Chasing after a rickshaw piled seven feet high with every item of my personal belongings last weekend, I remembered why I hate stuff. I was just moving out of my apartment with the help of the guy who collects trash in my neighbor, and his dirty-but-sturdy leg-powered rickshaw. Since I was living in a walk-up, last Sunday involved the rickshaw guy, me, my old roommate, and my new roommate (aka my sister) walking up and down five flights lugging ricebags of clothes, boxes with stereos, pillows, clothing racks, shoes, a camel pen my sister got me in Egypt, a pink felt cowboy hat I bought at the Houston Rodeo, squash rackets, a clay sculpture of myself that a colleague had made, a foot-thick queen size mattress, some Trader Joe’s dark chocolate covered espresso beans, my high school prom dress, … and whatever else made up those 43 bags, boxes, or pieces of stuff.
Why do I — why do we — have so much stuff?
One answer is that stuff is cheap. Just a few minutes ago, for instance, the guy came with a fresh jug for the water cooler in our apartment. The only place to put it right now is on a chair, which causes the cooler to tilt precariously. My solution to this tilting problem is not to find another place to put it, or to try to level it, but instead to go tomorrow to buy a cheap flat-topped stool. A stool that will be more of this very stuff that I supposedly hate.
And second, we like buying cheap stuff. It seems obvious, but it’s not. For a long, long time, we liked buying good stuff. Cheap meant crappy, and no one liked crappy. We liked buying a few good things that lasted, and then taking care of them well.
But then things changed — at least in America: First, quality stuff became cheap, thanks to the joys of mass production, efficient supply chains, competitive pressures — you name it.
Second, publication costs fell so much that media had to become dependent on advertising, not subscriptions. Those ads have accomplished their mission: they help us want to buy cheap stuff (and expensive stuff, too). Online newspapers are a great example of how cheaper publications costs have helped make ads a bigger part of our life. For instance, newspapers can charge $0.10 per view per brick and mortar ad, but only $0.001 per view for digital ads on popular sites (for instance, with more than 100,000 views). A friend who has worked on optimizing web-based ad displays believes that advertising will get better in time at targeting potential buyers, thereby permitting online newspapers to charge more for their content. If so, newspapers can afford to keep providing content we want, and we’ll see more, and more effective, ads that make us want to buy stuff too. The printed book — arguably the last domain of unadvertised content — will soon follow the ad-model as e-books gain popularity; the next generation of e-books are already planning on serving ads.
And a third reason we have come to like cheap stuff is that we first learn to buy things when we are teenagers. Teens face the tremendous task of figuring out who they are, and who everyone else is. One great way to do that is to identify and buy the latest, most popular thing. The “latest” part requires buying a lot as trends change. “Popular” requires buying things that most people can afford to buy and then throw out a few months later. In other words, teens learn quickly to like buying cheap stuff.
So looking my rickshaw wobbling down the street, I wondered whether having so much stuff is a bad thing, other than when moving, and if so, what, if anything, we can do about it.
I have some thoughts, but for another time. Now, I have to get back to putting away all my stuff.