#159: Dig for Fire

Long before the pandemic started but especially during it, “stuff” has seemed to inexorably fill up any domestic space we make available for it, almost as if without our consent or even our involvement. Some of us actively seek and hoard that stuff; for those who don’t, or the would-be minimalists who consciously resist doing so, that process of constant gradual accumulation can be more puzzling. Kelly Pendergrast captured this feeling perfectly in her recent essay about a corkpull she received as a gift and couldn’t seem to throw out even though she wanted to: “Life would be simpler if it had never entered the house, but between the gift-ness and its unfortunate excellence at performing its single task, I haven’t been able to get rid of it…sending it on to the abyss of the Goodwill donation bin or the eternity of the landfill feels irresponsible. And so I’m stuck with it, the unwilling caretaker for this and a panoply of other shitty objects that found their way into my small apartment.” Pendergrast offers a key insight here: that the corkpull’s near-perfection as a consumer good is paradoxically its worst quality—both the reason it ended up in the house in the first place as well as the reason it’s so difficult to discard.

Conventional wisdom holds that the supply chains pumping consumer goods into our homes are doing it for us—that a multitude of companies have conducted painstaking research to learn exactly what we want and then give it to us more and more efficiently, as if the piles of detritus that overflow from our drawers and closets are the realization of our wildest dreams. In fact, as Pendergrast writes, our homes are just way stations on stuff’s journey from its status as raw materials to that of trash, ashes to ashes and dust to dust: “The corkpull is a tiny piece of flotsam on a tide of material that flows through ships, stores, houses, hands, and all I can do is try desperately to manage the rivulet running through my own life.” This observation echoes a 2019 piece by Chenoe Hart imagining a world in which increasingly streamlined logistics and shipping enable us to buy anything and then easily return it, with permanent ownership giving way to a form of short-term consumption that is the physical equivalent of streaming media. But as Pendergrast points out, most of what ends up in our homes won’t recirculate within the economy—we’ll ultimately throw most of it away. Regardless, our homes are just intermediate nodes in a longer chain, and our jobs as the temporary stewards of nomadic objects is no less critical than that of the delivery drivers and warehouse pickers who encounter them upstream.

Why are we all enlisted in this esoteric effort to shuffle things around from place to place? Economies and markets seem to pursue their own goals, irrespective of what their individual constituents want; metaphors like the invisible hand suggest a mystical force at work, even as they purport to represent the sum of individuals’ rational choices and objectives. Maybe we don’t need to know why. In 1867, the physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed a thought experiment that would hypothetically violate the second law of thermodynamics, which states that the entropy of a closed system can’t decrease. In the experiment, two containers of gas are separated by a small trapdoor that a demon selectively opens and closes, allowing certain molecules to pass through and thus heating the gas in one container while cooling the other. Don’t worry about the physics—it turned out that the demon, by making decisions about when to open the trapdoor, was actually doing work, expending energy and thereby generating its own entropy. Maxwell's demon, like the invisible hand, was a placeholder for something ineffable (and possibly nonexistent) that we needed to talk about before understanding it. If human civilization itself is a mechanism for decreasing the entropy of nature, converting it into something more meaningful and useful to us, then garbage and waste are civilization’s outlet for that same process, the domain where we produce entropy and occasionally even merge the trash back into nature itself. Like Maxwell’s demon, by humbly letting unwanted merchandise into our homes—opening and closing the trapdoor—we’re doing all the work, resisting the constantly increasing disorder of a mysterious universe and not always knowing why.

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Last week I wrote about physical and digital crowdedness, content hyperinflation, and the possibility that the internet’s frontier has finally closed.