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January 18, 2008

a single thin line

Bridget Qualey left this comment in yesterday’s entry :

“We live in an age of "stuff". Stuff on our computers, stuff on our cell phones, stuff on our ipods, stuff in our homes. I'm of the generation ahead of you, Ze, so my stuff is mostly a plague in my home. Just plainly: TOO MUCH STUFF.

I'm not sure an operating system is what will cure it. I think it is deeper in our psyche, in our very souls. How to discern, how to let go, how to approach it, consider it, and leave it where it is rather than even 'putting it into one's cart' if it is not highly relevant and able to do good in our lives.

Ultimately, the discernment process is good work whichever 'cart' we are considering. Now I gotta go git rid of something!”

Yes! Perhaps we should place an ad on craigslist, “Wanted: One Billion Editors.”

Perhaps that ad has already been placed.

There’s a project by the designer/conceptual artist Ji Lee titled ”The Abstractor”, in which he places opaque material on a video screen, constricting the signal to a single thin line.

I think I have a natural tendency to restrict information when it becomes overwhelming. One way to do that is with hardware limitations, as Ji Lee does with the abstractor. Cell phones and PDAs provide restrictive channels. A small screen and limited bandwidth forces me to browse the web through a slit. The US is a bit behind in adopting the full force of cell phone culture , we still prefer our big screens and massive search results, even if we don’t use them. We like options. But we still need to restrict.

I wonder if these differences in display preference lead to other forms of restriction, ones that aren’t dependent on hardware. There’s much talk about the fracturing of the online audience into so many micro-communities; each with their own news sources, their own entertainment venues, all of them seeming to bathe in like-mindedness. Valdis Krebs illustrated this phenomenon beautifully in a study of political book purchases on amazon.com entitled ”Political Polarization During the 2008 US Presidential Campaign”.With big screens and more channels do we have less tolerance for uncomfortable serendipitous information?

Maybe AOL had it right all along. Maybe what we need are dumber, simpler version of the web - versions that aren’t ideologically bounded. Is that the real power of facebook: that its application sharing functionality edits the web: it forces content providers to truncate text and make thumbnails out of images, and forces you to pick and choose what to display.

Its interesting that, at a time when the portability of applications and web content would seem to challenge the place-based metaphor of the web, we all flock to one place to consume the portable content. But it makes sense. There were too many places. Restrict the signal.

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Comments (19)

It's less about how we keep stuff, and more about how we organize the stuff we keep.

If books and papers are being kept in random piles on the floor, the amount of stuff and information that we keep around can seem daunting, and needless. While on the other hand, keeping books organized on a bookshelf, papers in a filing cabinet, the data and the stuff suddenly seems a lot more useful and important.

Then, when the time comes to go through all of it, and decide what and what not to keep, you find the job is much less tedious, and much more enjoyable, allowing one to reflect on past experiences.

Now, of course, take into account also that we are a culture of material goods, long ago convinced that what we have equated to who we are.

Posted by: Matt at January 18, 2008 2:07 PM

When I read "a single thin line," I think of music. A single melody. Sure, you can add more parts to it, and make it extremely complex...but if you keep adding to it, at some point the intent of that one original thread of song becomes lost in the cacophony. You can no longer even hear the music, and become desensitized to the cloud of noise.

Posted by: Steven at January 18, 2008 3:02 PM

One billion editors, or one billion librarians?

Posted by: Tom S at January 18, 2008 3:04 PM

Man, Ze, it's been a while since I completely disagreed with one of your ideas, but this one is a doozy. I like my vastly-too-much-information version of the internet. When I get overwhelmed I filter it myself by cutting off and not paying attention to anything for a day or two, then once I have caught my breath I dive back in. The same thing goes for pretty much any form of information (except school, that is the one source I can't escape from when it gets to be too much). Sure, the ability to have the information filtered before it gets to you would be nice some of the time, but what would you do when the situation called for a full-on cannonball into the deep end? Your cell phone and PDA won't allow you to do that.

Also, I love your writing style. It makes me feel like I am listening directly to your unfiltered train of thought. ;)

Posted by: the_wakeful at January 18, 2008 3:59 PM

Ze - hadn't ever thought of the portable gadgets as being a restrictor. I rather like that.

BUT then comes the agonizing back and forth internal (and I guess, sometimes external) argument of what goes and what stays.

I've had to make myself face that far too many times, but the best is when I had no choice in the matter - i.e. The Great Crash of 2007 when I lost my entire hard drive. And I realized that I really could live without the entire Devo collection and why couldn't my closet have a crash too? Then I could finally talk myself out of that red plaid western shirt that I never wear, but can't let go of because it is so super cool.

Grats to any of you who can unload.

Posted by: danielle at January 18, 2008 4:01 PM

On the subject of "stuff": http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html

Posted by: Josh Mock at January 18, 2008 4:35 PM

On the subject of "stuff": http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html

Posted by: Josh Mock at January 18, 2008 4:48 PM

I agree with BQ regarding the discernment process being the difference, but am not sure that I agree regarding this generation or age being unique with regard to accumulation. It seems to be an accompaniment to wealth or to comfortableness, that we think we need "more".

Haven't obsessions and types of accumulation always existed? Surely people have collected stuff/ideas/projects based on varyingly motives and needs throughout time. As a perceived means of "survival" in all of its forms.

The competition for attention continues...

Posted by: ingrid at January 18, 2008 5:27 PM

Interesting. This reminds me of the "paradox of choice", the title of a talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=6127548813950043200

I wrote about how this might relate to creativity here (shameless plug!): http://www.jasondavies.com/blog/2007/10/11/creativity/

Posted by: Jason Davies at January 18, 2008 8:36 PM


I very frequently drool over the idea of simplicity. The times I would consider my happiest usually involve getting away from my horde of stuff. Times when I'm out traveling or too busy to sit at home with my possessions.

Despite being happy for months with just a bag full of clothes and toothbrush, I always return to my things. I can't get rid of them - after all I might one day want to go back and read those old (poorly taken) class notes or tape that London Underground ticket into a photo album.

Sometimes I think I would be happy if my room were to catch fire so that I could start over without having to throw something away.

I'm a little confused about your thoughts on internet content. On one hand, it's way too easy to spend hours checking all your sites. Is all that content really making your life any better or is it a substitution for action and creativity?

On the other hand, if we restrict the signal by choosing only a few sources of content, we still run the risk of only being exposed to like-minded ideas. Things that will merely enforce our own beliefs and thoughts without ever challenging us or calling us to by sympathetic.

Posted by: Ben at January 19, 2008 1:49 AM

I like Steven's comment above, as I'm a less science-oriented person. After years of being tied to my computer and having a daily routine that started with checking the news and my e-mail before even brushing my teeth, I went to Ireland for a year. I got half of my news from walking into the internet cafe and only made a cursory flip through the news pages every few days.
When I returned back to this country that's demanding immediacy, I felt that I lost the human factor, the one-on-one transfer of information. I was back in a society that upheld cell phone music downloads and buying bottles of soda with credit cards, then Mastercard Pass cards.

What I lost in the silencing of truly personal communications was the continual challenging of my own beliefs. Spending a year with the Irish made me question my political standpoint, my lifestyle that was aghast that the city should essentially close down at 5pm, my habit of checking the time every ten minutes. Spending a year in a place that is only starting to enter the Information Age made me ask: What did we lose in that shift?
Did we lose the ability for two-way conversation? Did we lose individual opinion in favor of the collective opinion of our group? Jamming our minds full of more, more, more, do we now have the ability to retain less, less, less?

Posted by: Kinna at January 19, 2008 3:24 AM

Two thoughts.

The first is my attempt to apply information theory to this paradigm. There are, essentially, four levels of existence that you can apply to a piece of data:

Data - A raw, non-contextual thing. I liken this to the books I haven't read in a pile on one side of my office. The number 100 is data. 100 what?

Information - Data that has context. Furthering my analogy, this would be a book I've read, but have no real use for otherwise. 100 degrees Celsius.

Knowledge - Information with context. My database programming book that I refer to all the time. I've read it several times and use it to make decisions all the time. Water at 100 degrees Celsius (boiling, obviously).

Wisdom - Knowledge with context. This one gets a little dicier. Essentially, this is the ability to apply knowledge to higher order constructs. In this state I no longer need the book as I now understand the systemic concepts that take me beyond the information in the book and allow me to fuse information from multiple books into a greater whole. The ability to predict, based upon atmospheric pressure and dew point, at what temperature water will boil.

I see my stuff in sort of this way. Stuff that is just crammed in a closet or thrown in an undignified pile is like data...it has no context and I should consider making it information or getting rid of it. Likewise, I have achieved wisdom and no longer need certain things, but I keep them around in case someone else who will appreciate them can take them off my hands. I am kidding myself for the most part in both cases, so I suppose that's where the hangup is. I can't get over either of those intellectual hurdles much of the time.

My second thought is a little more germane.

I recently had to live away from home for over a month. I was allowed two bags and was given an apartment in which to live. The apartment had the basics: washer/dryer, kitchen with dishes and utensils, towels, TV, etc. Enough to get by, but nothing extravagant. I survived just fine that entire time completely separated from my house crammed full of "stuff". It was almost liberating. When I returned home I immediately felt claustrophobic. That feeling still lingers over a year later. But I still can't bring myself to get rid of much. All of it has SO much potential. Having a guitar means I'm THAT much closer to getting back into playing it. If I get rid of it, well then I've thrown that option away because I'll never be able to justify buying another one having thrown this one away...and so on. Sometimes I kinda wish my house would just burn down and I could start over. But, of course, I'd probably just build a new collection of stuff.

Stuff represents the clear choice of "other" when confronted with "do something with it" or "get rid of it". I choose "other" quite a lot.

Posted by: TwistedOtter at January 19, 2008 4:22 AM

Though sweet and very idealistic it’s actually a dangerous proposition especially, in the age we live. This world, oh, this world and human nature, under such a proposal the temptation to dominate for nefarious purposes is too great. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but you can take advantage of the opportunity for setting priorities and practicing self-discipline. Longing for a simpler less complicated life only means looking for what matters most and getting older; a dirty word. The commercialization of everything has made the Internet lose a lot of its shine, needs ruby.

Ji's video is interesting and visually meditative. His idea is successful in that it has the potential to make one pause and take stock, which I think is a purpose in art.

I sound like such a know-it-all, but it’s all moon. I know so little about what I’d really like to know.

Hey ze, it’s January, how about a crowd source emo party? I'll wear black on black.


Posted by: somethingcleverhere at January 19, 2008 4:47 AM

I never bothered with stuff. I worked the counter at a Radio Shack in the 1980's back when cell phones were the size of WW II era field radios and everybody who bought one from me seemed to be some kind of soulless Yuppie who didn't really have anybody to talk to, but wanted to be seen carrying one of these foolish things around.

Not to mention that back then every time we demonstrated a cell phone for a customer the fire alarms in the mall would go off. Touching the keypad always led to sirens, bright lights and screaming people so I developed an almost Pavlovian aversion to the beastly things.

Nowadays the only electronic gadget I carry around is a guitar tuner. It's small, works well for it's single intended purpose and there is no worry about connecting to the web or having it go off in the middle of a movie.

My guitar tuner works well for community building. When I use it to tune my guitar people stop to listen to the music. As they are listening I'll say something outlandish like, "hello" and if that other person doesn't run away to huddle under the stairs to type about the adventure on MySpace or Facebook we'll have a conversation - and that conversation can lead to exchanges of data, friendships and all of that Web 2.0 jazz - but without any funky buildup on my hard drive.

Posted by: Patrick Costello at January 19, 2008 12:15 PM

If you like the abstractor, you may also like the Pixelator, also a stuff reducer:

Posted by: Rutger van Waveren at January 21, 2008 4:21 AM

I think you're overthinking this one, Ze. If you're at a crowded party you can't listen to everything at once, but your brain filters selectively and just one part of the noise becomes coherent. It's part of normal perception - we're always filtering and discarding information - it's just more explicit online. If you try to listen to everything at once you don't hear anything meaningful.

(Also: I am a distinct Ben from the earlier-posting Ben.)

Posted by: Ben at January 21, 2008 1:14 PM

I just wanted to say that it's refreshing to come across an intelligent, insightful entry that made me think and obviously made others think too. And also, that the comments carry on the thoughts and people add to it or offer their opinions with well thought out and structured ideas.
Everyone on the web just seems to be arguing and trying to make each other look stupid, to the point that having your own opinion is like painting yourself as a target.
As long as we have the choice between minimal and messy, then i don't mind.

Posted by: Tom at January 21, 2008 7:45 PM

About applying wisdom to technology (fantastically put to music):


Posted by: ingrid at January 22, 2008 8:56 AM

If you're still looking for apps to help you clear your mind, check out this article on Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2182744/nav/tap3/ Of the apps mentioned, I'm finding SpiritedAway (http://drikin.com/spiritedaway/) and WriteRoom (http://hogbaysoftware.com/products/writeroom) to be especially awesome.

D . . .

Posted by: dave-o at January 28, 2008 6:45 PM

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