Too much information.
I was reading an article in the Times Magazine about Hiroki Nakamura, the founder of Japanese street-fashion label VisVim.
Hiroki Nakamura splits his time between a 250-year old wooden house in Tokyo and a beach bungalow in LA. He listens to first-press vinyl recordings of Led Zeppelin and New Order through a vintage amplifier, shoots with old film cameras, and collects lots of amazing stuff: old denim jeans, fabrics, and leather jackets; an antique Indian motorcycle; a 1978 Jeep Cherokee; and a hot-rodded 80’s Mercedes sedan. And a lot more.
Contrast this to the way I live: our family home is a converted 1600 square foot farmhouse that borders a firing range in rural Vermont. I collect nothing, and only own and keep well-made things that are in constant use. I have 15 T-shirts that I rotate through, all the same brand and same cut, mostly black. I own five pairs of dutch-made Denham jeans, a 1958 Rolex watch, a Kayak, two bikes which I myself designed, a tuned modern VW Golf... and not much else.
About ten years ago I threw out everything I owned, and so I retain no physical mementos of my past. I read on a tablet and recently began deleting all my music files, having decided to listen exclusively to music I find on Ello, or streams randomized through Apple Music.**
Although we’re both successful designers and brand creators, it looks at first glance that Hiroki Nakamura and I have exact opposite philosophies: he collects and keeps things he loves (mostly vintage) and that inspire him, while limiting his use of technology. I collect nothing and use technology to minimize what I actually own.
But this difference is only surface. In reality we’re both living radical lifestyles that solve the same problem: there’s just too much fucking stuff in the world, and trying to manage it in a way that makes life better, and not overwhelming, is very difficult.
Technology gives almost all of us infinite choice in almost everything. Anyone with a smartphone has instant access to just about every song, book, film, and product ever created (and saved) by mankind. The velocity of information only accelerates with time.
Infinite choice is not necessarily a good thing. The first reason is that access to everything implies that there’s always something better than what we have. This leads to a never-ending sense of discontent and channel-changing. If the song we’re listening to isn’t quite right we switch. If the coat we have isn't the right shade of blue we buy another. This reinforces the illusion that some things are objectively better than others.
But if there’s one lesson we’re all being forced to learn, it’s that preferences are relative, not objective.
A way to illustrate this is to realize that there’s no objective reason why an experience someone enjoys (listening to Blue Monday, played through a tube amp on the original vinyl) is superior to something else (a random mix of music containing Arctic Monkeys, @poisonousbirds, and Miles Davis streamed through a computer).
It all depends on who we are, where we are, and timing.
Failure to recognize this apparent contradiction (that both things are equally good, while at the same time they aren't) lies beneath the anxiety that many people experience so much lately. Human beings naturally aspire towards a kind of stability of ideas which we associate with safety. We habitually hold tight to things we believe in because they help us create a safe context in a world that’s always changing.
This worked fine a hundred (or even fifty) years ago, when access to new ideas was both slow and limited. It was pretty easy to have a religion or philosophy that everyone around you agreed upon.
Suddenly being exposed to limitless ideas and information through technology has created an unconscious shock. On the Internet, just about every tightly held idea has a highly convincing opposite. That is disconcerting.
As a result, there's a tendency to hold tightly to the things we have become used to, while shunning as dangerous or false anything that’s new. In the extreme case we're moved to destroy things (or people) that don't fit. That’s where fundamentalism comes from — including the xenophobic promises made by populist politicians in the US, Europe, and just about everywhere else in the world these days.
What this boils down to is that it really matter less what you choose, and much more your relationship to your choices.
Faced with almost limitless possibilities for everything from music to clothing to media to religion, we need to do two things to survive and live happy lives:
The first is to allow ourselves to believe in, and attach to, those things that resonate most closely with who we are. By doing this we consciously limit the things we interact with, and really invest in the things we do. We don't get stuck in relativism, we don't loose ourselves in the vastness of possibility that technology has present us. We allow ourselves to make choices and have preferences.
At the same time, we also need to let go of our preferences when something new appears that contradicts them. What I choose, and what you choose may be radically different, and that's not only OK, it's to be expected. Neither idea is really better than the other, even when they don't fit together.
Holding both perspectives simultaneously can be difficult at first: to fall deeply in love and invest in things, while also maintaining the flexibility to let them go when they no longer serve us.
Achieving all this requires a third thing — faith. We need to have faith that by choosing one thing, and not another, we're not really missing out. Or to say it a better way, we are missing out — but that's OK, because the choice we've made is no better or worse than the alternative. It's just different.
This leads us to admit that we don’t really need everything in the world in order to be happy.
When we do that, we can stop worshipping billionaires, and perhaps feel a bit sorry for them instead. After all, they didn't get the memo. You don't need to own everything, and have access to everything to be happy. You just need to learn to be happy with what you have, while still being open and interested in what you don't.
That sounds like a great holiday message, and I guess it is: that it’s best to live with strongly held beliefs, while simultaneously understanding there is nothing out there that is so perfect, so important, or so necessary that we need to possess it to survive.
** I still buy and download music by bands I want to support (or whose music can’t be streamed).
Blue Monday album cover by New Order c. 1983.