The Death of “Stuff”

With our recent move to Silicon Valley, I indulged one of my guilty pleasures: getting rid of stuff. While I know this vice smacks of OCD, there is nothing I enjoy more than rummaging through the stuff I own, turning the object in question over in my mind and thinking, “Do I really need this any more?” And of course, this habit extends not just to the paraphernalia I already own, but to every other piece of stuff that threatens to enter my orbit.

It’s becoming easier than ever to simply not own things. A quick inventory of goods in the house reveals that most are being replaced either by substitutes that take up less space or, in extreme cases, no space at all:

  • Television: Gone is our behemoth Sony Wega, with its bulging CRT. Our new flatscreen is probably one-hundredth the volume, despite the fact that it has a larger screen. And, if we were so inclined, we could hang the TV on the wall and forego the media stand.
  • Music: I haven’t handled a CD for the past five years for any other purpose than to rip it in iTunes and shove it on our networked hard drive. With services like Spotify and Pandora offering subscription-based music for less than the price of a CD per month (free for Spotify if you’re listening from a laptop), even the compact form of the hard drive seems overbearing and unnecessary.
  • Movies: While I was never one to collect DVDs, a small collection of favorite titles accumulated nevertheless. But with on-demand services like Xfinity and Netflix able to provide just about any movie to us any time we want, the idea of holding onto data-imprinted plastic discs seems quaint at best.
  • Books: The family bookcase suffered the most significant losses during our recent move, with the size of our library declining by half. So long dead-tree technology, hello Kindle DX, and Kindle app for iPhone and iPad. It would appear bookcases may be a thing of the past (a fact that has not gone unnoticed by IKEA). One Billy bookcase down, one to go.

The exercise got me thinking about how this trend could dramatically reshape society if applied across the entire population. Households have doubled in size since the 1950s while the average family size declined by almost a third resulting in a significant increase in the per-capita size of housing. But do we really need all that space anymore? It makes you wonder what other services or product innovations could drive down the size of households?

In the opening chapter of “Natural Capitalism“, the Rocky Mountain Institute examined a number of small changes that could be made to the modern car to create what they term a “hypercar”. Simply changing the car body’s material from steel to carbon fiber resulted in an interesting feedback loop:

  1. If the car is made of carbon fiber, rather than steel, the car will be lighter
  2. If the car is lighter then the engine doesn’t need to be as powerful
  3. If the engine doesn’t need to be as powerful, the engine can be smaller
  4. If the engine is smaller and less powerful, then the car doesn’t need a large transmission or brakes

And so on; one small change begets a virtuous cycle of reduction. I suspect we may see something similar happen as many of our consumer goods get replaced by services, especially those than can be delivered electronically.

Of course, just like the hypercar, eliminating the assumption that goods need to be delivered physically has dramatic consequences for the supply chain that previously delivered the physical good. While the most readily visible consequence is the slow death of retail stores, the impact of the shift to electronic goods goes much deeper. Applying the same logic as before:

  1. If the good can be made of bits instead of atoms, the good can be delivered online
  2. If the good is delivered online, then the good doesn’t have to be transported to the customer
  3. If the good doesn’t need to be transported to the customer, then the good’s supply chain no longer requires raw materials (paper, plastic, cardboard, metal), physical stores or warehouses, transportation, or fuel
  4. If the good doesn’t require those materials or infrastructure, then it doesn’t require labor to mine the resources, or manufacture and transport the goods, and significantly reduces the labor required to sell the final product

I suspect (probably incorrectly) that most of the consumer goods that can be “digitized” have already been digitized (books, movies, music) and the pace of change for those industries will decline — there’s only so much extraneous stuff we can eliminate from our households. However, as Marc Andreessen pointed in his epic “Why Software is Eating the World” article, this trend is just getting started within government and industry.

Wish List

As soon as Thanksgiving ends, stores fling open their doors at 5:30 (AM!) the next day to entice Christmas shoppers. And inevitably, people start asking what you want for Christmas so they can just get the whole shopping thing over with as soon as possible. Merry freaking Christmas!

In an effort to get this out of the way in one go, I’m going to post my Christmas shopping wish list here. But first, some advice – I don’t really need you to buy me anything for the following reasons:

  1. I’m doing pretty well for myself: Good job, good money, and a happy home. I’ve pretty much got it all. What the hell else do I need? Even if there were something I really needed, I’d probably have bought it for myself already, except….
  2. I usually don’t buy stuff: I’m pretty minimal in what I need. Most of my input is in the form of bits not atoms. All told, there are some things I really want but…
  3. When I do, I have expensive taste: The few things I do want tend to be on the expensive side. I’d kind of like a nice house – I doubt you’re in the position to provide that, nevermind stick it under the tree. I’ll take care of those things myself, but thanks for the thought.

What’s left? Well, let’s see:

  1. Amazon Wish List: My Amazon Wish List has a pretty sizable list of books, CDs, and DVDs. Now, some might think this a bit boring – after all, they’re just bits packaged in atoms! Well, there’s always…
  2. Froogle Wish List: For the few atom-based goods I actually want, my Froogle Wish List contains the details. Yeah, they’re all basically proxies for bits (gadget stuff) – what can I say?
  3. Organization Memberships: There’s a few organizations in the Bay Area that are worthwhile joining. A “General Support – Couple” membership for the Computer History Museum would be nice (it gets you into the receptions prior to the events so you can rub elbows with the speakers). Similarly, a Passport Membership for the SDForum and the CSPA would be nice.

Beyond that, there’s nothing else I would like. Let me repeat that: Nothing. It may seem a bit harsh, but that’s the way it is – buying anything else is a waste of your money, a waste of your time, and, frankly, simply a waste. We live in a world of excess, of people chasing stuff that doesn’t bring them any happiness – don’t contribute to it by buying stuff that serves no purpose.

If all else fails, you could always just donate some money to a worthwhile cause and pretend to be me while you’re doing it.

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