This post is part of the #Purge365 series about a midlife journey through a year of purging a house – and a life – of unnecessary things. Click here to see all previous posts.
I’ve wondered what it is that has been so very gratifying about Project #Purge365. Clearly I’m not the only one. If the Marie Kondo craze proves anything, it is that there is a huge desire – in the Western world at least – to unclutter your home and get rid of a vast amount of personal belongings.
It seems to be mostly women who have jumped on this bandwagon. If you’re a man and find yourself Kondo-ing your sock drawer, it’s probably more a reflection how much you love your wife or girlfriend and aim to please her, rather than your own true desire for decluttering. But I might be wrong.
In any case, when I think about what it is that gives me such deep satisfaction about yet another cupboard cleaned out and organized, I have to say it’s about control. You decide on which objects to remove, you remove them, and they are gone – permanently. It’s not like the minute you get rid of 5 old t-shirts, 7 new ones will automatically flutter in the next day (although Amazon would have it exactly that way). You have total control (if not always self-control) over what comes in.
But not so with the virtual world in our lives. The virtual world is becoming ever more cluttered, and this takes a mental toll on us.
For instance, take the concept of “Inbox Zero.” Remember how that was a thing? A lot of the clutter in our modern lives manifests itself in an ever overflowing email inbox, putting you permanently behind from the moment you get up in the morning. Have you, like me, pursued this pipe dream, fighting valiantly, trying to whittle down your email inbox to, say, 57 messages, just to wake up the next morning to 184 new ones? Even though you diligently unsubscribe from everything that pushes in unbidden, it’s a losing battle. I have finally come to the conclusion that inbox zero is, in fact, an illusion. You will simply never achieve it. You might as well, as the latest advice seems to go, make your peace with Inbox Infinity.
I was thinking all this while going through our CD collection. Music is another thing that has entirely moved into the cloud. In my lifetime, we have transitioned from record players to tape players to CDs to iTunes to Spotify. You can’t complain about clutter there, I give you that. Outsourcing your music to the likes of Spotify means that you don’t have to keep anything organized at all.
But I sometimes wonder: Isn’t it a huge risk we are all taking, having more and more things that we value reside in this vague “cloud” out there? The Internet, the Cloud – it seems like an enormous house of cards. What if it all comes crashing down one day? Are we doomed to live without music, recipes, photos, letters, books, forever after, or at least until such time as we can figure out how to build physical things again?
It seems as if we – humanity -are at an unprecedented crossroads: Up until this point we have built a staggering variety of things. Of course we continue to churn out “things.” Future archaeologists won’t even have to dig for stuff, they’ll simply have to motor around our oceans to inspect the debris floating about. But for the first time in history, many of our intellectual accomplishments no longer come in a physical form. If the Egyptians had never chiseled any hieroglyphs into stone tablets, if Shakespeare hadn’t written down his works, if Einstein hadn’t put pen to paper – we would never know it even happened. Who can tell, maybe the computer age already happened before and we simply don’t know about it, because their iCloud blew up one day and everything had to be reinvented?
The fabulous novel Station Eleven, which I read some years back, imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which most humans are wiped off the surface of the Earth, with bands of survivors roaming the land and competing for scarce resources. It doesn’t go into detail as to how this happens – a mysterious pandemic, I think. But it seems to me that it wouldn’t even take that much. What if we were simply no longer able to produce enough electricity to power the iCloud? Or, simpler still, what if something happened that destroyed every single password ever created so we would all lose access to everything that’s “out there?”
The movie Yesterday plays on this idea of losing a chunk of intellectual property in a more upbeat way than Station Eleven. It’s cute how one guy recreates every single Beatles song from memory in a quest to become famous in a world where The Beatles never were, and it’s funny how other inventions – Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and alas, Harry Potter – have also vanished in this alternate reality.
I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but I find myself returning to this theme more and more often. On the one hand, I know that holding on to physical things is futile. Hence my newfound drive to purge as many of them as seems reasonable. But on the other hand, not holding on to physical objects seems even crazier. What are we, if in the end we have nothing to show for?
Such thoughts are to blame for the fact that I haven’t been able to purge our music CD collection. I know it’s silly. If indeed we lose the Internet, it’s likely we’ll have lost electricity altogether, and nothing will work. But much as I tried, I couldn’t bring myself to toss the CDs, and I even kept one of the girls’ old portable CD players – if only to demo its marvels to a grandchild one day.
I better keep a stash of batteries handy too. If indeed we find ourselves in post-apocalyptic desolation one day, I will be a hero if I can help everyone forget their woes for a while by playing the ABBA Gold album from start to finish.