Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Brief Meditation on Stuff

William Gibson's most recent book, “Zero History” is, among other things, a meditation on Stuff. The stuff we make, the stuff we buy, and where that stuff comes from.
There are other elements to the story, of course, but the central MacGuffin is an underground brand of clothes, based on early-Twentieth-Century workwear, called Gabriel Hound. The Hounds are sturdy, functional, and posses an aesthetic appeal that transcends the ephemera of fashion, and as a result are highly sought after by those in the know. They're contrasted with the lower-quality offerings of modern fashion, which offer neither the durability or lasting appeal of the smaller brand. 

There are other contrasts in the book, as well, between oddball open-source smartphones and the blandly ubiquitous iPhone, as well as between a working rock band and purely manufactured pop stars

There have also been some recent articles about a guy who advocates extreme minimalism. He gets by quite comfortably owning only 15-20 things, including clothing (one would assume frequent laundry days). Obviously not everyone can take things to that extreme, or would even want to, but it does raise the question of how much of the clutter most of us first world types is really necessary at all and how much is useless, or worse, a burden.

Now, a Life Without Stuff doesn't sound like too much fun, unless you're one of those ascetic philosopher types, in which case you can get by with maybe a blanket or a ticket to someplace with lax vagrancy laws. But a life with too much stuff means at some point you end up spending a lot of your time and money simply on acquiring, maintaining and storing your stuff, so that at some point your stuff ends up owning you. This can, of course, be circumvented by being extremely wealthy and having other people take care of your stuff, but that's not always an option.

So somewhere between “I need some stuff” and “I'm drowning in stuff” there's a happy medium where you can say, “I've got the stuff I need.” In this case it would make sense to make sure the stuff you do is have is good stuff, quality goods that serve their purpose and will hold up to repeated use. Unfortunately, this kind of stuff is hard to find in this mass-market day and age, and even high price doesn't necessarily bring with it high durability.

So let's first set out some guidelines for what constitutes good stuff, and maybe in the future we'll be able to identify things that are worth hanging on to.

It is well made out of durable materials
It performs a useful function
It doesn't become quickly obsolete or out of fashion
It can be modified or personalized to suit the owner's specific needs
It is no more complicated than absolutely necessary

Of course, there's a certain “I know it when I see it” element to quality as well, but these guidelines should be a good start.