Become much more what you already are

  • 11 min of reading
  • Stats

Thanks to Michal Kašpárek I found this transcript of a speech by Bruce Sterling. The transcript is from 2011, but the speech is actually from 2009. It's a very interesting piece, which will make you ponder, so go and read it. The final part, where he advises about clutter, has resonated with me so much I decided I'll make an excerpt of it on my blog.

Perhaps it's something everyone already knows thanks to Marie Kondo, but I don't. I have no idea what is Kondo's advice apart from the "DOES IT SPARK JOY?" meme. But from Wikipedia it seems she published her first book in 2011, so Bruce was first anyway.

Two notes: The headings are added by me for better orientation. Second, there's also a recording of the speech, which I didn't see (yet).

Photo by David Mao

The excerpt follows.

Objects are print-outs

For people of your generation and especially for your children, objects are print-outs. They’re best understood as print-outs. They’re not treasures, they’re not things you want, they’re not things to stockpile, they’re not material wealth, they’re basically frozen social relationships. That’s what these chairs are, and this building, and that duct tape and the rest of it.

You need to think of them not in terms of “Oh, I have this pen and I must keep my pen.” You need to think of these objects in terms of hours of time and volumes of space.

I know that sounds very science-fictional, but it’s also a good design approach to it. Because if you’re picking these things up, moving them around, all these possessions, this material clutter in your environment… You’re washing it, you’re storing it, you’re heating it, you’re trying to keep it from its inevitable decay. You’re curating it. You’re looking after it.

These possessions are embodied social relationships. They’re all made by people, designed by people, sold by people, promulgated by people, advertised by people. They’re a whole set of relationships that happen to have some particular material form. And it’s not hard for you to get other ones or get new ones.

Now, you can argue that you should economize and just buy cheap things, or try and de-materialize. Not be materialistic, and content yourself with things that are very cheap or very organic.

Economizing is not social

That’s not the way forward. Economizing is not social. When you economize, you’re starving somebody else. Really. If you don’t give them money, they don’t have any money. And if they don’t offer you any money, you don’t get any money. That’s not a social flow, or even a sociable relationship.

What you need to do is re-assess the objects in your space and time. And I’m going to explain to you how to do this.

Everyday objects

The king of objects, the monarch among objects are not fancy objects. They’re not high-tech objects, they’re not organic objects, they’re not biological objects, they’re everyday objects. Things that you’re with every day.

Whatever is in your time most, what’s taking up most of your time, or in your space most. The stuff that’s closest to your skin, on your skin, inside your skin, in intimate areas. Space and time. That’s what’s going on, that’s where it’s at. That’s where it’s happening.

Common everyday objects. You need to have the best possible common everyday objects.


Number one, a bed. You’re spending a third of your life in the thing. You never take it seriously. Rich people have great beds. You should go out and get the best bed you can get. Money is no object. On a per hour rental basis, beds, super important. The sheets, the pillows, pretty high up there too.

Every morning when you wake up you will thank me for this.

I know you’re resisting it. It’s like: “Why? Why am I buying a fancy bed? It’s bad for me, I’m being taken outside of my comfort zone.”

You live in the thing! Get rid of the wedding china! Get rid of the tuxedos! The exercise equipment you never use! The things you never touch! The heaps of things, the heaps of material objects in your closet and, God help you, your storage locker. Sell them all, buy a bed. Get a real bed.


Get a chair.

I shouldn’t have to tell people who work with computers to get a chair. No, they’d rather whine about their wrists blowing out, their spines blowing out. They wouldn’t come up with a chair that would cost them maybe fifteen cents an hour over the first amortizable period. The world is full of beautifully designed ergonomic chairs. Get a real damn chair!

Sell the other chairs, the fancy chairs, the couch, the over-stuffed thing, your grandmother’s chair. Get rid of your grandmother’s chair, it was never properly built to begin with.

Get rid of it. Get rid of it, if you don’t use it! If you haven’t touched it in a year, get rid of it immediately. Sell it, buy real things you really use. 00:35:08-7

Real stuff

Now, you’re going to have a lot fewer things, but the actual quality of your life will skyrocket! If you have real shoes. Real underwear. Women, if you use actual cosmetics instead of shoplifting cheap cosmetics, because you’re deeply conflicted about your impulses. Go ahead, it’s on your lips, it’s on your eyelids, get real cosmetics.

Four variety of items

I’m going to explain to you how you do this, because it’s a hard karma. I’ve done it three times, I’m an author, I’m pursued by books, things accumulate. Periodically I have to scrape the barnacles off, but it’s doable. It’s doable and it’s very hackerly.

First you need to make lists. Hackers love lists. A chart. You can make a flowchart. Flowchart it if it makes you any happier.

Four variety of items: Beautiful things; emotionally important things; tools, devices and appliances that efficiently perform some useful function; and category four, everything else.

Let me repeat these four things. Number one: beautiful things. Number two: things that have some emotional meaning for you. Number three: your tools, devices and appliances. Number four: everything else.

Beautiful things

How do you know if it belongs in category number one, beautiful things? Beautiful things are very important. Is it so beautiful that you’re going to show it to your friends? Is it on display? Are you going to share its beauty with people in your immediate area? Your wife, your husband, your drinking buddies, your pals, the techno DJ from downstairs, whatever. Is it so beautiful that you’re driven to exhibit it, to show it off and to share it with others?

It’s not that beautiful? It’s not beautiful! Gotta go!

Take its picture. Make sure you get the bar code, if for some reason you want it back. Just virtualize it, put it in your thumb drive. It does not belong in your immediate vicinity. You weren’t born with it, you’re not going to die with it, it’s gotta go.

Emotionally important things

Number two, emotionally important. Okay, we’re all the slaves of our objects. You’re going to be in there, you’re going to think: “Oh yeah, Sterling says I should annotate and catalogue my stuff, and remove the things that are basically enslaving me! Oh, but not this! Not you, not you, beloved little pancake-turner!”

How do you know if it’s emotionally important? Are you going to tell anybody else about it? “This is your grandfather’s watch, son. He wore this, and I’ve worn it too, and it should be for you. Look at how well made it was. He carried this in battle, he fought for our freedom, look, there’s bloodstains on this watch.”

Does it have a narrative? Is there something you want to tell other people about it?

Or are you actually its slave? Is it just emotionally blackmailing you because you’re used to having it around? If you can’t tell anybody about it, there’s no associated story, and it has no possible emotional meaning for anybody else but you, it doesn’t really mean anything to you. Get rid of it, you’ll never miss it.

Take its picture first. Catalogue everything about it. You might want to write down a story, the way it made you feel. It’s all right. You can get another one. Plenty of junk on eBay. It’s just going to sit there, you can click it, you can have it, it’s not hard.

Great-grandfather couldn’t do that: got no eBay. Get it out of your vicinity. Stop dusting it off, stop heating it up, stop paying for it. Just get it away!

Your tools

And then there’s your tools, right?

You’re losing nothing by getting rid of these things. They have no real meaning for you. You are gaining time and light and space and health by removing these objects from your vicinity. They’re social relationships imposed on you by other people. There are powerful forces that put those there for you.

Tools — okay, high technical standards. I don’t have to preach to you about this. Be very demanding of these tools. Do not make do with broken stuff. You’re going to meet lots of Hairshirt Greens, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s perfectly good! Look, it’s only a little bit splintery! Put some duct tape on it, it’s fine!”

Do not make do with broken stuff. There’s nothing more materialistic than doing the same job five times because your tools are inferior. You should understand this, you should be trying to reward best practices from people.

Go out and buy real stuff! Stuff that functions. You’re knowledgeable people in this area.

Your tools as gadgets

However, you have to look out for time-sucking beta-rollout crap. Because that’s the dark side of your tool fixation.

Are you really experimenting with this stuff? You’ll claim that, “Oh look, it’s nice, I think I’d better get it, it might be useful! I’ve got its sisters and its brothers. It’s marked down! It must be in my home.”

Okay, are you really “experimenting”? How do you know if you’re really experimenting? You’re working on it methodically and you’re publishing the results! It’s not an experiment if you don’t publish the results in some verifiable and falsifiable form, okay?

“I just needed it. No, no, it was mine, mine, mine, me, the shiny tech-boy jackdaw! I had to, like, have it. In my underwear drawer.”

If you’re not telling other people about it, you’re not experimenting with it! You’re enslaved by the thing. Put down the shiny gadget, go look in the shiny mirror.

If you’re experimenting, you’ve got to be sharing the knowledge. Just put it out there, be brave! Be brave. Tell other people. Share it, or stop it! 00:41:28-3

Everything else

And everything else. Category four, everything else. Virtualize it, store the data, get rid of it.

Tons of stuff. Tons of stuff! You’re going to need help. You’re going to be crying hot bitter tears about this one. Number four, colossal category. Probably 80 percent of whatever’s in your immediate vicinity. It’s going to arrive like barnacles.

This is a hard discipline. It’s a hard thing to do, really hard. It’s not the sort of thing you do on impulse after you leave a tech conference.

It’s the sort of thing you do when a spouse dies. It’s the sort of thing you do when you move to another city. It’s the sort of thing you do when a child is born, or a child leaves your home. It’s the sort of thing you do after a divorce. You have to pick a moment when you can cleave into it, because it’s tough.

It’s not a thing to do on impulse. I don’t urge you to do it right now. I urge you to think about it.

I think you should go home, catalogue what you’ve got, morally prepare yourself for this moment. Because it’s going to come. It comes in everybody’s lives. It’s going to come in yours, probably a lot more often in your lives than the lives of people whose lives are going to be a little less turbulent.

But if you’re morally prepared for it, it’ll actually help you lessen the shock. You’ll be like, “Okay, I’m ready. This moment, I’ve been plotting and scheming about this, the moment where I rid myself of this dross and come face to face with some more authentic version of myself.”

It’s not going to hurt you to lose all these things. You don’t need them. After you go through this particular discipline, you will look different, you will act differently. You will become much more what you already are.