Minimalism helps us focus on what we find important in a world filled with mindless consumerism. It’s linked to simplicity, zen, and modernity. But is it really a mindful way of living life with a smaller footprint, or an attack on the poor, a performance art for the rich, and a luxury product?
What about the aesthetic of clutter?
Clutter makes us feel cozy and gives off the impression that a space has a meaningful past. We keep artifacts because they are important, so if we have a lot of artifacts then that should reveal how much importance we find in our lives. Clutter is linked to wisdom, personality, and history.
I myself prefer the look of clutter. When a room is too clean I feel less comfortable, as if my presence is contaminating some unspoken curated sanctity. When instead a room still holds the ruins of past art projects, it invites me to join in with my own art.
One free weekend last summer, my brother and I decided we wanted to walk around the city, and we visited Ghirardelli Square. It was a warm day for an optional adventure which didn’t call for any research, just shoes and a sun hat that I didn’t bring. The square is ostensibly meant to be like a village square, except named after a large Swiss chocolate corporation owned by another large Swiss chocolate corporation which makes five million dollars in profit every year. It’s a tourist attraction, which can mean many things. Sometimes it means that if you complete the hike you will find a clearing atop a mountain in which you feel at once surrounded by trees and no people, and sometimes it means that local performers rehearse at night after work to put on a spectacular show of music and fire. In this case it means that there are tables at which you sit and eat food you just bought, and stores in which you buy snow globes that say SAN FRANCISCO on the bottom lip, and people fill the space like cherries in a bowl, and most people are smiling especially the kids. Historically, a village square would have been a place for merchants to buy and sell goods during the day, and a place for dancing, theatre and storytelling in the evening. Ghirardelli Square delivers on half of this promise, and people love the restaurants, wine tasting, and pastries for sale there. And in our capitalist society that’s what a square is: a place where people gather to purchase and sell goods. Of course, historically, the village square became the place for merchants to sell because they were also community centers, entertainment centers, and city centers. But a fire needs kindling only to start, and once it gets going can feed on large logs of wood. Consumerism fuels the fire of today’s Ghirardelli Square, and this is okay because often we have separate community centers, entertainment centers, and city centers.
The second annual woman’s march was last week, and if you bought a hat instead of making your own then you participated in the commoditization of feminism. If you made your own, then good for you, you’re a DIY feminist. Does that feel like a weird thing to get praise for? A weird thing to get criticism for? Cute local bookstores put up a box of pins and I eat that shit right up because I’m always looking for badges that will help me organize my multitudes into little boxes. One of the pins says “Capitalism kills” and I pay $2.50 for it because I don’t understand irony and we are all complicit in the system. It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying useless shit you don’t need or clean lines and empty tables, you are still buying and the aesthetic still sells out. And the trends will change and you will continue buying without realizing it. CVS will jack up the price of markers and cardboard before protests. Amazon will show you a T-shirt for whatever social movement or identity you’re looking for because the important thing isn’t what’s printed on the shirt, it’s the goddamn receipt that I ask them not to print out because I care about the environment, hence my Mother Earth T-Shirt.
And that’s the real shit that we’re buying. It’s not the books that we will read only once, and it’s not the clean new IKEA table that perfectly matches the IKEA chair. What we’re buying is the grand narrative that we are our possessions. That the more or less we own, the more or less we are. We’re buying the label.
Photos in order by, LUM3N, Philipp Berndt, Imani Clovis, Norbert Levajsics, Onur Bahçıvancılar, Glen Noble, and rawpixel.com from Unsplash
I spent two years in graduate school working toward a Masters in Computer Science, with a focus in theory, while also serving as a teaching assistant for EECS 376, Foundations of Computer Science. I often joke to friends that the material taught in class had little practical value, which has more than a grain of truth; theoretical computer science is usually far-removed from my daily life as a software engineer. In fact, some of my professors advised me against specializing in theory, recommending more lucrative specialties like Artificial Intelligence or Security. Even upon graduating, I felt uncertain of my choice until one memorable incident showed me I definitely made the right decision.
A few years ago, I was living in an apartment with a group of friends, all of us on the geekier side. One day, a roommate came back and, barely able to contain his excitement, informed us that he had just purchased a set of Tetris piece magnets. Upon hearing the news, we decided to arrange them on the refrigerator immediately. Tearing open the package, we saw that the Tetris pieces were laid out in neat rows on a single sheet, each row containing 7 copies of the same tetromino. As you may remember, there are exactly 7 tetrominoes, making a total of 49 total magnets.
We rushed to move the magnets from the packaging to their new home on the fridge, enjoying the crisp snap of each magnet to the cold surface. At first, we placed them at random with no particular pattern. Then, following our instincts, we began arranging them tightly so that they hugged one another; there are few things more satisfying than tidying up (unfortunately, this does not seem to apply to my room). Somehow, wordlessly, we understood this was the right way to play with our new toy, and began creating the most compact, neatly aligned set of pieces possible. As the clump grew, someone asked if we could arrange the pieces into a square. Quickly doing the math, I pointed out that, since each tetromino has an area of 4 units, they covered a total area of 7x7x4, a perfect square. Delighted by our serendipitous situation, we began to construct a 14x14 square.
Several minutes into the game, we almost had our square, with just a few pieces remaining and only a handful of places to put them. No matter, we thought; a bit of nudging here and shuffling there would get us to the solution in no time. However, like unruly children, each time we ordered new pieces into place, others would fall out of line. After a few attempts, this phenomenon began to feel inevitable and I lost enthusiasm.
Literally and figuratively taking a step back — the front of the refrigerator was getting crowded and my friends were still as engaged as before –– I began to reconsider if it was even possible to build the square. Sure, we had the right amount of material, but what if our pieces could not be fit together correctly? And if it was impossible, could I prove that was the case? As I mulled this over, another question with a similar flavor wandered into my mind.
The Mutilated Chessboard problem is discussed in almost every introductory class to Discrete Mathematics:
Suppose a standard 8×8 chessboard has two diagonally opposite corners removed, leaving 62 squares. Is it possible to place 31 dominoes of size 2×1 so as to cover all of these squares?
The answer is no, and we can formally prove it by contradiction. The key fact is that the mutilated chessboard has 2 white squares removed, leaving 30 white squares and 32 black squares. On the other hand, each domino must cover exactly one white square and one black square. Assume there is a tiling of the mutilated chessboard such that dominoes cover the 62 squares. Then 31 of them must be white and 31 must be black, a contradiction.
Our Tetris problem resembled the Mutilated Chessboard problem; could some of the thinking behind the proof carry over as well? There was no chessboard in our problem. But if we imagined that our square was colored like a chessboard, would that help us solve it? Following a hunch, I started mentally checking through the tetrominoes to see how they might be colored if laid out on a 14x14 “chessboard”. Six of the tetrominoes, the “straight”, “square”, the two “L” shapes and two “skew” shapes must all be composed of an equal number of black and white squares, like dominoes. Note that this is true regardless of how the shapes are rotated.
However, the last tetromino, the “T” shape, is special. Depending on its position on a chessboard, it is either composed of 3 black squares and 1 white, or 3 white squares and 1 black.
In a flash, I saw the answer and proof clearly. The 42 non-“T”-shaped tetrominoes comprise an equal number of white and black squares. However, there is no way that the 7 “T”-shapes could add up to an equal number of blacks and whites (formal proof is left as an exercise to the reader). Therefore, the total number of black and white squares covered by all 49 tetrominoes cannot be equal. But if our 14x14 square were colored like a chessboard, it would contain an equal number of white and black squares. Therefore, by contradiction, there is no way to construct a square entirely from our set of pieces.
While I had been deliberating, my friends had been hard at work rearranging pieces. Though I now knew the task was Sisyphean, they were still in the deep state of flow that occurs when puzzle-solving, their brows furrowed with concentration. With inappropriate glee, I informed them of my magnificent discovery. As I sketched out the proof above, their faces changed, first to denial and then to disappointment. Once convinced I was right, they begrudgingly returned to their everyday routines.
With a satisfied sigh, I sat back and took measure of myself. Sure, my classmates who focused on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning were working on self-driving cars and other exciting projects sure to change the world, but would they ever be able to save their friends from working toward an unattainable goal? As Aristotle said, “the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”, and the sweetest fruit of all is the one you share with your friends.