wisdom of clouds II

Plenty The thesis: the world is cloudier

proposition 1:
there are more people, objects, and ideas

subproposition 1.1: more people

subproposition 1.2: more objects

Are there more objects in the world? Susan, a respondent of mine, took me to the verge of her family’s garage.  We stood there for a moment, contemplating the blizzard within: two aluminum ladders, a plastic Halloween jack o’ lantern, a series of nested woks, a whole slew of wicker baskets, a backup toaster, bags of kitty litter, folding chairs, shoe trees, paint cans, an ancient personal computer, a fencing helmet, several gardening trowels, a fondue pot, cardboard boxes, a basketball backboard, a pick nick hamper, paper towels in a Costco multipack, hockey sticks, lobster pots, a toboggan, and lots of transparent plastic boxes.  There is room for everything here except the cars which now sit in the driveway.  Susan made a funny sound in her throat. She seemed both happy and horrified.  “Welcome to my world,” she chuckled.

There’s a reason for all this stuff.  According to Morgan Stanley, the real cost of consumer goods went down, and spending, in the period 1996 to 2004, went up, increasing 4% a year.  Plus, Americans had steadily more to buy.  In 1974, the average grocery store had 9,000 kinds of goods (or “sku,” stock keeping unit). Twenty years later, this figure had grown to 30,000 skus.  These days the typical Wal-Mart Supercenter has 100,000 skus.  All those choices, all those factories in Cheng Du and Guangdong running day and night, all that Wal-Mart cost cutting, it ended up having an effect on Susan’s garage.  Well, and not just on her garage. The average American house went from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004. (Susan recently added 750 square feet.)  The expansion of the house happened during a contraction of the family. Homes got larger in part to make room for more stuff.

It is very hard to say how many discrete consumer objects there are in the U.S. at the moment, and even harder to know how many exist in the lives of any given American. Though, when the English artist, Michael Landry, decided to destroy his worldly possessions, strictly in the name of art, you understand, it took his team 2 full weeks.  It turned out that Mr. Landry owned over 7,000 things.  By this unreliable metric, there are now some 2,108,408,113,000 consumer-owned objects in the U.S. But even if we run this calculation at half-Landry (3,500 things), we would be a nation of 1,054,211,392,500 objects.  I feel certain there are this many things in Susan’s garage alone.

But we might get some sense of this universe by noting the disposition of objects outside the home.  FedEx makes 6 million shipments every day.  Self storage facilities amount to1,875 billion square feet in 40,000 facilities.  On Sunday, February 18, there were 15,502,667 things for sale on eBay alone.  (It would be grand if we had a figure for the entire American retail shelf.)  Objects in transit, objects in storage, objects for sale, the number of objects outside the home is fantastically large. One to two trillion.

What does this figure look like for the world outside the U.S.?  It is proportionally smaller to be sure.  But rising disposable incomes in countries like China and India must mean that the absolute number of consumer owned objects in the world is very, very large, and that it is now growing by leaps and bounds.

When numbers of this kind are usually contemplated, it is to show a) that Americans are using more than our share of natural resources, or b) that we live in a world with too much choice.  I expect the former is true and the latter is, well, both tedious and, from an anthropological and an economic point of view, irrelevant

We could paint Susan as a ravening monster, eating her way through the planet.  But that garage of hers may also be seen as a strategic resource with which she runs and serves her family.  My mother’s idea of preparing her 8 year old (me) for summer was to buy a bag of "runners."  These were Converse-like athletic shoes, made in Hong Kong, and sold by weight on the west coast of Canada in the 1960s.  I think there were 10 pairs to a bag and the question was always which would end first, the bag or the summer.  The bag usually won.  (But not always, which gave my mother the opportunity to say, "you’ve run out of runners.")

But Susan has a somewhat more sophisticated approach to provisioning her family.  She’s got kids in Karate camp.  She got kids who are interested in fencing.  She’s got a husband with several, sometimes fleeting enthusiasms.  She’s got a family that likes to stage amateur theatricals.  Susan is a bit like a supply sergeant and her family an enterprise that needs constant and complicated logistical enablement.  Actually, if we talk to Susan (instead of merely damning her from the ramparts of the ivory tower), she will tell us that it is up to her to stage any one of several activities at a moment’s notice.  This family is not just diverse and it is not just complicated.  It is extremely mobile, one might even say  capricious.  It can change it’s mind at the drop of a hat, and when this happens Mom must be ready. 

In sum, this is a cloudy family.  There may have been a time when athletics turned on baseball, rituals turned on Thanksgiving, a cuisine of monolithic choices supplied mostly by Kraft, and children could be equipped with "runners" and little else.  But those days have passed.  There are 4 other people in Susan’s family.  Each of them is very much a work in progress.  Susan, as parent, might once have served as the writer and the director of these lives.  Now, she is something more like a producer.  She serves their complexity, their cloudiness by acknowledging their complexity and cloudiness. 

What’s true for Susan is, I’m guessing, true for most of the rest of us.  Our "object worlds" are dense with things that reflect and enable our cloudiness.  Does it take 7,000 objects to equip our cloudiness?  Would staging personhood at half that number (at half-Landry tolerances) make us more cloudy or less?  We can at least say this.  Those bulging garages are perhaps less a symptom than a signature. 




Yesterday’s post was, in the words of one reader, "dorked up" by some readers and aggregators.  Am working on the problem now. 

tomorrow: subproposition 1.3 more ideas

2 thoughts on “wisdom of clouds II

  1. Tom Asacker

    I’m getting into this whole “cloudiness” thang. And I was with you on people and I’ll probably be there again on ideas, but objects? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

    As you’ve mentioned before, cloudiness is a feeling. It’s a state of mind. And other than dealing with cleaning out the garage or choosing between a few hundred brands of toothpaste, objects rarely cloud one’s thoughts.

    Imagine driving a bus load of children to school. Many are shouting, some are trying to get your attention, and a few have asked you the meaning of Goethe’s last words on his death bed: “More light!”

    Clouddddy! But all of the stuff on the bus – whether theirs or yours – is having little effect on your brain. You simply deal with the stuff at your immediate disposal, and the stuff relevant to the particular task at hand, and the rest becomes inconsequential. Right? Or am I missing something?

  2. coleman

    The fallacy in the original thesis is what makes this interesting and ironic; it’s called begging the question. Cloudier than what is the first response? But the argument is interesting and appeals to the radical critique of the advertising system and the transformation or even transmogrification of the industrial society into the consumer society, the society in which the problem of production has been solved, and the new problem, the new economic imperative of every firm, every state, is to produce the desire to consume all this stuff. It makes us cloudier. Debord called this the soceity of the spectacle.

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