From Antimacassars to Tweets: Clutter Through the Ages

Victorians loved their clutter. There are whole classes at my alma mater dedicated to studying things like doilies and antimacassars, Adam fireplaces with clocks on them, and the inevitable fern, and determining why they were all integral to the middle class Victorian existence.

 As I have written before, it was all about conspicuous consumption. Middle class families needed all the accoutrements of the age to show they understood and supported the progressive goals of the society in which they lived. Clocks prominently placed on the mantel showed the importance of the awareness of time and regulating one’s work day to more standardized, industrial hours, as well as support for new trends like standard time, firmly established at the global International Meridian Conference of 1884.  Gas, and later electric, light fixtures showed that residents were wealthy and knowledgeable enough to be moving to new technologies. Books were finely bound in leather and treasured in specially constructed libraries. There was comfort in things.

Today, progress seems to be signified by owning fewer things, at least in material terms. It’s conspicuous rejection. Today we praise clean lines, simplicity and functionality in design (note the rise of Ikea) over complexity and clutter. There is a whole profession dedicated to selling houses by taking away everything in them that indicates that someone who lives there has a personality.  The desired aesthetic of today is less, not more.

 Our intelligence is measured now not by what we keep with us and inside our homes, but what we have access to and are aware of, signified by our wall comments on facebook, our video uploads to YouTube, our digitized music collections and playlists. There are, of course, also material indicators: computers, mp3 players, electronic readers, cell phones – things that help us to gain this access – but the idea behind these is to get as much access from the smallest size as is possible.

 Russell Smith laments the loss of bookshelves in the Globe & Mail today, saying that in the future without them we will have less of a window into the minds of our friends and lovers. Instead, all of this valuable information will be hidden from us, locked away in an electronic box of some sort. We will never know if our friends read and enjoyed Patrick Swayze’s autobiography (yes, he actually wrote that).  Our access to our friends’ preferences will be restricted to the type of computer they own, or their preferred ISP.

The nature of our clutter is changing, but the nature of our access is changing too. Victorians accessed the “big ideas” of the day (and of all time) through investments in weighty tomes of classics (preferably in Latin, of course), and extensive decorating. They chose their clutter with care, in an effort to have “talking pieces.” Their furniture was designed to allow for observation, and they had nifty things like conversation chairs so their guests could look around the room while talking to each other. The middle of the room was considered the best place to put things – why bother having space there for silly things like walking through? Victorians also invested their time in large blocks, conversing at dinner parties and spending weeks of their summer in London or visiting various grand country homes. In general, they spent more time doing fewer things. Many then feared the rise of the train would eliminate time for thinking. Now many of us consider train rides a welcome rest from our days and an opportunity to do just that. Ironic.

Our investments in physical pieces of interest are less, but I am more interested in our decreased investments of time. Not overall, of course – I think we all read and write as much now as anyone ever did – but in focused time. Recently, a writer for ars technica complained of his eroding attention span, the result of technological progress (I highly recommend you read the whole article – if you can focus your attention on it long enough). The urgency and quantity of blog posts, twitter updates and an endless stream of emails, phone calls, and other e-news from those we know or follow, mean we rarely focus on any one thing for very long. What does this mean for our understanding of and engagement with the great questions, the ones Victorians loved to ponder with their weighty tomes? Another commentator in ars recently wrote about how our intelligence is shifting from a “contemplative” sort to a “utilitarian” sort, that is, we focus now on how to categorize and stay afloat in all the information we have instead of considering what it really means. Our ability to discuss content is limited to how much we know about it (and from where) and less what we really think about it. As another wrote in the same column:

 Most writing online is devolving toward SMS and tweets that involve quick, throwaway notes with abbreviations and threaded references. This is not a form of lasting communication. In 2020 there is unlikely to be a list of classic tweets and blog posts that every student and educated citizen should have read.

A term I read that describes our reading style now is “promiscuous.” Lots of exploration; little commitment. It just sounds dirty. I want to be a serial book monogamist – but the global proliferation of articles and updates and general nonsense is so tempting! Has our society evolved beyond bibliomonogamy?

And instead of our bookshelves and material clutter telling everyone who we are and where we get our information, our brain clutter and how we articulate our sources perform this job. I would go so far as to say resourcefulness (i.e. knowing where and how to find information) is prized in most jobs over measured thought. Terrifying decline, or positive change? How quickly will our brains evolve to process all of this information – or will they not evolve at all? Will we overwhelm ourselves with triviality?

 I note, with irony, that this post is very linky. There are at least 10 different ways here to distract your focus from this piece, and redirect it to obscure Victorian furniture or semi-professional associations liked to real estate. Perhaps the new clutter is virtual, to the extent that much of it is accessible only to those who look for it. But, like the best discoveries in a Victorian curiosity shop, some of the best discoveries today are the result of someone else’s interests cobbled together to form the whole of their personality. And the diversity allowed by our narrowed attention span is tremendous. For those who have access to it, the whole world, in a sense, is now someone’s Victorian living room. Feel free to come in and have a conversation in my comments section/conversation chair below.

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