lifestyle design (and also the reasoning behind my claim, in The Return of the Barbarian that pastoral nomads are individually smarter, but collectively dumber, than settled peoples).

What keeps nomads smart is that having to constantly pack up and move keeps them sensitive to the meaning and purpose of all the stuff in their lives, and forces them to keep making decisions about what to keep and what to leave behind. It is easy to let stuff pile up in the attic. Out of sight out of mind.  Stuff that was smart when you bought it can become dumb if your lifestyle changes and you either don’t notice or are in denial about it.  I once bought a keyboard a long time ago but didn’t touch it after a few piano lessons. I lugged it around for the next 4 moves, telling myself I’d take lessons again. But at some point I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I gave it away. If I hadn’t been moving so often, I’d probably still have it.

That said, while nomadism is the easiest way to deliver stuff-shocks to your lifestyle, it isn’t the only way. It takes discipline, but other techniques, ranging from intensive spring-cleaning to maintaining a “Goodwill Bag” (a bag of stuff to give away via Goodwill, a chain of stores in the US where you can get cheap used stuff) can deliver large and small shocks to your lifestyle.

So to generalize the principle of using shocks to design your lifestyle progressively and iteratively, we can call it cognitive nomadism.

There are two basic kinds of shocks. Expansion shocks put more stuff into your life. Compression shocks eliminate stuff. Both are good so long as your stuff gets smarter on average.

Most lifestyle design relies on compression shocks rather than expansion shocks simply because it is easier to make your stuff get smarter if you are eliminating rather than adding.

This is because additions are born dumb. If you add a home gym, it is dumb stuff until you settle into a routine of actually using it. Eliminations can also be dumb, but there will usually be immediate acute pain, and you will find out immediately. If you were to give up your cellphone due to a romantic notion of “living off the grid” you’ll realize how much your life revolves around it in a day or two. So a good default assumption is that additions are dumb unless you experience immediate relief (no integration costs), and eliminations are smart unless you experience immediate pain.

I recently answered a question about writing skills on Quora, and emphasized the role of rewriting and editing. Stuff-shocks are the rewrites of your life. And as with any editing processes, by default you should assume that cutting stuff is smarter than adding stuff.

If you try expansion shocks, not only will it cost you more, there is a much higher chance that others will determine what stuff gets put into your life. When you buy a house for instance, you are inheriting an entire set of lifestyle assumptions from am architect paid by a developer. When you move from a house to the trunk of you car, there is simply much less space for others to put stuff into. Expansion shocks that make your stuff smarter on average are hard to engineer.

So there is nothing intrinsically great or noble about living out of a suitcase or a car trunk, being nomadic or being minimalist. That’s merely the simplest pattern you can use to deliver frequent cognitive-nomadic shocks to your system, with a high probability of things getting smarter.

My Experiments

Recently, I delivered the biggest compression shock of my life to my stuff. My wife and I put most of our stuff into a 10x10x10 storage unit and sublet a part of her parents’ home in Las Vegas. We will be living here for at least 4-5 months. It isn’t exactly living out of suitcases (though we only have a few suitcases worth of our own stuff) because the house is furnished and has almost everything we need.

But it’s a start. I am learning very fast what stuff I actually need, what stuff is just leftover crud from the past, and what stuff I am hanging on to for sentimental reasons. Living in someone else’s furnished home is giving me a sense of how much my lifestyle has in common with others’ at the micro-level — things like spatulas and dishes. I am learning for instance, that I have an irrational attachment to certain kitchen equipment. I am realizing I can do most of my preferred cooking in anyone’s kitchen, not just my own.

Though this particular shock is reversible (and likely will be reversed to a large extent with the next move), both of us are starting to think the same radical thoughts: if we can put 90% of our things in storage and do without them for 6 months, how much do we really need any of it? We are starting to understand different things — ranging from couches to books — in broader terms. How much does it cost to acquire? To rent? How long would you have to store something for the marginal storage costs to exceed the costs of just selling it and re-buying it later? Is it seasonal-use (our winter stuff is in storage for instance)?

But beyond these sorts of obvious computations is a sort of sensibility that is taking root in my mind, where nothing is ever allowed to become a taken-for-granted possession. It’s all negotiable at the next stuff-shock.

Actually, I experienced an even more severe temporary compression shock. As many of you know, I turned the move from DC to Vegas into a 3-week road trip, during which I was essentially living out of my car, others’ spare couches and the odd hotel room. I will be doing several more weeks of that later this summer. Living out of a car is an excellent test-drive for those considering lifestyle design.

Ever since I started thinking in terms of lifestyle design as an ongoing series of stuff shocks, things have started seeming both more comprehensible and more manageable (I don’t have to figure it all out right now, I just have to figure out the lessons of one stuff shock at a time, making this a sort of lean/agile lifestyle design model).

The idea of stuff shocks also gives you an easy way to estimate whether your lifestyle is in good shape. Just ask: what was the last stuff shock you subjected it to, and how strong was it? If your answer is “a spring cleaning 10 years ago,” chances are your stuff is fairly dumb and/or toxic. I am not suggesting that everybody should become a real nomad. That’s just not possible for (say) somebody with a house, an underwater mortgage and two kids in school. But I think anyone can be a cognitive nomad and deliver frequent stuff-shocks to their lifestyles to keep their stuff smart.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. You say much in common with Bruce Sterling, in his ‘Last Viridian Note.’ [1] his point is that stuff has a maintenance/ownership cost as well as a use-benefit, but most people ignore the costs. Smart stuff-thinking is to make sure your stuff serves you, rather than conscripting you as its caretaker.

    See also the totally cavalier attitudes hunter/gatherer tribes have to possessions, where everything you keep has to be carried to the next camp.

    (I’ve been living out of a backpack in Europe the last four months; six months before that I moved cities with a slightly bigger suitcase. It’s amazing how little stuff you actually need.)

    [1] http://www.viridiandesign.org/notes/451-500/the_last_viridian_note.html

  2. Lifehacker.com is a great source when it comes to making your stuff smart. However, A good hack can go too far, when you hack for the sake of hacking. Then it becomes entertainment (not that there is anything specifically wrong with that).

  3. Thinking about stuff is so hard because every keep/buy/sell/donate/trash decision involves a calculation of total cost of ownership. TCO is inherently hard to know, but in a face of lifestyle change it is unknowable, since you don’t know what to expect to need. You can only fall back on rules of the thumb which are wrong, or bare the uncertainty. TCO is abstract, while the ongoing benefits of a thing are easy: how good do you feel about having it?

    This suggest a way to lower your risk of Gollumization. As you optimize benefits per TCO, try to make the benefits less legible, while making the costs more legible.

    For example, buying and selling furniture is pain (for most guys at least), and some people (most women) are addicted to shopping. If you rent a furnished apartment you save yourself the hassle and buying risks from then on, at a monthly cost. Your get a sure deal with preselected, illegible feng shui benefits, preventing certain hangover pain when you move out.

    • most women are addicted to shopping??
      This says more about you and the people you associate with than it says about “most women”.

      • Yeah, that didn’t come out right. Shouldn’t have said it, I have no objective evidence. Nonetheless, cliche’s are usually true.

    • I think in some ways what you say here is diametrically opposed to the stance of the post:

      By choosing a furnished appartment, you are choosing a lot of design constraints to avoid risk. This can result in making applied freedom more difficult, or not depending on how well their generic model of an inhabitant fits you.

      You are, in other words, requiring yourself to go along with their stereotype in order to save yourself hassle, not least because their terms of use probably preclude customization, so you will have to make all your changes in one go; new house, new room configurations etc.

      TCO as a concept will only take you so far; a second element is where you want to put your uncertainties: A great flaw of moving is that you have to process your entire house at once, by taking furniture out of things you apparently remove that hassle, effectively asking people to make the choice for you. In doing so you state that the furnishing of your house is not a distinct factor of your lifestyle. You don’t need any specific type of furnishings within the normal range, or have any special types outside that region, in order to support those elements of how you live that are important and distinctive to you. A chair is a chair, so long as it’s not made of ice!

      If those changes don’t fit you but you make them anyway, then you are architecturally inhibiting your self expression, becoming slightly structurally disempowered, something very close to gollumisation (but without the feedback loops).

      You could quite reasonably follow an alternative service that rents you furniture to suite your house, according to your choices of room spec and what they have available, then takes them back when you move. Then if you care about space arrangement but not furnishing details, you widen your domain of possible houses to include those that don’t start out pre-furnished.

      • I think this strategy would work, at least for me, because I’m preselecting the place. Assuming the decorator is competent, I don’t think my needs are so special. I have lived in places that I have not decorated, and I was fine with it. For me, location location location trumps decoration: I want a place quiet yet central, with non-proletarian neighbors, and a high walkability index.

        I had not considered the option of renting furniture that they take back. That’s a great idea, I didn’t know that was possible. Good for when the preselection fails or is too expensive.

        • I’ll agree with Mr. King here that I’d rather rent a pre-furnished place than buy and sell furniture. I tend to live in a place for a year, doing contract work, then move. I would absolutely LOATHE to buy furniture, set everything up, even if I could do it to some theoretically perfect optimum for me, then have to turn around and sell it all at the end of the year.

          Better payout is to rent pre-furnished place with some illegible feng shui (and I always select places I like, with good views, or nice rooms, or something, even if I think the couch was chosen by a total douchebag), Then I end my lease when the year ends, grab my two trunks or so full of stuff, and ship them to the next place.

          Works great!

          –Jiao

  4. Sam Penrose says:

    This piece feels somewhat long on abstract assertion and short on illuminating detail relative to your work in general. The first half feels like you’re building up to an interesting argument: that the intelligence of your stuff is, contrary to received wisdom orthogonal to its quantity. Then at the end you sort of echo the received wisdom: “if we can put 90% of our things in storage and do without them for 6 months … sensibility that is taking root in my mind, where nothing is ever allowed to become a taken-for-granted possession.” In other words, the two qualities are not orthogonal. Now, I tend to agree with this received wisdom, so that’s all well and good, but if you agree with it too do you still have an essay? More pertinently, do you still have the essay you started writing? I kind of hope you will push on an try to write that essay: the argument seems worth failing at.

    • I am hoping to get more details as I log more weeks actually living these ideas out.

      I think I rarely buck received wisdom. I usually end up merely looking at it from a different angle. But it takes time to find an alternative perspective that adds more depth/peels back more layers. In this particular game I am still too much of a newbie I think. The perils of blogging live as opposed to with 20/20 hindsight.

  5. Mahboob says:

    A lot of digital stuff accumulates. Blog themes, profile settings in dozen different accounts, email ids… Your principles seem to be applicable to digital stuff too.

    • Digital stuff doesn’t really take up physical space though – you can just back everything up to the cloud which functions like a giant attic, in that you can just throw whatever you want in there and forget about it. This takes away a lot of the mental overhead of deciding what to keep – for example, I archive all my gmail messages, even though 90% of them are quasi-spam, to save me the overhead of deciding whether to hit ‘archive’ or ‘delete’. Unlike an attic, you never have to sort through your online stuff when you move.

      You’re right though, there is still an overhead to digital hoarding, especially since cloud services can be unreliable… so you still need to decide which “stuff” needs to be saved to multiple places.

      • Sounds true in principle, but I do find lately that every move to a new computer is painful. Plus things like updating all your online addresses, backing up, digitizing your media collection. Some are transient costs that won’t be paid by people in a born-digital era, but it’s still a lot of stuff that needs stuff science.

        But yeah, storage and transportation is cheaper and faster.

        • I think our “real” stuff needs to mimic our virtual stuff.

          Looking at 4567 emails in your inbox does not weigh on your mind but imagine having that many printed sheets of paper in your house.

          You have 60 albums of photos on facebook but the ones that you remember are your last posted set. Imagine having 60 albums of photos in your NYC apartment.

          I think vital stuff is a great analogue that we can use to figure out this “stuff-science”.

        • Beau Butler says:

          I’ve found virtual stuff also “rots” or becomes dumb much faster than real stuff. Things like an IM client needing to be updated because it’s now insecure and could be remotely hacked, and no automatic update system to do that for me dramatically raises it’s TCO. (In practice i just stopped using it.)

          Having a computer security background tends to make this sort of thing a LOT more problematic. Love your work Venkat, this blog is awesome reading!

  6. “If you learn to peel vegetables with a knife and eliminate a separate peeler, your knife got smarter.”

    I am reminded of the show Good Eats, where Alton Brown urges readers to use a few cheap and versatile tools and work like MacGyver with them, rather than buying Williams-Sonoma single purpose exotica (e.g. who the f!k uses a duck press anyway, aside from a pro chef working in a restaurant where they make duck all the time?)

    Starting from a very young age, I was always entranced by “things that could do many things”. The idea of needing very few tools for living (because I had would use only very fundamental, very versatile tools that would do many things well) was especially appealing.

    I think that’s the visceral appeal of a (networked) computer for me (and this is obviously not a original or unique insight to me). It integrates and replaces many, many old school technologies such as calculator, newspaper, typewriter, telephone, letter, conference room, and many more that I can’t think of at the moment.

    Obviously, old tech has its situational uses – the key is to choose when to use one versus the other. (e.g. typewriter vs computer – no contest; online forum vs in-person community – depends on the details of the situation)

    • I thought of Alton Brown actually, and had that very “unitasker” point in the article, but deleted it since I figured not enough people would get that reference.

  7. Going through a move right now, I’m trying a stuff shock by trying to only move the critical things, and expanding the list as I realize the pain of missing something. I’ve found tools are more important than media: if I don’t have my favorite photo or a new book nearby, I can find a replacement, but take away my frying pan and spatula, and I will miss an omelet terribly.

    Realizing this, I’m considering digitizing and storing more of my media, including sentimental historical artifacts. But so many media artifacts are useful for their display of your external identity, to yourself and others, more than for their consumption. For example, a high school yearbook feels useless, especially when you’re far enough removed to care about the contents, but it makes for a nice prop to tell stories to visitors, and maintains some kind of normal appearance.

  8. Having already moved a total of 9 times (5 cities) in my adult life, with 3 of those being across water, I understand where a lot of this is coming from. Your characterization of communities as networks of lifestyle nodes is particularly interesting. I always find that my intense dislike for accumulating crap is at odds with the attitudes of most people around me.

    There is not just one dumb / naive “minimalist for minimalism’s sake” philosophy out there, and the “smart stuff” attitude you describe is probably not at all unfamiliar to some of those who you painted with that brush.

    Everyone who calls themselves a minimalist probably displays some of the following characteristics with varying levels of intensity (yes, there is some obvious overlap):

    “Smart Stuff”: Getting intrinsic enjoyment from maximizing the utility of every thing you own. A simple example from the kitchen would be being competent enough to smash garlic with the side of your chef’s knife vs having some ridiculous single purpose tool for it.

    “Survivalists”: Taking pride in knowing you don’t really need all the stuff you have (even if you accumulate a lot of it) because you could skip town at a moment’s notice and survive out of a small backpack without breaking a sweat. Don’t let the label make you think of people who put nuke shelters below their lawns, I’m thinking of very American traditions like walking the Appalachian trail, and all those people who get rid of 80% of what they brought after a week on it.

    “Monk-like detachment”: Again, there is some overlap with the above, but deeply ingraining the distinction between essentials and superfluous things into your psyche can have its own rewards. Your example of living out of a car for a while is a perfect example. You might still own a bunch of other stuff but your relationship to it is altered by such an experience.

    “The Miniaturization Fetishist”: You get a kick out of new gadgets and inventions that can do more tasks while being smaller, lighter, more compact, etc.

    “Cleanliness is next to godliness”: Feeling unjustifiably righteous from creating a “zen-like” hyper-legible environment in your dwelling or office. The false feeling (and semblance) of accomplishment and orderliness usually disappears very soon afterward.

    Anyway, it does seem as if an unexamined relationship to stuff acts as a very effective funnel into a hard to escape mainstream lifestyle. Of course, most people are just fine with staying where they are and following that path.

    My own stuff is not very illegible to me at all; I can tell you a pretty complete story about almost anything I own, including why I purchased it (or why I’ve kept it if it was a gift), what I was thinking at the time, etc. Then again, I’m probably more toward the anti-social end of your scale and don’t have much stuff to speak of.

    • Can you also describe what current purposes they fulfil in your life?

      I ask this because you can hide functional illegibility behind symbolic legibility; if you look at a pen it might remind you of someone, but that’s one of it’s two functions; aide to memory and writing implement. It might even combine the two as a sort of focus aide; the computer may be more effective at writing quickly, but the associations a pen has and the lighting it allows you to work in might be more conducive to creative writing.

      Also that’s not a rhetorical question by the way, insights into that could be pretty useful.

  9. I think there are many more facets that need to be investigated for a truely useful theory of stuff which I’m sure you’ll get to in your future posts.

    Having “stuff-shocked” myself twice in the last year the following are some of the things that I realized:

    1. Books seem to be really hard to get rid off. I have a feeling that this is tied to the fact that they were attached to goals that I once had. They seem to be symbols of that same goal. Getting rid of the book seems to be signal to my brain that I’m giving up on that goal.

    2. Sentimental value of items which I used rarely, seemed to confuse me about their usefulness. I just couldnt seem to get rid of things like old photos even though I look at them probably only when I move. :)

    3. Articles attached to goals that I have forgotten about. Eg: a guitar, ice skates, tennis racket etc. These were easier to get rid of than the above but I was willing to store these if I couldnt sell them.

    4. Theres also the issue of one’s own identity that is entwined with some part of one’s stuff. Ie that stuff that reflects one’s own identity. This stuff is the harded to get rid off completely.

    The first time I stuff-shocked myself I ended up with a storage room (10x8x8) worth of stuff. The second time, all of my stuff fits into: 1 kiteboard bag, 3 boxes of books, 2 suitcases and 2 cardboard boxes. Ie it would all fit in a average regular sized car.

    Finally, I think the subject is so broad that focussing on how to live with smart-stuff while living in one place should be your focus. The nomadic lifestyle design has been studied in depth (maybe not to a useful level) but the idea of only having smart stuff while living in one place has not been (or at least only to a much more superficial level). Also I think most of your readers fall into the not-moving-around-but-still-want-only-smart-stuff.

    • Books seem to be really hard to get rid off. I have a feeling that this is tied to the fact that they were attached to goals that I once had. They seem to be symbols of that same goal. Getting rid of the book seems to be signal to my brain that I’m giving up on that goal.

      Excellent point. Books are one of the best examples of goals and ambition encoded outside the body. It’s especially hard when the goal is still extant, though perhaps occluded by more immediate, pressing concerns. (“Of course I still need that ‘Learn Japanese’ book!”)

      2. Sentimental value of items which I used rarely, seemed to confuse me about their usefulness. I just couldnt seem to get rid of things like old photos even though I look at them probably only when I move. :)

      Absolutely right. I carried a lot of these kind of items through multiple moves. Disasters or “Acts of God” seem to be one of the most effective ways of getting rid of these things.

      I had a “Stuff Shock” occur when I was on a Vipassana meditation course. Because of this, I was paging through high school yearbooks between moves (but they were soaked and damaged). It’s an odd coincidence that it happened when I was spending time in silent meditation on “impermanence”.

      http://thirtytwothousanddays.com/blog/2010/07/how-to-reach-enlightenment-for-free-in-less-than-two-weeks-or-your-money-back/

      (search for “Coda” on the specific paragraph if you prefer to skip past the entire meditation course)

      3. Articles attached to goals that I have forgotten about. Eg: a guitar, ice skates, tennis racket etc. These were easier to get rid of than the above but I was willing to store these if I couldnt sell them.

      I’ve experienced this to be true with camping equipment. I wonder why it was easier than books…

    • I used to be that way about books, but now with the Kindle, it’s gotten somewhat easier. I am rapidly selling or giving away books that I can get on the Kindle. These tend to be old classics or relatively new. The tough set is the ones that are only a few decades yet. Once I made the decision to suck it up and commit to paying the rebuying costs, it became easier. In a way whether you rebuy is the test of your commitment.

      Sentimental stuff… have gotten a lot more brutal. Scanning is enough for me for most of them, and some (like greeting cards), I just shred unless it is truly significant. That’s gotten it down to less than half a dozen. It helps that people have stopped sending me routine things like annual greeting/birthday cards and send ecards or just call/email (call me heartless, but thank god).

      The one exception I make is preserving a sort of memory trace. I have this vague idea that it might be kinda fun to write my memoirs when I am old, and I will likely be half senile with poor memory by then, so am keeping select things that might serve as interesting memory jogs.

      • Hmmm I think your right w.r.t books and sentimental stuff. You have to commit to pay the cost again for the books on the kindle and for the sentimental stuff commit to the time required to scan them all in. I’ll do that when I get back.

        Venkat, how do you decide which books to buy/read? What methods do you use?

        -Vivek

      • “2. Sentimental value of items which I used rarely, seemed to confuse me about their usefulness. I just couldnt seem to get rid of things like old photos even though I look at them probably only when I move. ”

        Does FREQUENCY of use denote utility? I move a lot, but photos and journal entries are basically the only things I simply will not throw away. Storing them digitally seems too risky, giving that computers crash and hard-disks die. I am considering some cloud storage options for some of this stuff. Recently I lost a lot of important digital photos in a system crash during a routine repartitioning of a hard-disk.

        I think photographs and my own journals, in particular have a great value based on intensity and duration, rather than frequency. I can’t keep a personal oral record like some nomadic tribes… I’m just one lone guy wandering the earth.

        –Jiao

  10. A compression shock that you didn’t mention is that which comes from disaster, such as a flood or fire (though I once heard it posited as a rule of thumb that “5 moves equal one fire”).

    We had severe unexpected flooding of our basement a few years ago, and lost a lot stored books, among other damages. I was moderately upset about until I realized that those books had been in boxes down there for 15 years, and that I would never have read them again.

    I was keeping them (and moving around with them) for sentimental reasons. That is my biggest challenge with regard to smart stuff management – a kind of loyalty to stuff based on nostalgia, such that getting rid of it feels like betrayal. I’m working on it, though.

  11. One reason I used to hold onto to things was that I could imagine having a use for them in the future. I would feel the pain of unmet need sometime in the future and choose to avoid it. It helped to explicitly switch to evaluating the risk of keeping the item – how many times would I like to pick this up again and carry it down a flight of stairs? And, what is my acceptable reacquisition ratio: how many of this-type-thing do I need to become free of to justify one that I miss and decide to reacquire?

    Another big threshold for me is the likelihood of an extended offline period. I’m getting close to feeling “nearly permanently online”, at which point I would set the remaining hard-copy bills to web only, almost never buy paper books, media discs, etc. There are interesting socio-economic implications to this aspect of lifehacking.

  12. I am currently sitting in a nearly-empty apartment after a pretty extreme stuff shock. We (me, wife, 2 kids) liquidated nearly all our stuff and moved to a furnished house in a different country (for a postdoc). This was a 5-year stuff shock. At the time we completely romanticized it. “Getting rid of all our accumulated junk, minimalism blah blah blah”. I also convinced myself that it would be cheaper to re-buy everything than to store it or ship it.

    I quit the postdoc after 2 months, and we moved back.

    And now we are basically just re-buying the same stuff we had before. Same couch, same desk, etc. My ‘cheaper to re-buy’ calculus didn’t really apply to a two-month turnaround, but I also would have been way off in my two-year math. Maybe after two years it wouldn’t have been so obvious, but right now it is pretty stark.

    It’s not the big stuff. I did OK on that. It’s all the little things. Cookie sheet, garbage can, dish rack, etc, etc. Dropping $250-500 every weekend on small stuff we just can’t handle living without. And the amount of time it is sucking up is ridiculous. Which task chair do I want? Which curtain rods? Which spatula?

    So when you do the ‘cheaper to store or sell and re-buy’ math, multiply by two. or four. And maybe factor in your time…

    • One lesson from your story is that stuff is a mirror of who one is and just getting rid of stuff doesn’t instantly imply a change in oneself. And I think this even more so true for a family.

      On my second stuff-shock I essentially kept everything that I regularly use even if it only cost 5 bucks. I realised From my first stuff-shock that I have to keep that can opener because I will need one in the future. (What was surprising though was the realisation that i used only about 30% of my stuff.)

      I think there is a sweet spot about even thinking about this “stuff-science”. Ie it has to lead to benefits that one wants. If you want to be a world class chef then your going to need a lot of stuff- cooking utensils, knives, frying things, roasting things etc and that’s ok.

      At my present level of understanding, ones stuff should reflect ones commitments to his PRESENT goals/way of thinking/identity. Anything attached to past goals/way of thinking/identity or forgotten goals needs to be gotten rid off so as to make space for new items and to even pay for the things required for the new goals.

      Of course you have other items like artifacts which remind you of specific experiences and people and stuff that just looks nice but I’m essentially talking about stuff that you will use during your everyday life.

      Now this is coming to you from someone who is lying on the floor of his brothers apartment in Bangalore and who has been living out of 2 suitcases for the last 20 days and who has the rest of his stuff packed into a friends small closet in new jersey. Ie this is a reflection of what I “feel”. some more work will be needed on this…

  13. I had an major unplanned stuff shock a couple of years back when a 3 week trip outside the US turned into indefinitely long and eventually I had to cancel plans of getting back. Since I was only planning to be gone 3 weeks I had pretty much everything, besides some clothes and essential papers and a couple of books, in my apartment in US.

    My major worry when I was not going to be able to get back in within time was my cat. I had made arrangements for her that could be extended to 4 weeks but not any longer. Eventually, I had to involve a friend in another state along with a Humane Society official to pick her up and put her into a shelter until I could get my brother to come and pick her up. With that taken care of there was surprisingly little of the ‘stuff’ that I missed. While I had a fairly large collection of books I had a fair number of them as pdfs on my laptop so that was taken care of. Bills and rent and things like that could be taken care of online for the most part (it took about 3 months for me to finally decide not to return and turn off all that). I also found that an complete cooking set that I had had disappeared (this was a bit bizarre and I have no idea what happened to it).

    I eventually got my stuff taken care of with the help of a couple of friends who gave away or sold most of the stuff aside from some papers/books and what they thought would be important to me. I did miss some of the trinkets that had some story behind them and I never managed to get back.

    What I found from this episode was that apart from things like a passport and driver’s license and a laptop I can do without most stuff. After this incident though, I do find myself more wary of accumulating anything that I might get attached to.

  14. Well, thanks a lot! I’ve copied this blog into a WORD file and stored it on my computer; now I’ve got more “stuff”. I blame you. Unless I can balance it out by rereading the post to help me get rid of other stuff.

    • Err… why, may I ask?

      It’s not like this site/URL is going to suddenly vanish tomorrow. Why not just a bookmark?

    • Ronald Pottol says:

      Well, to help you down that path, check out evernote, very handy archive what have you thing.

      As to why, well, I’ve been online for 20 years, and stuff does not stay around for ever, while a personal site like this has a better track record than commercial sites, stuff still disappears disturbingly frequently.

  15. I am unlikely to need it “overnight”. URL’s are not to be trusted. I applied your theory to the best post I ever read, and the URL was gone six months later. It was a possession that eliminated itself. As if one morning all my socks were gone from the drawer.

  16. Strange Attractor says:

    The rules of thumb for dealing with stuff that you mention, (For example “By default you should assume that cutting stuff is smarter than adding stuff,”) make sense in a context of abundance. In a context of scarcity, things change.

    My grandparents grew up poor and lived through the Great Depression. They had a different attitude toward stuff. For example, my grandmother would wash plastic bags and reuse them not because she was thinking about saving the environment, but because in the back of her mind was the idea that she might not be able to get another plastic bag. My grandparents had a lot of things packed away, not in every day use, in case they might need them again sometime. They formed their attitudes towards stuff in a time where it was not easy to get the stuff they wanted.

    Alternative lifestyles require a context where there are a lot of choices available. A multitude of choices is a characteristic of capitalism. Capitalism isn’t a requirement for living an alternative lifestyle, but it makes carrying out a relationship to stuff based on different criteria to the mainstream a lot easier. When there are many different versions of a product, there is a better chance that one of the versions will meet the alternate criteria. In other economic systems, fewer versions might be available. For example, if there’s only one sock factory, run by the government, that makes only one type of sock, then if you are allergic to it, or don’t like it, you are out of luck. Capitalism lets people specialize to cater to niches based on demand, so you can have cute little bunny socks, and athletic socks, and trouser socks, all in a variety of colours and materials.

    Monopolies can exist in capitalist environments too. If there’s only one restaurant in town, it might not have a vegetarian option on the menu, whether it is in a capitalist society or not.

    Mass manufacturing, and the interchangeability of manufactured items, contributes to the ease of replacing things as well, and affects the range of choices available.

    In scarcity, it becomes more relevant to ask “If I get rid of this, and later I need it, can I replace it?” and “Even if I don’t need this right now, I might never get another chance to buy it, so can I imagine myself using this in the future?”

    Alternate criteria for stuff can introduce a type of scarcity, where there are very few things available in the mainstream that fit the criteria. For example, if you look for furniture made without glue or paint of any kind, (including pressboard and engineered woods that contain glue, and the epoxy paint they put on metal) your options will be a lot more limited. If you find a filing cabinet that does not contain paint, or speakers that do not contain medium density fibreboard, they seem rare.

    The type of abundance, high availability of stuff, ease of replacements, multitude of choices, and capitalist environment now commonplace in our culture is new. Less than a hundred years ago, it was not common to have too much stuff. So our culture hasn’t caught up to the problems introduced by the new context.

    I like the idea that the technology you use, the things you own, are there to serve you, and not the other way around. That seems to be a key idea to me. It’s part of how I choose to live my life. It informs my stance on moral issues, too.

    I’m not sure shocks are necessary to come to an understanding of one’s relationship to stuff. I think incremental progress is possible. Perhaps this is because I don’t necessarily see a mainstream lifestyle as a local optimum.

    I think you can tinker with one thing at a time, and you can approach things differently so that “offers immediate relief” becomes more often the point at which you purchase something. For example, if you are thinking about setting up a home gym, you could first get into a routine of, say, doing exercises while holding soup cans. When you have built up your strength to the point where you want heavier weights, or you are just tired of the awkward shape of the soup can, then buying weights from the store offers an immediate relief for your problem. Integration becomes easier because you have started the routine, which is often the hardest part.

    On the other hand, some things have long lead times, and some activities require purchasing items in order to explore them. Waiting for pain and then purchasing the immediate relief doesn’t work for everything.

    Dealing with stuff takes cognitive and physical effort, whether integrating it into your life, or figuring out it is better off out of your life. I think there’s something to be said for having a place in your home to store things that you are not ready to deal with yet. Such a place can get out of hand if there are too many things there, but not having such a place can be difficult indeed. Not having such a place puts you in service of your stuff a bit, since any new addition or subtraction demands your immediate time and attention, instead of happening at a time and place of your choosing.

  17. going through extreme stuff shock at the moment. i own, live in and have just signed a sales contract, a 4000 sf victorian house that has been in the family since 1930. i have personally lived in the house for about 45 out of the 55 years that i have been alive. what to to do with all this stuff? no one wants it, including me. call goodwill, and tell them to come and get it, i guess.

  18. speedbird says:

    The quantum of Stuff is known as the Pile.

  19. I’m still not sold on the benefits of having smart stuff in the first place. My stuff doesn’t seem like a part of my life that’s terribly useful to optimize, for the most part.

  20. Re-reading this, I joke that “whenever I move, I have more kitchen stuff than bedroom stuff”. Upon reflection, I’ve determined that what I really mean by this is that I am largely indifferent to the bed that I’m sleeping in or the books on my bookshelf or even the clothes that I’m wearing but I need for my kitchen to be mine for me to feel at home.