Thursday, February 22, 2018

Against Decluttering

I picked up a cutting from the Architect's Data File, and it was all about decluttering and de-materialization and microhomes/tiny homes. It was linked to some material about building regulations and minimum space standards, and to the ideas of 'futurist and author' James Wallman, responsible for the book and blog 'Stuffocation'.

Normally I'm a sucker for this sort of thing. I've said more than once that we go on holiday to get away from our own stuff, because so much of it nags us to do something - fix it, put it away, do the thing that it represents, remember that we bought it in order to take up a new activity that we haven't got round get the picture. As a Green I know that our lives are full of shit that we don't really need, or even want, or have space for, that cost resources to make and will leave toxic traces behind when we eventually dispose of them. I watched the original 'Story of Stuff' film.

But now I'm thinking about the flip side to all this. If capitalism wants to sell us stuff (whether we need it or not) why is it paying consultancy fees to Wallman? Because it doesn't care whether it sells us stuff, and because it quite likes a future where we give it money but it doesn't have to give us stuff.

I'm not the first one to think about this, obviously; this article argues that in handing back 'ownership' of our things to the companies that sold them to us, we are effectively going to back to the middle ages, when all property belonged to the crown, and the rest of us just had some limited rights to use it.

But I still want to give two cheers for ownership over the 'experience economy'. In the old days, when I bought a physical book, or physical DVD, they were mine to do what I liked with. Sure, there were copyright restrictions, and that blurb in the front of the book about it not being re-lent or re-sold without permission, but unless you were involved in parallel imports it didn't really matter. I can give a book (or a DVD) to a friend, or take it to a charity shop. If I pay for a film on Amazon Prime (or Google Play, or anything else) I pretty much can't. Google offers me the choice of 'renting' the film or 'buying' it, but in neither case do I own it in the same sense that I did the physical item. Even though the marginal cost of producing the 'digital experience' that is a streamed film is close to zero, I pay almost the same for it that I would pay for a physical item, and I can do less with it.

In the Economics textbooks that I studied at school there was a lot about the supply curve. As the price of a thing rises, more firms enter the market to produce it, so that the price eventually falls back to an equilibrium representing the marginal cost of production (I may have rushed that a little). In real life capitalists move heaven and earth to stop this happening, and much of what you get taught in business school is stuff that ought not to be of any use if classical Economic theory was true. Barriers to entry - patents, regulations, licensing rights, state-protected monopolies via 'outsourcing' contracts...if you need a refresher it's all nicely set out in Guy Standing's book The Corruption of Capitalism, which re-introduces the Economic meaning of 'rent' as unearned income.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of economic and technological development over the last few years has made the fiction of the supply curve a bit more true. Globalization, competition from China, the increasing automation of physical production, and the increasing software component of physical goods has all helped to ensure that the marginal cost of producing stuff is also tending towards zero, even if it will never actually get there. Stuff is getting cheaper, and competition from low-cost no-brand producers is a constant concern for big branded manufacturers. Chinese Android mobile phones are pretty much as good as the more expensive branded versions; the after-sales service is not much good (but actually it's not much good from the big brands either, for the most part) but there's pretty good free support from other users via the web.

Hence, I think, the increasing emphasis on things-as-a-service, and on rolling back ownership of things we thought we had bought. Warranties and licence agreements that are breached if we try to repair or enhance the things; software that acts against the interests of the apparent owner; Delightfully, Amazon rubbed our noses in it by deleting, of all books, Orwell's 1984 from the Kindles of customers who thought they had bought the book.

It bears saying, too, that while the manufacture of things is subject to this cost curve, I don't think the same applies to the creation of 'experiences'. The latter are much more likely to involve human labour (even though some it will be robotized and automated, I suspect the premium experiences will involve humans, almost by definition) - and on present experience, not very well paid human labour. And it's not necessarily true that the ecological footprint of experiences is less than that of stuff - especially not if that experience is a carbon-heavy trip to Kilimanjaro, or a cheap flight stag weekend in Tallinn.

And let's come back to those microhomes, where this began. Is it really true that millennials and others are embracing smaller homes out of a values-driven rejection of stuff and clutter, or is that rejection actually the consequence of smaller homes? So-called 'luxury flats' have minimal storage space nowadays - one reason for the huge boom in out of town storage. It's not only piles of meaningless plastic crap that you don't have room for; it's also your parents' photo album, and your grandmother's candlesticks. Letting go of some of these items, even when they are not in frequent use, is an emotional process. It's nice to think we are freer because we're not burdened with stuff, but are we also giving up a bit of ourselves? Erving Goffman's famous account of total institutions drew attention to the way that inmates are stripped of their identity-defining personal possessions. Something to think about the next time you hear someone waxing lyrical about decluttering, and dematerialisation, and 'x as a service'. And while we're at it, let's have a look at James Wallman's house.


DannyBlue said...

You probably barely remember me but we worked together at Ovum. Somehow I started following your blog a while back and I read your reviews. This post resonated with me because of your recognition of the power of inherited stuff - I feel guilty about how much of a burden it is but how unable I am to dispose of it. It's nice to think of it in another way. Also because it neatly summarised some of my inchoate thoughts on renting, the true beneficiaries of digitisation, and the many ways convenience is our comeuppance (food, credit etc.). There must be a nice way of describing it by subverting 'property is theft' but I can't come up with it yet.

All the best,
Dan Hawkins

Jeremy Green said...

Hey Dan, nice to hear from you...and pleased to have discovered your music. I would have sent you a message but no sign of how to do that. Best, Jezza