The Things You Carry

The title story in The Things they Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic collection of loosely related short stories about a group of Vietnam-era American soldiers, is one of my favorite pieces of fiction. Here’s a taste:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives,  heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

While the story is well worth reading for its own sake, what has stuck in my mind since I first read it is the idea that the things we carry reveal a great deal about us. Oddly enough, this has become more true as more of the things we carry get eaten by smartphone apps. The things you carry, both on and off your phone, now say a lot more about you. Because they are mostly not determined by necessity; they are determined by possibilities.

***

Taking an inventory of the things you have carried through your life so far is a very good way to introspect systematically. A significant change in the things you carry is a very reliable indicator of a new chapter beginning. If you actually go through the exercise, you’ll probably end up, as I did, with a list of distinct sets  of items for every few years of your life. At 40, I seem to have lived a 7-8 chapter life, going by the things I’ve carried.

The things you carry are things through which you have worn out cowpaths through repeated use, whether or not you’ve paved them. They are also things that have worn cowpaths in your brain.

The idea of “cowpaths of my life” helps us narrow down the list of things that qualify for the “things carried” inventory, but you need more than frequent, habituated use for an item to qualify. For instance, I often carry an umbrella because it rains frequently in Seattle, but while I have my routines around umbrella use, they say more about Seattle, water and umbrellas than about me.

***

In terms of significance as an identity indicator, an umbrella is not a “thing I carry” the way it is for the sorts of people who carry big, non-folding ones as disguised walking-sticks. When I forget my umbrella, I don’t get that niggling sense of incompleteness that comes from forgetting my phone or keys. If it happens to rain, I just feel a bit annoyed.

My current inventory is: phone, keys, wallet, coffee mug, laptop backpack with either a notebook or a clipboard and plenty of ballpoint pens. I sometimes have as many as a dozen ballpoint pens in my backpack.

All of these are commonplace things to carry. Psychologically significant parts of the extended human phenotype, but not unique to me. I polled friends on Facebook about unique things they carry and their responses made me realize I am a rather boring person from a things-carried perspective.

I think the only unique thing about me is the number of ballpoint pens I carry. I have dozens of pens all over the place: at home, at my desk at work, and in my backpack. Back when my wife and I had a car each, I had a bunch of pens in my car as well. This has been a constant with me for over a decade, when I first got sick of often not having a pen on me when I needed one. I decided that since they were so cheap, I’d just litter my life with them. I buy them by the box when I start to run low, and also steal them regularly from hotels and conferences (no fancy, heavy ones though, or ones with special nibs: only cheap bics and papermates; I really dislike fancy pens because I find I can’t write or sketch as fast with them).

My post-scarcity attitude towards pens says something about me because I’m generally not abundance-minded. I don’t like waste and I also resent every minute I have to devote to the maintenance and upkeep of surplus crap I don’t use regularly. Cheap pens though, need no maintenance, and don’t cause much trouble just laying around everywhere.

***

Commonplace things can become unique things if you own unique versions. Everybody carries a wallet, but if yours is specially manufactured to block RFID scanners, that’s a thing-you-carry rather than a thing-we-carry. A lot of people carry a pen; not many carry a dozen.

Apparent commodities turn into unique things carried once you attach a story to them. To the economist or CEO, a thing is a commodity to the extent competition in its market is driven by cost. But to the user, a thing is a commodity if there is nothing special about how you own it, and you feel nothing when the time comes to replace it.

That’s an odd phrase, how you own it. It encompasses more than how you use it. 

Take my backpack for instance.

To start with, it isn’t even mine. It is a hand-me-down from my wife, and she bought it in 2002 when laptops were the size of small trucks, making it 13 years old. She likes to stay on the edge of the new, so I inherited hers when she upgraded to a better, newer one in 2005. It has played host to 4 laptops. It is a large, sturdy, cheap made-for-students backpack. It is also extraordinarily ugly by today’s fashion sensibilities.

I have resisted the allure of newer backpacks and more adult messenger bags not because I have some fondness for old things, but because I don’t like discarding things that basically work fine. I feel no particular attraction to better and newer things unless they are better in ways that actually interest me.

2015 might be the year I finally get rid of it, because I might finally buy a very light laptop, and that would be pointless if I had a heavy bag for it.

***

There are at least 13 ways to own a backpack:

  1. Own it like a satisficer, while it does the job <–  me
  2. Own it like you’re acting dead, made of recycled materials, and recyclable, and use till tattered
  3. Own it while it feels new, until something newer and nicer catches your eye
  4. Own it like a geek, with OCD attention to materials and construction; inhabit backpack forums
  5. Own it optimally, with great attention to how efficiently it holds the things you might carry
  6. Own it fashionably, with a view to the tribal affiliations it can signal
  7. Own it like a 1%er, paying as much as you can, for the most prestigious kind you can get
  8. Own it as an extension of your social identity, as hipsters sporting 1970s canvas backpacks do
  9. Don’t own one, pointedly choosing a messenger bag or briefcase instead
  10. Own it thoughtlessly and obliviously, so it becomes a source of serious friction in your life
  11. Own it spiritually and mindfully, being all wabi-sabi about it
  12. Own it like an heirloom, with a provenance worth knowing and a story worth telling
  13. Own it like a behaviorist, with an eye on packing/unpacking rituals and airline carry-on rules

We aren’t even into how you use your backpack, the things you put it, whether you carry it slung over one shoulder or both, and so on.

***

Here is a checklist for a things-carried list that are significant for introspection:

  1. It must be a near-constant companion for a period in your life.
  2. It must be tangible, not something like an idea or tune.
  3. It must wear out a cowpath in your life and mind.
  4. You must feel slightly incomplete if you forget it.
  5. If commonplace, you must own it in a somewhat unique way.

Of the things you carry, the ones that others around you carry as well reveal a lot about shared lifestyles and folkways. The ones unique to you reveal a lot about you.

***

In 2000, I dented the fender of my first new car, a month into owning it, in a totally avoidable and unnecessary parking-lot argument with some concrete.

Though the damage was minor, this annoyed me a good deal. I concluded that one reason for the accident was that I hadn’t formed a sufficiently emotional attachment to the car. I have always found it hard to be sentimental about things, but I figured it would be worth trying to learn some sentimentality if it could save me money. Since the car was (and remains) the most expensive thing I’d ever owned, and with high insurance premiums at stake, I figured learned sentimentality would lower TCO (total cost of ownership).

I know, I’m a horrible person.

Anyhow, I stuck a little Buddha fetish (which I’d bought for a few bucks in San Francisco a couple of years earlier) onto the dashboard with a sticky poster square. My theory was that a small fetish object would provide the right sort of cue for me to relate to the car emotionally. It worked, sort of. I think I kept the car a little cleaner because of that Buddha, and paid more attention while driving instead of being lost in random thoughts.

For years, that Buddha was a thing-I-carried (or thing-I-drove-around, rather). At some point, the poster square dried out and the Buddha started falling off repeatedly. I got tired of sticking it back on, and it made its way into the glove compartment and stayed there. Thus ended my great experiment with sentimental carrying-of-things.

I have to admit I have entirely failed to become a sentimental owner of things, carried or not. I still use my little trick of attaching fetish-cues to things I want to be more mindful of, but it’s a case of hacking sentimentality for utility rather than being truly capable of sentimental attachments. If I found a beautiful family heirloom, I’d take it straight to the antiques roadshow and find out what it was worth.

My experiments with sentimentality though, opened me up to a whole world of spectatorship, as I began to observe and understand people who do naturally relate to the things they carry in deeply sentimental ways.

Such people are often awful but occasionally interesting. I have concluded, after careful consideration, that they do not belong to the same species I do.

***

Sentimentality in ownership, as far as I can tell, has three components that find behavioral expression in the way things are carried: emotions of belongingness, emotions of individuality, and sensual pleasure.

What’s common to all three components is that they usually drive up the price of commodity things-carried into luxury regimes.

Take Moleskine notebooks for example. At about $18 apiece, that’s about $17 worth of luxury relative to a cheap commodity notebook that will do just as well unless you’re an artist or calligrapher.

How does that $17 break down? I think it’s about $8 worth of feeling a continuous sense of belongingness, about $5 worth of individual emotional memories (“oh look, the beautiful koan I wrote while traveling in Egypt in 2005, I was so idealistic back then!”), and about $4 worth of sensual pleasure (“just feel that paper!”).

I bought a Moleskine just to try it out. It left me cold. I prefer my cheapie $1 notebooks or scrap paper. A friend told me I was doing it wrong (as in, owning it wrong). The trick, he claimed, is to treat the Moleskine with the same casual irreverence as scrap paper. This is apparently a popular way-of-owning a Moleskine in what appears to be an entire subculture built around ways-to-own Moleskines. There’s even a community site hosted by the company.

My Moleskine came with a little philosophy guide in a back-cover insert explaining how to be sentimental about owning one. The thing reminded me of the famous pet rock booklet. Reading it, I found myself wondering whether Moleskine owners smile meaningfully and significantly at each other in coffee shops and become friends.

The $17 worth of sentiment support is completely lost on me and does nothing for my ideas and thinking. I don’t have a way of owning a Moleskine worth a $17 premium.

***

Speaking of notebooks, we carry notebooks because we want to carry our ideas around in tangible form. My ideas have lived with me in several forms over the years:

  1. In school, I used to write in diaries (though I didn’t keep a diary, except for a few experimental months which led to conclude that I had nothing interesting to say to Dear Diary). I also used to get a lot of old blueprints from my father’s office, cut them up into A4-sized pieces, and write or draw on the back. I carried around a folder of these blueprints. I didn’t like using actual notebooks for notes because I fundamentally have the personality of a dumpster diving scavenger.
  2. Throughout much of my decade-and-some years in various universities, I used to carry my ideas around in the form of hand-written notes on the backs of one-sided printouts, filed in 3-ring binders.
  3. Starting maybe in 2006, my primary idea-transport tool has been a clipboard with a sheaf of one-sided printouts for scratch thinking. More recently, I’ve started augmenting the clipboard with a spiral-bound notebook for notes I actually want to preserve longer than a week.
  4. Starting maybe in 2018, I think I will be using a tablet with a stylus and good app. Hopefully they’ll have become as good as paper by then.

***

There are also things we carry where sentiment is the main purpose, rather than an aspect that shapes a utilitarian carrying experience. The two big categories are religious doodads and photographs.

I carry none of the former, and the latter only as a consequence of having my phone with me.

There are those to whom the photo album on the phone has become a supercharged descendant of the wallet photograph of family. I have never carried a wallet photograph of anybody, and rarely look at old photographs on my phone. But I’ve met people who seem to constantly pore over old photographs and like showing other people pictures of their family vacation on their phones. It’s the new death-by-vacation-slideshow, except without snacks, and on a much smaller screen awkwardly held under your nose.

Kidding aside, it’s not that I don’t relate at all to friends and family. It’s just that I don’t relate to them through things-I-carry, be they photographs or other physical reminders like locks of hair (I’ve always found that sort of thing creepy).

This whole idea of relating to people through things and to things as though they were people, is at the heart of the sentimental carrying-of-things. I find the practice rather curious. It seems to be an attempt to blend Martin Buber’s I-It and I-Thou modes into one unified, anthropomorphic mode of relating to the whole universe. There’s probably a version of Bruno Latour’s material-semiotic actor-network theory of science and technology that could be constructed for people and the things-they-carry-sentimentally.

Like I said, different species. Homo Sapiens Sentimentalis as opposed to Homo Sapiens Utilitarianis.

***

We carry things like notebooks to carry our own ideas around with us. To carry the ideas of others, we carry books and music (both on phones these days).

I carry a Kindle when I know I am going to sit around and read. Impromptu reading sessions happen on the Kindle app on my phone. I have a modest digitized music collection on my phone, but almost never listen to it. Other people have more interesting books-and-audio things-carried personalities. Nassim Taleb apparently lugs around a suitcase full of dead-tree books everywhere. A friend of mine carries a large gym bag with a few dozen books that he refers to as “essentials”. My limit for paper books is one. Maybe two. I like light loads more than I like having more reading choices. Fortunately, the Kindle means I don’t have to choose one or the other.

Audio is interesting. I don’t really know when and why I stopped listening to music regularly, but I think it’s because I like listening to the actual environment more.

Unless they are musicians for whom listening to a lot of music is part of their work, I am deeply suspicious of people who need a constant background of music to function. And I don’t mean here the headphones-as-social-defenses use-case. I mean people who actually like to have musical accompaniment for everything they do. It seems to me the cognitive equivalent of carrying a bag of candy with you at all times, and eating a piece every few seconds.

People who actually have a “theme song” I don’t trust at all. Some of you might recall the godawful Ally McBeal character from the eponymous 90s show; she had one. An episode of Seinfeld satirized the idea.

The presence of a theme song among the things you carry is the most reliable sign that you are narrativizing your life in the most self-indulgent and narcissistic way possible.

I may have just made some enemies.

***

Books and music are one way we carry others’ ideas around with us. Less obviously, we carry physical aids-to-seeing (or more generally, aids-to-sensing) and maps.

Aids-to-seeing like binoculars subtly embody other people’s ideas about what is worth looking at. For a while, I was carrying binoculars on all my walks. My pair embodies the following strong opinions in its design:

  1. Things-worth-seeing might be encountered anytime, anywhere, so binoculars must be light
  2. Things-worth-seeing might be outdoors, so binoculars must be waterproof
  3. Nearer things are more worth seeing, in richer 3d, so binoculars are better than monoculars
  4. A steady view beats detail, so about 8x is enough magnification
  5. Things worth seeing are best seen “right way up” rather than upside down
  6. Things worth seeing are worth seeing face-on, so refractor optics are better than reflector optics

I  used to own a 3.5″ Newtonian in high school that embodied none of those opinions. It came with (iirc) a basic 40x lens and 2x and 3x Barlow lenses. You looked at things upside down and ninety degrees off your physical line of sight. It was sometimes a Thing I Lugged to astronomy campouts at school, and often out to our backyard.  I also used it on a couple of camping trips to look at terrestrial phenomena like upside-down trees.

Sherlock Holmes in the classic movies and shows carried a large, traditional magnifying glass. The Benedict Cumberbatch interpretation carries around a credit-card sized one.

***

More obviously, maps also embody other people’s ideas about how to look at reality.

I have had a map fetish for as long as I can remember. As a kid I had National Geographic maps of the world’s oceans on my walls.  Not quite things I carried, but close, since I spent a lot of time cooped up reading in my room. The maps provided a weird, negative-space context for a lot of the reading I was doing at the time, all of which had to do with things that happened on land rather than sea.

As a teenager, I used to carry around a very well-thumbed pocket star atlas. I’d step outdoors at odd hours with or without my telescope. I made and carried other maps too. I had a big fat notebook with detailed notes from a world history book, and another with drawings and specs of fighter aircraft I’d laboriously traced out from war comic books. Later in my airplane obsessed years, I acquired an encyclopedia of combat aircraft, but by then I had gotten good at drawing a lot of airplane silhouettes from memory. I am still good at recognizing them.

Maps of any sort, geographic, temporal or ontological, illustrate the cowpaths-of-mind principle particularly well. If you carry a map around and refer to it frequently for years, the map gets burned into your mind, until it becomes an efficiently organized in-memory database. One effect of this is that associational, System 1 thinking in the domain covered by the map becomes very, very efficient, especially if you also have a natural comfort with metaphor. This is valuable because it allows you to perform very well in real-time conversations in that domain.

Over the years, I’ve made carried around dozens of different maps, and burned them into my brain. Sometimes I like to pretend I am like a London taxicab driver of certain domains of knowledge.

The more in-memory maps you have, the better you get at conversational sparring. It’s a nonlinear scaling effect, since you can quickly spot connections across disparate maps within the space of a conversational pause. You can strongly stress the thinking of a person with fewer maps in their head. It’s like being capable of a conversational full-court press. When I meet somebody with as many maps in their head as me, it makes for a serious conversational workout.

My in-memory maps (especially maps of business ideas and theories) are one reason I make a significant fraction of my income through conversational sparring. I can get from to faster than most people, even when they know what’s inside the buildings at or a lot better than I do.

There is a general principle here that contradicts the naive idea “why remember things when you can just google them?” Because remembering is faster. And because it’s not an either-or.

Things you carry change your brain, and the change is not as simple as a function atrophying through simple outsourcing. The cowpaths a thing-carried wears out in your brain are a mix of amplified and atrophied capabilities. Sometimes you might actually amplify a capability by outsourcing it to a thing-carried, through a sort of Jevon’s paradox effect.

***

When you put together a map and an aid-to-seeing in a single thing-carried, you get an app. Or at least one major category of apps. Astronomy apps for example, overlay annotated star charts on live views of the sky. I expect when binoculars and telescopes are fully eaten by software, they’ll sport such apps too, if they don’t already.

I recently got a copy of The Container Guide by Tim Hwang and Craig Cannon, via Kickstarter. I haven’t yet carried it around though. The physical copy is nice to thumb through, but the .epub is more useful as a field companion to container spotting.

But really, it needs to be an App I Carry. One that can retrieve the description of a shipping corporation if I take a picture of a container with my phone.

There are many things-carried that really should be apps of this sort, which combine tools-for-seeing with maps-of-things-to-see. Birdwatching field guides, travel guides, product catalogs, foreign language phrasebooks and so forth. And of course maps of physical geography.

Any such app will, with constant use, wear cowpaths in your mind that help you think differently even when you don’t have the app on you. Once we all start wearing AR glasses regularly, our memories might get significantly more visual than verbal. You might remember the capitals of states not as a list of pairs organized in the verbal part of your brain, but a remembered view in the visual part of your brain.

The Apps You Carry are cognitive prosthetics of course, but they are also carving out a particular kind of mind-palace in your head that shapes your thinking at all times.

***

The Apps You Carry, specifically the most-used ones, say a lot more about you than the simpler physical things you carry. I barely touch the iTunes app, often take photographs of random things around me, and check Facebook, Twitter and email frequently. I only use the more yuppie-urban-life sorts of apps (Uber, Yelp, movie timings) occasionally. So the Apps I Carry reveal a lifestyle involving a lot of waterfront walks with virtual friends.

Apps You Carry problematize traditional meditative ideas of being present versus being absent and create headaches for monks who think there is a clean line between the two.

I was very amused to read an article recently about how monasteries in Thailand have been forced to allow initiates to have phones, as a stop-loss measure. It reminded me of similar news a couple of decades back about young monks being hooked on soccer games on TV.

The Apps You Carry establish a very specific pattern of connection and disconnection from your environment. Music disconnects you from the sounds of the present and connects you to the sounds of a cultural context distant in space and/or time. Leaving push notifications for Twitter and chat on weakens your connection to the people around and strengthens your connection to distant people.

But on the other hand, an astronomy or bird watching app amplifies your connection to the immediate environment. So do Yelp and search and automated translation.

The problem isn’t just fallacious understandings of presence/absence based on digital dualism. The problem is denial of our nature as technologically extended creatures.

***

The things you carry are your improvised toolkit for constructing a virtual reality around yourself, an escaped reality. This fact is not as obvious, but just as true, for pre-digital contexts.

Shoes disconnect you from the feel of the gravel you are walking on. Carrying a utility knife (whether or not you know how to use it) amplifies your independent survival tendencies and speaks to a weakened connection to, and trust in, the society around you. Somebody who carries a concealed gun at all times inhabits a more Hobbesian escaped reality of their own construction than somebody who does not.

This sort of thing is particularly obvious with kids. When I was a kid, for a while I carried a length of rope wound around my waist, under my shirt, and a pocket knife (rare among Indian kids). That was inspired by young adult adventure fiction. I also formed a “detective club” with a couple of friends. We solved no mysteries, but had a lot of fun being mysterious and meeting in secret places and writing messages in code to each other.

For a while, I was inhabiting an escaped reality full of crimes requiring detection and with dangers that required ropes and knives to face at every turn. Being a kid, of course  I was smart enough to realize I was just pretending. Many lose those smarts when they grow up and become blind to the self-constructed and virtual nature of the realities they inhabit.

For many adults, the things they carry are markers of a continuous, low-level psychotic break about an imagined escaped reality they inhabit.

This is not an effective way to manage the things you carry. The sign that you are doing this is a state of constant slight bewilderment, with occasional reality breaks when a sense of the surreal briefly overcomes you, and you ask yourself, “why the hell am I prepared for jungle warfare in the middle of an office, writing up TPS reports?”

I’d like to rewatch The Office, and take an inventory of the Things Carried by Dwight.

I knew a guy in college who traveled with a pair of nunchucks everywhere he went. Not to get in regular practice. He just thought it was a good idea. Apparently he was under the impression that we were in medieval China rather than twentieth-century Mumbai.

When you think about it, the fallacy we call digital dualism is actually just a narrow, specialized version of what you might call tool dualism.  Tool dualism is the fallacious idea that the world highlighted and constructed by the things you carry and the world of your immediate natural environment are somehow disconnected spaces.

The apparently profound distinction between being present in the moment and occupied elsewhere, so beloved of spiritual types, is a kind of deep bullshit based on tool dualism. The difference between here-and-now and there-and-then is a somewhat arbitrary function of the things you carry. Look through binoculars and you’re 10 light years away in space and time. Get lost in thoughts about a fight at work and you’re “elsewhere” but read an email from work on your phone and you’re present here and now. Wear a suit and tie at a business meeting and you’re present. Wear a monk’s hairshirt and habit at a kegger, and you’re not.

The best you can do is perversely and arbitrarily argue that the feel of wind on your naked skin is somehow better than the feel of gravel edited by your shoes, because apparently the shoes themselves are featureless intermediaries between objective and subjective realities. That what you can see with the naked eye is somehow better than what you can see with binoculars. That an idea you retrieve and examine from the depths of your own memory is irreconcilably different from one evoked by words or pictures on a physical glass surface a few inches from your nose.

There is a real distinction to be made. This distinction is whether you are carrying things psychotically or mindfully. A barefoot survivalist wearing only briefs, and carrying only a utility knife in the middle of Manhattan, is far less present in the situation than the most phone-obsessed geek checking Twitter updates while bumping into lamp posts.

You can tell them apart because the more psychotic person makes a more perverse and arbitrary argument aimed at partitioning his/her presence in the universe into a here and not-here.

There are two kinds of people: those who psychotically divide the world into here and not-here, and those who don’t. This is of course, just as arbitrary a distinction. I contend, however, that it is a more useful one.

***

To drop the here/not-here distinction born of tool dualism, and shift to the psychotic/mindful dualism that is actually useful, you have to really grok the McLuhan idea that all media are extensions of some human faculty.

Your technologically extended phenotype is always present wherever you are. There is no other way for you to be. Unless you make a special, psychotic effort to create two worlds, there is only one world to inhabit. The things you carry determine how you’re extending yourself in order to curate your presence.

Wherever in the world you go, there you are. Everything else is just a million little acts of continuous editing and highlighting, achieved by carrying things.

 

App-by-app, shoe by shoe, you edit and curate how you are connected to or disconnected from different parts of the universe.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Oh, you changed your text during the writing process. I was coming from the RSS version and wondered how this sentence ended:

    “A pocket-sized star map and a constellation-identifying app on your phone both do the same thing: the artfully rearrange the”

  2. dazhuang2 says:

    @Venkat:
    I’d have to agree with your quote:
    “People who actually have a “theme song” I don’t trust at all. Some of you might recall the godawful Ally McBeal character from the eponymous 90s show; she had one. An episode of Seinfeld satirized the idea.”
    because theme songs indicate the person with said song is really trying hard to be over-emotional and fulfill an unchanging platonic role that the lyrics and genre of said song demand. Because of these two charectaristics, I personally consider individuals with theme songs to be bound up in their little delusional story of how “I am special and have a God-given mission to fulfill”. Get real: there is no big you-centered story and there are no predefined roles.

    I’d also have to agree with this excellent quote of yours:
    “You can tell them apart because the more psychotic person makes a more perverse and arbitrary argument aimed at partitioning his/her presence in the universe into a here and not-here.

    There are two kinds of people: those who psychotically divide the world into here and not-here, and those who don’t. This is of course, just as arbitrary a distinction. I contend, however, that it is a more useful one.”
    This psychosis, I’ve observed, is the root behind my parents’ nagging to get off the internet and observe the “real world”, as if it were some kind of entity separate from the real world. They just don’t understand that technology is just an extension of human faculties, albeit amplified through electric means.

    • Haha, yes that’s a common one these days. It’s the whole, “in my time we didn’t ____” pattern of reasoning about the situation of people in a younger generation.

      Douglas Adams laws:

      1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

      2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

      3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

      • Rule 1 is the basis for the Beloit Mindset List every September. Any child born since 2007 has always known flat rectangles with glass screens that contained secrets and games and all manner of stuff.

    • Speaking of Seinfeld, such arguments about “the real world” remind me of a scene from The Pen.

      HELEN: You’re going underwater?

      JERRY: Yes. Generally that’s where scuba diving is done.

      HELEN: What do you have to go underwater for? What’s down there that’s so special?

      JERRY: What’s so special up here?

      http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/ThePen.html

  3. There’s a strange paradox here if we juxtapose these two excerpts:

    “For a while, I was inhabiting an escaped reality full of crimes requiring detection and with dangers that required ropes and knives to face at every turn. Being a kid, of course I was smart enough to realize I was just pretending. Many lose those smarts when they grow up and become blind to the self-constructed and virtual nature of the realities they inhabit.”

    “Your technologically extended phenotype is always present wherever you are. There is no other way for you to be. Unless you make a special, psychotic effort to create two worlds, there is only one world to inhabit. The things you carry determine how you’re extending yourself in order to curate your presence.”

    That is to say, if we’re challenging the distinction between “here” and “not here”, don’t we have to by extension attack real vs. make-believe?

    • Yes, I think we do. When a kid imagines dangerous criminals all around and skulks around with a pocket knife, the make-believe element is clear and understood (Homo Ludens). You can pop between the two easily if you keep in mind the clearly make-believe oriented subset of things you carry.

      But if the things you carry actually represent the set of likely contingencies you may have to deal with, there is no issue. Your extend self is aligned to the real world. There is no make-believe aspect as such.

      The key is to distinguish between a make-believe world and a possible world in terms of probabilities. Say I carry an umbrella because there’s a 15% chance of rain say and the carrying cost matches the disutility of getting wet. The carrying is appropriate to the contingency.

      But consider heavily militarized police in places like Ferguson, in military gear and camo etc. They’re living in a make-believe world of threat. Clear example would be wearing camouflage while policing. The point of a police uniform is to stand out clearly and serve as a deterrent to peace-breaking by presence. The point of military camo is to blend in and ready to fight rather than keep the peace.

  4. Spencer Peters says:

    Hello Venkat!

    I agree with you that here-now vs. there-then categorization functions are fundamentally arbitrary. However, I vividly feel the distinction between present in the moment and occupied elsewhere, as a reduction in mental clutter and a sense of cognitive ease. To me, the present/elsewhere distinction has less to do with a connection to the immediate physical environment than with the multiplicity and scope of the finite games involved. If I read an email from work mindfully and attentively, I am present—but if I worry about a fight from work while half-assedly participating in a family context, I am elsewhere. Likewise, if I try to learn physics while preoccupied with test-taking strategy, I am elsewhere (you can take either finite game as “here”, “elsewhere” refers to fragmentation rather than a specific displacement).

    Participating in a finite game of sufficient scope is the same thing as participating in multiple finite games, since when participating in a broad finite game attention gets fragmented across multiple contexts relating to the same master plan. To be present while involved in such a game, you need to consciously break the larger game into sub-games and take them one at a time. The infinite player, flitting from tightly scoped finite game to tightly scoped finite game, has no problem being present.

    I think the misconstrual with connection to the immediate physical environment comes from the tight scoping of games played in that environment. Yoga is a classic example, scoped spatially to the yogi’s body and temporally to the space of a single breath. Of course, the same tight scoping can be achieved by an earbuds-in gamer completely removed from his physical environment, hence fallacy.

    Model on,

    Spencer Peters

  5. No matter how you argue, smartphones make beautiful woman look like idiots with a tick. This is not true for wearing small earbuds which makes them just look indifferent, which is generally a good look. The intake of soft musical mood modulating drugs, which separates someone from the environment is not problematic aesthetically, unless the music leaks out but the exposure of frequent context switches and cheap social/emotional/cognitive labor is. Suddenly everyone has become a relationship-worker everywhere and anytime, bound to their utility in the net-work, acting in tiny work packages. Now we can add a chapter about the shape of the private life of the organization man in the hive.

    Walking, sitting in a café and reading a newspaper, turning the pages of a book, swimming, having smalltalk with some arbitrary strangers … are all figures of leisure. There are no “tools” involved or at least as little as possible. No work, no context switches, no factories, no networks. The “presentist” ideology seems to support its minimalism and complements it – but why is it needed? Boredom is lurking and a real challenge. Presentism promises that you can keep the minimalism of leisure but not being bored, just by opening the senses and relate to the material reality around you. Now this seemingly isn’t easy but instead of turning it into an exercise once again, one can also recommend some drug intake. This is an unusual thing to do in our neo-puritan culture but since it is very widely practiced and beer is everywhere around here in Bavaria, it should be mentioned.

    The things-you-carry are abstraction leaks, breaches from the purity of actively doing nothing. The extensions-of-man are all contingent. A usual response to contingency is to charge it with meaning, turning it into necessary personal stuff and then discover much later that it wasn’t necessary after all, when other contingent stuff replaces it with ease.

    • Hmm. I think you’re succumbing to Veblen pastoralism. You’re always carrying something. You’re never truly naked in a Garden of Eden with no human-made artifacts around you causing those leaks, even if you didn’t personally carry them into the environment. Also, the naked body is not a hard boundary. Depending on quality of senses, health etc., the experience of carrying eyes, nose etc. around differs wildly. Cf: synesthesia etc.

      • I would say we never fully left the Garden of Eden and only a vicious voice over once told us that it has been lost completely and we’ll only ever return at the end of times if we pass a religious judge with a lamb, who is sitting on a psychedelic throne. If a transcendental world isn’t necessary, a transcendental class may not be either and what we project into it, can be kept by ourselves without too much mystification. This view on Eden has some advantages. We can disband from the tedious progressive/reactionary axis and the pathos with which history is charged. We better interleave longer phases of work with those of leisure ( “sabbaticals” ), instead of postponing the latter to the end of our life. I’d consider myself as a member of the part-time leisure class.

        Of course I agree that we never go weightless but I sense this craftsmen morale which permanently seeks to apply tools and ever more tools can be kept lean, when perceived from leisure. At work I build tools / algorithms myself for doing my work and most of the times this meta-work is the unregulated aspect of it, something I reject to be micro-managed about. There are both sides.

  6. I loved this essay. There is something about knowing the things a person carries regularly that exerts the strongest voyeuristic pull on me. I recently discovered the blog Every Day Carry; and, despite the fact that it is a thinly veiled marketing tool, the regular feature of what a person carries fascinates me. On the one hand, there is a commonality of perhaps ten items. On the other, the infinite variety of knives or watches or wallets; and the reasons advanced why one is better than another.

    I have carried a pocket knife almost every day of my life since I was six or seven years old (so for 46 years). The fact that I had it through most of my elementary school days shocks people today, since in California the mere possession on a school campus is a crime. And I have to remember to leave it in my desk when I go the court a few times each week for work. Flying has become a real disappointment because I rarely check a bag; so must leave what I consider an essential tool (as much for the corkscrew as for the blade) behind. On long vacations, like my trip to the Scandinavian countries two years ago, I buy a cheap throw-away to fill the vacuum.

    On the other end of the spectrum from practical necessity, I carry a set of rosary beads. I rarely pray them anymore, but they are a physical manifestation of my faith tradition. They are more than a talisman, though. I’d like to believe that if I were unconscious, someone would recognize them; realize I’m Catholic; and summon a priest if I were in danger of dying. Just the idea is comforting.

    WRT the Moleskine notebook. I bought one, then felt it was too beautiful to sully with my scribbling. The first ten pages are so have my hesitant efforts, then emptiness signals that I’ve returned to using cheap, spiral-bound notebooks or even the blank side of used 81/2 x 11 paper folded into eighths.

    When you get to apps, I realize I am more like Taleb. I haul around paper books, too. I have a very ambivalent attitude toward my smartphone. It is nice to have Google immediately at hand, but I waste 4GB of data each month on a lot of silly YouTube stuff as a distraction from whatever isn’t entertaining enough in meat space.

    P.S. Hotel conventions are a great source for stocking up on cheap pens. When I worked for a non-profit that did training seminars, I probably had a hundred or so scattered in my house and residing in my brief case. They work until they don’t, and I have no regrets about tossing them.

    • Ah, another connoisseur of fine stolen pens from hotels and conferences :D

      Yeah, a knife is a great thing to carry. It’s a pity modern environments only allow for the digital knife that’s the phone.

      Rosary beads are interesting. I wouldn’t classify them as a purely religious artifact that is all significance no utility. I can see that they can be a practical aid to meditative prayer etc.

  7. Only tourists and other visitors carry umbrellas in our fair city. If it rains hard enough to need one, it’s so windy you’ll never get any use out of it…