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.
I recently had the pleasure of catching up over drinks with my college friend, and, as he did much of the lifting when we wrote songs together, the Lennon to my McCartney, Johnny. The night began after dinner when we resolved to get drinks at Hopcat. Once we arrived there, seeing the line wrapping around the entire front walkway, making a loop through the crowds around the entire bar counter, absolutely confused about whether customers who wanted to drink but not eat were expected to wait in line or –, we gave up and left. Back in the cold street I pointed out that “it’s a little embarrassing that neither of us knows how to go to a bar.”
“Yeah, I have no idea what we were supposed to be doing in there,” he agreed.
“It actually made me really anxious, sort of like when you’re at a grocery store and everyone is both trying to get somewhere and in the way of someone else–”
“That grocery store anxiety.”
So we made our way to Mash, hopeful that we could do better, since Johnny’s 21st birthday had been there. But we went in through the door and walked down the steps and the entire bar was empty so that was fucked and we turned around and left again.
When we finally sat down at Arbor Brewing Co and got to talking over some beer, I mentioned that a big part of socializing in college was a specific type of signaling. Talking about nothing. Or not quite nothing, but maybe just the lowest common denominator. Into this bin I throw complaining about finals, bragging about how cynical you’re becoming about school, and “bonding” over beliefs that everyone finds easy to agree about. This observation for me started in high school, when the accepted way of starting conversations was to joke about how much homework and little sleep someone had gotten, and it almost felt like a taboo to admit that I didn’t feel like we got that much homework, and I didn’t find it too hard to get enough sleep. It would be uncharitable to suggest that this was therefore all lies from other people, and I do think that for some students “too much homework, too little sleep” was the extent of their experience.
But the reason it felt like a taboo, I would later realize, was partly because these signals were supposed to be a method of play, like a love-language but for small talk, and they were also tightly coupled with concepts of social status. It was expected that you shouldn’t overtly seek social status, and if it seemed like you were bragging about being smart, it must have been because you expected people to give you more status points. What you had to do instead, according to convention, was gracefully admit to others that you weren’t especially smart, but you worked hard because you had to, hence the lack of sleep and complaints about homework, and this would win you the fair number of status points that each student can earn if they just remember to be humble.
We talk about the weather because it’s unobjectionable. For most students it was also fine to talk about school that way because it’s basically unobjectionable; most teenagers don’t get enough sleep, and as for homework, even if it’s not very much you probably don’t prefer to get more of it unless you’re one of those strange oddballs who thinks doing more work in school will benefit you later in life.
I call this signaling and that implies a receiver. There is a specific audience that reacts the correct way to the signal you send when you complain about finals, and it’s basically the average on-the-smart-side college student.
But the fact that small talk isn’t good conversation doesn’t mean that complaining about small talk is good conversation. In this same way, calling out signaling does not make me exempt from trying to signal. It just happens that I’m broadcasting to a different kind of receiver. Because I’m more interested in talking to someone about the masses of people sending out boring signals, the signal I send out is tuned to be received by someone who is interested in the tendencies of the masses, and feels like they are above those masses, if not in status, then perhaps in frequency of the carrier wave.
And by that same adage, the fact that I will then go and point out that my counter-signaling is actually still a form of signaling acts as another signal to an even higher receiver. It says that aside from the last message I sent out, I’m also interested in discussing meta-signaling and self-awareness of the signals we send out. It says that I’m critical of my own tendencies and looking for a receiver that’s similarly critical to talk about how even when we talk about signaling we are still signaling.
Thus we form the infinite regress of signaling – where any effort to talk about signaling could get interpreted as a merely higher-frequency signal. And here’s the thing about ultra-high frequency signals: they’re indistinguishable from noise. If I start to complain that everything is just signaling, if I look everywhere and see the same thing, that’s the same as getting no signal at all. It’s the same as being blind.
We can solve this by mostly staying out of the meta level and focusing on the object level. The object level says that when someone is complaining about finals, you should reply the same way you do when someone complains about anything else, regardless of the patterns you’ve noticed where everyone seems to complain about finals at the same time every year instead of doing something about it like starting to study earlier. The object level says that when a Senior tells a Freshman that “they’ll understand when they’re older why they shouldn’t schedule 8 am classes,” you should engage them as if they really believe what they just said, regardless of the number of times you’ve interacted with people who have parroted that sentiment without really believing it. If you’re talking about signaling, then the object level says not to back up an extra meta level and get confused about how you’re probably still signaling, regardless of your growing inner suspicion that all of your blog posts are just becoming noise.