The unbearable lightness of having

Ouch! I just walked yet on a lingering Lego bricks kindly left behind by one of my two boys as a token to their gratitude. Re-ouch! What did I trip over this time? Oh, just one of my wife's precious items from her impressive plastic bag collection (including this very special vintage edition by Tesco from 2007)...

Organised mess?

Many new parents will certainly sympathise, so yes I confess, I live in a flat that is cluttered... Books, toys, plastic and handbags, stilettos, pens and a few devices here and there (because the geek that I am does contribute to that mayhem, of course). No matter how creative you get with storage, they always seem to overflow. So the problem may not be the storage, but the content. Of course it is.

In fact, after having sold us alternatively the dreams that as the ultimate luxury was space or that some Swedish wizardry could help make more out of our jam-packed spaces, a more recent trend has emerged from the media. It is no longer about expanding or optimising micro-inches of cramped living space: it is now a matter of decluttering. If in the past, there was a relatively basic dichotomy between the have's and the have-not's, there is now amongst the upper-middle class a third category: the don't-want-to-have's. For them, it becomes a decision not to possess.

Inspired by Japanese Zen and Feng-Shui philosophies, this phenomenon is trending far and large in the press, as more and more books are released about how to tidy and clear out. You must admit this is in itself a bit schizophrenic... After all, avid fans may end up cluttering their house with books on decluttering!

Spring cleaning

Fad or trend? We are now in the very last days of Spring, and many of us have felt the almost therapeutic feeling of emptying cupboards and other hidden boxes from the junk we had been accumulating over the previous twelve months. Off with that candle holder in terracotta. To the bin the piles of Time Out magazines you have been promising your self to catch up on in order to be up to speed with what is hot... or, well, what was hot in June 2013 by the look of the cover of the edition you hold in your hand.

It feels good to reclaim some ground over the mess. It feels even better when you clear your conscious when you hand over your definitely too tight jeans to a charity on the high street. But it would be interesting to see how this trend evolves once the dust has settled. Nevertheless this phenomenon struck a cord with me (and not only because I have a profound admiration for Japan and obsessed by the necessity to bring order to chaos). It led me to another very contemporary divergence: possession versus materialism.

Is digitalisation cheating?

For years the concept of possession was necessarily associated to physical object. Wealth was measured by the ground you owned, the serfs ploughing your fields, the pile of gold you could put on the table... And then came the banks, and money got dematerialised. You had no more trinkets but access to money, an abstract concept. It was still your sweat and tears (or your servants), but it was no longer your very own treasure. There was no more attachment to the object itself, rather to its value.

Similarly, information which was once captured in pages, books and bookshelves was first digitised but still remained visible. It was on that floppy disk or in that server that was buzzing in the corner of the office. It was not looking like a good old book anymore, but it was still there. This changed with the rise of Cloud computing. With it, the virtualisation accelerates and objects further dematerialise. Like the golden nuggets an jewels which were replaced by bank statements, books, disks, CD, cassettes, external hard drives, servers... are disappearing from the local premises to see their quintessence hosted somewhere in the cloud.

Slowly the reticence of not being able to touch-to-own is fading. People are perceiving the value of virtualisation: easy and ubiquitous access; lower costs as you pay only for the storage you actually need; security of having your assets backed up in several locations... Of course there are hackers, like there were bank robbers, and there are still people who don't trust the cloud like many did not trust bankers and preferred to sleep with money under their matrass. But there are also genuine enthusiasts who are seeing in technology the opportunity to live the above-described trend to its fullest. 

Technologically-enhanced lives

I indeed recently met that technophile whose job was to educate businesses about the latest evolutions and what they entail in terms of opportunity. As a technologist, he had decided to explore how far he could go in adopting technologies which could help him get rid of the unnecessary. He got a chip inserted under the skin, a bit of code here and there, and off he went to dematerialise his home. Sensors capture his presence and switches on and off the wifi, the lights, the heating system, etc. automatically based on agreed gestures, rules and orders passed through his phone. The keys to his flat were rapidly gone too, as his unique identifier emitted by his chip could open the door lock through NFC. Whilst many of us switch between different screens, he opted to retain only one, acknowledging that smartphones nowadays are sufficiently powerful to be a TV, a PC, a watch and even a phone. Why having a fridge if you could get his daily food intake delivered fresh to his door, prepared to meet his dietary requirements? One by one, he went through his inventory and tried to get rid of what was not really needed. He wanted to go back to the basics... Connected basics. 

This leads to some interesting points of reflection: the digitalisation of the world implies the rise of a new paradigm where you can own without possessing. You still own information, tunes, photos... but they do not materially exist any more. This means that the renunciation to physical ownership does not necessarily jeopardise the codes of our Western societies. Pushed to the extreme, wealth could materialise in absence of physical possession whilst the poorest would be the ones anchored in a material world, unable to digitised... Internet behind a social walled garden, so to speak.

In that hypothetical, yet plausible world, Maslow's pyramid of needs may see "wifi access" being added to its lower, more basic needs. This is one of the scenarios that the Singularity University explores during their curriculum: "how to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges" with a democratised access to the internet as a prerequisite to avoid a new social rupture between the connected and the disconnected. This is also why companies like Google are exploring ways to give access to the internet in creative ways like the Loon project (and not to expand the reach of their advertising audience of course).

Tidying my thoughts

Personally, I am enthused by what new technologies can offer, and as a humanist, I believe in our ability to keep the potential demons at bay. Without going to the extreme of my technologist, I am slowly decluttering my flat, saving one foot nail at a time my physical integrity, my sanity, and hopefully a tiny bit of the planet by not consuming beyond what I really need. I am from the Generation X, that generation who has come to the world amidst the recession after years of prosperity. Because of that, I am more than ever convinced that we are therefore a transitional breed, and probably better suited than anyone to help facilitate and educate the change without being blinded by optimism or pessimism. We are an agent of change. For the better.

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