The ‘cultural forecaster’ James Wallman published a book last year called ‘Stuffocation’. In it he suggested that we should increasingly focus on things we do over products we buy. Be more experientialist than materialist.
The book was in response to the increasing problem of consumer clutter weighing us down. But I’m not sure how long this is going to be a problem. Because much of the stuff we buy is either being digitised, or rented, or it is becoming more robust.
Much of the stuff around our homes is media of one form or another: books, films, games, newspapers, magazines. But these things are increasingly served up digitally to a device rather than consumed in a physical medium. The result is lots of digital clutter — a challenge in its own right — but though gigabytes may fill up your hard disk, they do not fill up your home.
Of course even the digital stuff doesn’t become clutter if you rent it rather than own it. You just have the challenge of discovering and accessing the stuff you want, when you want it — a different challenge altogether — as Spotify and Netflix demonstrate (and invest heavily to overcome).
It’s not just media that is increasingly rented: there’s a strong argument that any asset that gets underutilised will increasingly be borrowed rather than owned. Uber is aiming to do this with vehicles, one of the most under-used assets and one that, with the advent of self-driving cars, will be ripe for attacking with an alternative business model.
We increasingly share and rent our homes later in life, with more people already owning their homes outright than having a mortgage. Though social rentals are declining, by 2025 more people are expected to be in private rentals than have a mortgage.
Our phones are effectively leased, or at least are on hire-purchase. As are many of our other devices these days.
There’s a limit to what we actually need to own.
The End of Obsolescence?
The devices that we do own appear to be lasting longer rather than shorter times. We may not behave like this culturally, but the reality is that many of our devices are highly capable long after their prescribed window of value.
I recently bought a ten year old car (see here for my bangernomics practices) that drives like it is new. I have a seven-year-old laptop that is still more than capable for all the things that most people use a PC for. Because so much of the content and services we consume now exist in the cloud, the demands on the devices at the edge are often not that great.
As the business model for homes, cars, and digital devices shifts, the imperative to build in obsolescence starts to disappear. As the company financing the purchase you WANT the products to maintain their function and hold their value. If you can’t convince a manufacturer to make you products that fit your brief then the chances are that you will make your own: the barriers to entry for designing and manufacturing all of these products are falling.
This theory doesn’t address all categories of clutter: clothes, for example. But imagine if we could find a way to incentivise the production of jeans that last a decade. Shirts that don’t succumb to stains or wear and tear.
None of this helps with the coming jobs apocalypse that seems to be looming. But it may help us to save the planet. And if Wallman is right, to be a bit happier.