Fewer Better Things
The Hidden Wisdom of Objects
A new book forthcoming from Bloomsbury in August 2018. Here is the full introduction.
Like most American children, I had a teddy bear when I was young. Two, actually. One was big and floppy, slightly walleyed, with a tight-fitting T-shirt bearing his name in hand-stitched red letters: phil. The second, smaller one was my favorite, ranking so highly in my imagination that he did not even have a name. If pressed, I would have referred to him as Bear, but he was more like an alter ego of myself. Compact and surprisingly heavy, with tiny glittering eyes and no garments or other accessories, he was a constant companion and an actor in whatever imaginary narratives I invented. Despite his modest size, he was a big presence in my life.
I owned Phil and Bear before I even knew how to talk, and I interacted with them mostly without words, through touch. Today I look at children three or four years of age and wonder how they will be different, not only from my generation but from all others preceding mine. Most kids still are given stuffed animals by their parents, often in profusion, and in many colors, shapes, and sizes. But what really seems to capture a child’s attention is technology. If you want to see a distracted ten-year-old suddenly achieve total focus, hand them a smartphone or a digital tablet and watch them go down the rabbit hole. They will probably already be well adapted to the device and its possibilities, and able to navigate it as if by ancient instinct. I have heard stories, possibly apocryphal, of kids swiping at the cover of printed magazines in an effort to move the picture on to the next one. Many a behind-the-times parent, using an analog camera loaded with celluloid film, has witnessed their child’s baffled disappointment when the picture fails to appear immediately on-screen on the back.
Clearly, children are getting a lot out of technology, and they will continue to get more out of it as they grow older. They will have countless transformative experiences in the infinite and depthless zones of the digital, not only stimulation and entertainment, but also information and awareness. What will they be like when they reach maturity? Quite likely, their breadth of understanding will be vastly superior to my own generation’s. Their grasp of the world will be as unlimited as the Internet itself. They will have explored its distant reaches, virtually, from an early age. On the other hand, to the extent that these children clutch a smartphone rather than a teddy bear to their small selves, they may be losing an intimate connection to physical objects, which has nurtured human development for many thousands of years. Commentators have worried semiseriously about the emergence of an entirely new species, the “brittle bodied, hefty headed Homo Technologicus,” who can surf the web with ease but has trouble throwing a ball. We are running a giant experiment on this generation, without a control group.
Interestingly, young people do seem to realize that they are missing out on something. My brother’s family lives in Munich, but last summer they came to see me in New York. During their visit, I noticed that my fifteen-year-old niece, Sophia, had set up a framed photograph of her cat Pepper next to her improvised bed in the living room. She had brought it with her all the way from Germany. I was surprised and asked her why she had bothered. Didn’t she have pictures of the cat on her phone? She replied in a way that was as perceptive as it was tongue-twisting: “Yes, but I want a picture of Pepper. And the point of the phone is not to show a picture of Pepper, while the point of the picture of Pepper is to be a picture of Pepper.”
Sophia had cleverly noticed an important fact about traditional (that is, nondigital) objects. Because they are unable to transform themselves at the level of content, they must answer to our needs without the benefit of adaptability. A physical artifact has to have, as Sophia put it, “a point.” A framed photo, like a pot or a pen or a table, must serve its purpose, just as it is, without apps or upgrades. In the digital era, this irreducible thingness may seem like a drawback. But let’s not forget that it is also an enduring human value. A well-made object is informed by thousands of years of accumulated experiment and know-how. Whenever we make or use an everyday tangible thing, or even when we contemplate one seriously, we commune with this pool of human understanding.
A smartphone may help its user to navigate an unfamiliar city perfectly well, and goodness knows it can hold a lot of cat pictures. But it was probably manufactured a world away from its user, with great negative impact on the environment and on workers’ lives. It can also diminish our awareness of our immediate surroundings, as when we follow Google Maps like a mouse in a maze, facedown, rather than looking at the streets around us. It’s when we don’t engage with our material environment in a focused manner that we truly lose our way. As a culture we are in danger of falling out of touch, not only with objects, but with the intelligence they embody: the empathy that is bound up in tangible things.
I am speaking here of material intelligence: a deep understanding of the material world around us, an ability to read that material environment, and the know-how required to give it new form. This skill set was once nearly universal in the human population, but it has gradually shifted to specialists. Meanwhile, materials themselves have proliferated, becoming more numerous and complicated thanks to scientific research. As a result of these tendencies toward specialization and complexity, even as our literacy in other areas (like visual codes and interactive technology) has increased, our collective material intelligence has steadily plummeted. We are all born with this faculty. It is instinctive—it’s why a child loves his teddy bear. But like any inherent capacity, it can flourish or fade depending on how it is nurtured.
There are many different facets of materiality, many ways we can engage with physical objects. We may or may not notice them, or know what to make of them, but the objects are there all the same, awaiting our understanding. Here’s a good example of what I mean. My grandfather Art grew up in Coffeyville, Kansas. When his sister Gail was thirteen years old, she was hired to mind the neighbors’ 160-acre farm for a few days while they were away. When she returned a week later with four dollars’ wages, an impressive sum for a girl her age, her parents asked how it had been. She said fine, but there had been one problem. The hog had died. It was August, and under the summer sun a bunch of farm dogs had chased the two-hundred-pound pig until it expired in the heat. This was in the days before landlines came to rural Kansas, much less smartphones, so she couldn’t call for help.
Here’s how my grandfather told the story:
What to do? There was the family winter meat supply useless on the ground and getting ready to spoil. So my sister did the only thing she could. She got out the butcher’ s knife and butchered the pig. She kindled a fire in the kitchen cook stove. She skinned the hog and cut it into pot-sized chunks. She cooked it on the wood stove in the hot kitchen. She washed and sterilized twenty Mason jars. She cut up and packed the meat in the jars. She cooked the meat jars in the pressure cooker. She flipped down the latches on the jars. She let the jars cool, and moved them to the cyclone cellar. Then she washed up, and went to bed.
This was a thirteen-year-old! What is amazing is that this skill set was more or less expected of girls her age (though impressive enough, I guess, that my grandfather remembered the tale many years later). The difference between my great-aunt Gail and today’s children has something to do with a rise in squeamishness, but it is mainly a decline in material intelligence. She grew up on a midwestern farm in the midst of the Great Depression. Although the family was impoverished, they had a deep connection to the material world. Homesteaders like them would have been intimately familiar not only with raw meat and mason jars, but with many different types of timber, stone, clay, straw, metals, and innumerable other materials, and many different processes for working with them. If they needed to build a fence, they wouldn’t go to Home Depot—they would cut down a tree and split it into posts. Every day they fed and milked cows. After the cows were slaughtered or died, their hides furnished shoe leather for the family.
There’s no going back to the old days, nor should we necessarily want to. I doubt Aunt Gail was especially glad to have had the chance to butcher that pig, and my grandfather remembered that when he went out to the freezing cold milking shed early in the morning, he would mutter to himself, “I sure as hell don’t want to be a farmer when I grow up.” But he had something important going for him. Like most people of his generation, he was sensitively attuned to the material landscape around him. And this, in turn, provided a strong sense of social cohesion. In Coffeyville there was a sense of shared enterprise, a commonly held set of skills and experiences. People may not have agreed about everything, but they faced similar day-to-day challenges. They worked and lived within an established cycle of harvests, of booms and busts. Whether they liked it or not, they were all in it together.
Now, being literate in the materiality of a dust bowl farm is one thing. Doing the same in our technologically sophisticated times is much more difficult. One doesn’t have to be nostalgic to notice what we’re missing: In an average New York City apartment building, you can easily live for years just ten feet above another family’s heads and never once see them. A contemporary office is typically constructed from wipe-clean plastics, wipe-clean fabrics, and wipe-clean laminated composites, all of which are created in industrial settings in locations that are unknown and probably far distant. Our material environment is not only less accessible and more complex than it ever has been, but its origins are also remote from us, in every sense.
It’s true that a farm family of the 1930s had to depend on their material intelligence for survival, while today’s city dwellers and office workers can get away with ignoring their physical environment and still make a fine living. Maybe this feels like a sort of progress. But basic necessity is only one side of our relationship to materials. There are others, too: pleasure, discovery, inventiveness, and, particularly important, responsibility. Our relationship to materials determines much about the way we live on earth. Many people think of themselves as being committed to sustainability, but they focus on a relatively limited set of issues: what type of fish they order at a restaurant, how many airplane trips they take, whether they turn the lights off when they aren’t in the room. As important as some of those issues are, they pale compared to the impact of the objects we shape and live with. One of the most significant aspects of material intelligence is that it can help us to make better choices about how we live on the planet.
So while it makes sense to be “pro-object,” that doesn’t have to mean being in favor of any object. Having an overabundance of things is sadly out of keeping with our real human needs. Most things being made today are not worth the precious resources of material, effort, and space we have devoted to them. This does not mean that we should abandon objects and look elsewhere for our future, though—or that we should attempt to reduce or even eliminate our dependency on the physical. On the contrary, the reason that we have too many unsatisfying objects in our lives is that we don’t care enough about any single one of them.
William Morris, the great craft reformer of the late nineteenth century, was one of the earliest writers to espouse environmentalism, over a century ago. “Surely there is no square mile of earth’s inhabitable surface that is not beautiful in its own way,” he wrote, “if we men will only abstain from willfully destroying that beauty.” He also famously asked his contemporaries to “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This sentiment still rings true today, particularly if we add the idea that objects should be meaningful. Let’s not think of things as ends in themselves, props to put on the mantelpiece. Rather, let’s consider them as points of contact between people. Every object represents a potential social connection. By better understanding the tangible things in our lives, we better understand our fellow humans.
Morris, like many design reformers of the past, thought that each object had an inherent value, that true judges of quality could see for themselves whether it was any good. From this perspective, things are bound by logical rules, based on function, systems of ornament, and appropriate use of materials. Today, we might look at things a bit differently: An object can only be good for someone. Its “goodness” is not essential to it, but rather arises through the relationships that it brings into being. Thus the real test of an object’s worth lies not in its efficiency, novelty, or even beauty (which, in any case, is in the eye of the beholder), but whether it gives us a sense of our shared humanity. It is hardly ever wrong to value an object. The problem lies in not valuing things enough.
A single thing may carry hundreds of stories about the people who made it or who have lived with it. The challenge is to read those stories. Accordingly, this book paints a full, kaleidoscopic picture of material experience. Making things, using them, and learning about them—all these ways of interacting with objects connect. We make things out of materials. Then we use them, in ways that bring us into intimate contact with their qualities. These objects in use both prompt and aid our search for knowledge; we learn from the material landscape around us, and that, in turn, informs how we make things. And so the cycle starts again. All along the way, there are opportunities for human empathy. Makers and users can equally appreciate the warmth of wood, the cool hardness of metal, the pliability of rubber. Just as a skilled maker will anticipate a user’s needs, a really attentive user will be able to imagine the way something was made. The material object serves as a bridge between these two perspectives.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the material landscape is the way everything in it is interwoven, in ways that are just as profound and subtle as the “networked” realm of the digital. When we overemphasize the promise of the digital information economy, we not only express an irrational preference for the new over the old, we also miss the physical know-how that binds our society together. The cultural habit of marginalizing this kind of expertise has deep historical roots and has always been related to class condescension. I believe that by challenging this legacy and building respect for material intelligence across our culture, we can form a bridge that emphasizes shared experience: a greater awareness of the things we hold in common.