Tokyo, crowded and beautiful.

28 May 2021

The World is Crowded and That is Natural

Minimalism is en vogue. But how minimal can a lived-in world really be?

Christopher Butler is a designer living in Durham, NC.

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A lived-in world is crowded. It is strewn with beings and things. It does not tend toward order and tidiness. It is an adolescent’s messy bedroom; its chaos a projected image of the developing minds living within it, finding and making their way.

So, then, what is the “natural world?” Our settled upon definition is peculiar: the natural world is “all of the animals, plants, and other things existing in nature and not made or caused by people.” Are we, then, unnatural? We humans are, after all animals, too. We evolved, just like everything else on this planet. We are alive in the same way that we consider anything else that is born, grows, and reproduces is alive. No, we are no less natural than a tree. Which means that the things we make, which are made from nothing but the materials we find here on Earth, are just as natural as the home of a bird, made of and upon that tree.

Perhaps defining nature is little more than a semantic exercise of perspective. It can be quite easy to look upon our most densely human spaces — those which we’ve most purged of green and crowded with lines and words and people and noise and bright lights — and imagine them before, before we made them our canvas, or even after, when we are gone and “nature” reclaims its land.

Recently I was looking at a photograph that accompanied an article Bruce Sterling wrote for WIRED Magazine in 1995. The image showed a couple standing at a telephone booth at a street corner in Prague. A public analog clock stood on a pole behind them, and to their left was an even older metal sign bolted to the side of a stone building. Framing the picture on the right was a street lantern in the foreground, wrapped in wires that criss-crossed the streets. (I tried to find that photograph, taken by Antonín Kratochvíl, somewhere online for you to see, but failed. The one below, though older and taken by someone else, is a suitable substitute.)

My first thought was to wonder whether any of the things in the photograph was still there today. The sign, maybe. But the telephone booth, clock, and lantern are likely gone, replaced by their modern counterparts. The street is probably lit by a sleeker LED, but the clock and phone booth are no longer necessary. The question is, which is the better picture? Which is more beautiful? Is the world better off with shrinking and disappearing technology, or was there something to the way technology and space were interwoven in the past that was special and more than just for its nostalgic value now?

I know I looked at that photograph and thought to myself how true its image is. That is who we are, I thought.

I wonder — as technology continues to miniaturize processing power and harness unseen signals, how will the world around us change? Will cities need anything more than buildings, roads, and machines to take us from place to place? How long until every wire and cable is gone? Before every sign and streetlight is replaced by smarter technology in our pockets and on our faces? It’s difficult to imagine a world like that — without the hand of humanity as clear upon the surface as it is today. Maybe it would be better — fewer distractions and intrusions; more room for the “natural” world to show through — but I know I’d miss bits of text and image scattered about the world.

How minimal can a functional world be?

 

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It seems to be in our nature to resist our nature. We push on perceived and imagined boundaries between us and other to understand who we are, and yet it is that very act which defines us. To describe ourselves is to be ourselves. In our contemporary culture, that happens most often within the frame of technology.

Technological progress is, of course, a continually gathering and momentous influence cloud, formed by the vapors of our collective mind and raining back down upon us the discoveries, surprises, and harms that fuel the cycle anew. Broadly speaking, technology is as natural as this metaphor; we make things and things make us. There is no other — no unnatural force — at work. And yet we are prone to perceiving our things as unnatural and ourselves as defiled by them. It’s a strange tension to be human, to be consciously making the world in which we live: We make things to define ourselves as more than animals; we reject those things to define ourselves as more than machines.

Just over ten years ago, I was living in an apartment furnished with virtually nothing. I had a mattress on the floor to sleep on and a small lamp beside it. In another room, I had a desk and a chair, both purchased for $15 from a nearby junk shop. I had few articles of clothing and the barest of implements in the kitchen. A friend visited one day. He looked around, laughed, and said, “Chris, you have a body. Give it a place to sit!” I doubt now, so many years later, that I had the clarity of thought to support my austere lifestyle — that I actually intended to somehow live as just a mind, as if I could be totally free of things — but in hindsight, the incoherence of how I was living is abundantly clear. After all, what is a mind, anyway? Does a mind, confined as it is in flesh, even have the ability to conceive of what it might be on its own? Contained in my friend’s remark was the full tension of embodiment — of having a mind that can conceive of itself as simply inhabiting a body, and yet being subject to its experience in a physical world.

Had you asked me then whether I had a clear understanding of what was natural and what was not, I would not have had a clear answer. Though I didn’t know how to describe it, I felt out of balance. I felt subject to technology more than empowered by it. Many people feel this way, but it’s important to realize that many do not.

Just as there are thriving communities of minimalists, modern luddites, spiritual abstainers, ascetics, and off-gridders, there are those who prefer a completely different kind of life. While many are simply much more comfortable with technology, others desire to remove the defining line between person and thing entirely. Some eagerly await a technological singularity, a point at which technology advances at such an exponential rate that transferring their consciousness to embody a machine will be possible. Some are body-modders, motivated by infirmity and curiosity to physically integrate technology and biology. And most are just fully bought-in to the kind of “smart” technology that can transform a home into an operating system of convenience. For those who prefer technological immersion, we may be entering a golden age.

And yet, is that level of immersion good? It is fascinating to wonder at the way that our landscape and surroundings become more simple as we increase the sophistication of our technology — less decorated with things — but our bodies become more complex, weighed down by machines from head to toe and even within.

In between the modern ascetic and the cyborg is, of course, a balance. Both extremes are as natural as the median. They are who we are; expressions of the senses in a densely sensory world. What we all share is a need for the sensory experience that we and the things we make provide.

 

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In his book, A Theology of Things, theologian Conrad Bonifazi attempts to reconcile the human experience as a synthesis of the spiritual and physical. I find myself returning to this text every few years and considering his thinking (it was published over fifty years ago) in light of some new technological intrusion that has me desiring to withdraw. He writes:

“The understanding — predominant, though not universally held among the Greeks — of the inferiority of matter in relation to spirit has haunted the European mind throughout the centuries…We may say that from the moment it was said that “the Word became flesh,” matter and spirit were understood to be one whole; henceforth matter was not to be regarded as a drag upon the human spirit but, rather, as indispensable to it.”

Bonifazi sought to clarify a perspective commonly held that matter defiles spirit. Even within his own spiritual community, the inherent impurity of the world is a prevalent notion; his contrary interpretation, for many, was iconoclastic if not profane.

As he builds his argument, he lays a foundation by exploring the costs of denying the world. He quotes Admiral Richard Byrd, who wrote in his 1938 memoir, Alone, about his experience exploring Antarctica:

“I did not recognize…that the whole complex nervous-muscular mechanism which is the body was waiting, as if with baited breath, for the intrusion of familiar stimuli from the outside world, and could not comprehend why they were denied. A man can isolate himself from habits and conveniences…and force his mind to forget. But the body is not so easily sidetracked. It keeps on remembering. Habit has set up in the core of the being a system of automatic physic-chemical actions and reactions which insist upon replenishment. That is where the conflict arises. I don’t think that a man can do without sounds and smells and voices and touch any more than he can do without phosphorous and calcium.”

Following that is another fascinating quote, this from Christopher Burney in a 1952 memoir titled Solitary Confinement:

“I soon learned that variety is not the spice, but the very stuff of life. We need the constant ebb and flow of wavelets of sensation, thought, perception, action and emotion, lapping on the shore of our consciousness, now here, now there, keeping even our isolation in the ocean of reality, so that we neither encroach upon…We are narrow men, twisted men, smooth and nicely rounded men, and poets; but whatever we are, we have our shape, and we perceive it best in the experience of many things.”

Both testimonies, anecdotal as they are, emphasize the naturalness of human beings. Not only that we suffer in isolation from one another, but also at the denial of the whole of society.

Bonifazi adds to this line of thinking that differentiation between ourselves and the world — between us and things that are not us — is learned. Otherness is not obvious.

“That our childhood recognition of the distinction between persons and things comes considerably later than our differentiation between persons…argues that the concept of a material world is derivative, that it is an abstraction from the world in which men act and have their being, and that it is a viewpoint maintained in a position of withdrawal from the world. For what is known in reflection is a mental construction; to exist is to be in dynamic interrelation with other existents.”

I have thought about this very thing as I have watched my infant daughter make sense of the world. It was clear to me, by the time she could speak, that while she knew who was who in her life, she did not recognize a meaningful difference between persons and things. Even now, in her fifth year on this Earth, the lines are sometimes blurry. She’ll learn how defined they can be, but I’ll mourn the loss of integration on her behalf.

I continually find myself defining lines of my own. Every thing I make represents a choice, as does everything I choose to use that was made by someone else. Every choice is a boundary. The world of a mature adult is crowded with decades of established boundaries and the rules which govern them, just as the world of a maturing civilization is crowded with millennia of its own things and the customs and conflicts that come with them.

We are the same people who etched images into caves and mountains thousands of years ago, the same people who fill every urban space with images still, the same people who imagine doing so into the future.

When I draw a line it always feels like a worthy action — a correction, sometimes; a rejection, other times; always a righteous stand for something preeminent. But I almost always find myself moving back and forth over old lines and feeling the regrets and guilt and smallness that come with me. It seems that is a necessary part of the experience.

I regret the excesses of our crowded, lived-in world. We make things within a system that tends toward waste. But that system isn’t necessary; making things is. Marx said that when we reduce things to merely instruments of profit, we deprive them of their intrinsic dignity. That is because things are as sacred as anything else that emanates from us. (We treasure our words, yet trash our stuff, imagine that). It is our right to express our selves by making things; it is not our right to destroy with the things we make. I do not regret our things, but the world has every right to thrive as we do.

Our ability to wrestle with these perspectives, to balance our being with the being of every other inhabitant of reality, is a burden of consciousness. But if we won’t do it, who will? The products of a civilization may define its beauty, but the balance of its expression with the world it inhabits is what determines its longevity.