Stuff

I have too much stuff. Most people in America do. In fact, the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have. Hardly anyone is so poor that they can’t afford a front yard full of old cars.

It wasn’t always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable. You can still see evidence of that if you look for it. For example, in my house in Cambridge, which was built in 1876, the bedrooms don’t have closets. In those days people’s stuff fit in a chest of drawers. Even as recently as a few decades ago there was a lot less stuff. When I look back at photos from the 1970s, I’m surprised how empty houses look. As a kid I had what I thought was a huge fleet of toy cars, but they’d be dwarfed by the number of toys my nephews have. All together my Matchboxes and Corgis took up about a third of the surface of my bed. In my nephews’ rooms the bed is the only clear space.

Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven’t changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff.

That was a big problem for me when I had no money. I felt poor, and stuff seemed valuable, so almost instinctively I accumulated it. Friends would leave something behind when they moved, or I’d see something as I was walking down the street on trash night (beware of anything you find yourself describing as “perfectly good”), or I’d find something in almost new condition for a tenth its retail price at a garage sale. And pow, more stuff.

In fact these free or nearly free things weren’t bargains, because they were worth even less than they cost. Most of the stuff I accumulated was worthless, because I didn’t need it.

What I didn’t understand was that the value of some new acquisition wasn’t the difference between its retail price and what I paid for it. It was the value I derived from it. Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.

Companies that sell stuff have spent huge sums training us to think stuff is still valuable. But it would be closer to the truth to treat stuff as worthless.

In fact, worse than worthless, because once you’ve accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around. I know of one couple who couldn’t retire to the town they preferred because they couldn’t afford a place there big enough for all their stuff. Their house isn’t theirs; it’s their stuff’s.

And unless you’re extremely organized, a house full of stuff can be very depressing. A cluttered room saps one’s spirits. One reason, obviously, is that there’s less room for people in a room full of stuff. But there’s more going on than that. I think humans constantly scan their environment to build a mental model of what’s around them. And the harder a scene is to parse, the less energy you have left for conscious thoughts. A cluttered room is literally exhausting.

(This could explain why clutter doesn’t seem to bother kids as much as adults. Kids are less perceptive. They build a coarser model of their surroundings, and this consumes less energy.)

I first realized the worthlessness of stuff when I lived in Italy for a year. All I took with me was one large backpack of stuff. The rest of my stuff I left in my landlady’s attic back in the US. And you know what? All I missed were some of the books. By the end of the year I couldn’t even remember what else I had stored in that attic.

And yet when I got back I didn’t discard so much as a box of it. Throw away a perfectly good rotary telephone? I might need that one day.

The really painful thing to recall is not just that I accumulated all this useless stuff, but that I often spent money I desperately needed on stuff that I didn’t.

Why would I do that? Because the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it. The average 25 year old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that “shopping” becomes a leisure activity.

How do you protect yourself from these people? It can’t be easy. I’m a fairly skeptical person, and their tricks worked on me well into my thirties. But one thing that might work is to ask yourself, before buying something, “is this going to make my life noticeably better?”

A friend of mine cured herself of a clothes buying habit by asking herself before she bought anything “Am I going to wear this all the time?” If she couldn’t convince herself that something she was thinking of buying would become one of those few things she wore all the time, she wouldn’t buy it. I think that would work for any kind of purchase. Before you buy anything, ask yourself: will this be something I use constantly? Or is it just something nice? Or worse still, a mere bargain?

The worst stuff in this respect may be stuff you don’t use much because it’s too good. Nothing owns you like fragile stuff. For example, the “good china” so many households have, and whose defining quality is not so much that it’s fun to use, but that one must be especially careful not to break it.

Another way to resist acquiring stuff is to think of the overall cost of owning it. The purchase price is just the beginning. You’re going to have to think about that thing for years—perhaps for the rest of your life. Every thing you own takes energy away from you. Some give more than they take. Those are the only things worth having.

I’ve now stopped accumulating stuff. Except books—but books are different. Books are more like a fluid than individual objects. It’s not especially inconvenient to own several thousand books, whereas if you owned several thousand random possessions you’d be a local celebrity. But except for books, I now actively avoid stuff. If I want to spend money on some kind of treat, I’ll takeservices over goods any day.

I’m not claiming this is because I’ve achieved some kind of zenlike detachment from material things. I’m talking about something more mundane. A historical change has taken place, and I’ve now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it’s not.

In industrialized countries the same thing happened with food in the middle of the twentieth century. As food got cheaper (or we got richer; they’re indistinguishable), eating too much started to be a bigger danger than eating too little. We’ve now reached that point with stuff. For most people, rich or poor, stuff has become a burden.

The good news is, if you’re carrying a burden without knowing it, your life could be better than you realize. Imagine walking around for years with five pound ankle weights, then suddenly having them removed.

Written in July 2007 by Paul Graham

Hey Gang,

I’m looking to team up with a photo/zine/book publisher to release an upcoming body of work and two previous books. This will coincide with an exhibition in Baltimore. Any thoughts? 

The map defines what has been found; cities, roads, and seas. But it cannot define a person and the locations are never as they seem. Society ticks along like a slow dance with movements that become the person. Our reality is distorted by the environment we’re born into. Without a map, you might feel helpless and hopeless but your territory is for you to create. You must persist amongst other maps, defined by other people. And sometimes, being lost is the best way to be found.

There are 254.4 million cars in the US. The average wage for a Gas Station Attendant is $8.26 per hour.

Insecure Societies and Hermits - by Alan Watts

“They are not working class people; they are people who dropped out of college because they saw it was stupid. And they are that sort of people, some might call them beatniks. But you see the city doesn’t like it, because they aren’t owning the right sort of cars, therefore the local car salesman isn’t doing business through them. They don’t have lawns and so nobody can sell them lawnmowers. They hardly use dishwashers, appliances of that kind, they don’t need them. And also they wear blue jeans and things like that, and so the local dress shops feel a bit put out having these people around. And they live very simply. Well you must not do that; you have got to live in a complicated way. You have got to have the kind of car you know that identifies you as a person of substance and status and all that.So there’s a great problem here in our society. Now why is there this problem?There’s always a very inconsiderable minority of these non-joiners or people who check out of the game. But you will find that insecure societies are the most intolerant of those who are non-joiners. They are so unsure of the validity of their game rules that they say everyone must play. Now that’s a double-bind. You can’t say to a person you must play because what you’re saying is – you are required todo something which will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily.So everyone must play is the rule in the United States. And it’s the rule in almost allRepublican governments; I mean republican in the sense of democratic. They are very uneasy because everybody’s responsible. You may try not to be and avoid it,and say oh let the senators take care of it or the president. But theoretically everyone is responsible; now that’s terrifying. See its more like when you know what’s right, there is an aristocracy, the clergy, and they know what’s to be done and they are used to ruling. But now it’s in your hands, and you say well what are we going to do? Well I think this way and he thinks that way, and so we’re all unsettled. And therefore we become more and more conformist. Individualism,rugged individualism always leads to conformism, because people get scared. And so they herd together, then compound it with industrial society – mass production,etc. They all wear the same clothes, and they are sensible clothes that don’t show the dirt too much and we get dollar and drabber. 

So the reason for this in a way is because Democracy as we have tried it - started out on the wrong foot. You see in the scripture, the Christian scriptures, it says everybody is equal in the sight of god. Now that’s a mystical utterance. That means that from the standpoint of God, all people are divine, and are playing their true function. And that is something that is true on a certain plane of consciousness. But come down a step and try to apply the mystical insight in the practical affairs of everyday life and what do you get. You get a parody of mysticism. You get the idea not that everybody is equal in the sight of god, but that all people are equally inferior. That’s why all bureaucracies are rude; why the police are rude, and why you are made to wait in lines, and all that sort of person. Because everybody’s a crook, everybody’s equally inferior; you see that becomes the parody of democracy.And that kind of society – watch out for it. It turns in a quick click into fascism, because of its terror of the outsider. Now a free and easy society loves outsiders. In fact it’s a little bad for the outsiders’ integrity, because he becomes holy man. And people make Salaams and give him food and they really take care of the outsider. Because they know that man is doing for us what we haven’t got the guts to do. That outside that lives up in the mountains up at the highest peak of human evolution. His consciousness is one with the divine. And great just that there is someone like that around; makes you feel a little better. He has realized, he knows what it’s all about. And so we need a number of those people. Even though they don’t join our game they tell us, you see, what you’re doing is only a game. It’s ok I’m not going to condemn you, it’s only a game and we up on that mountaintop are watching you, we love you, we have compassion for you – but excuse please we aren’t going to join. So that gives community great strength, because it tells the government in no uncertain terms,that there is something more than government.

Bumper Sticker by Tim Lahan