Saturday, September 8, 2012

History According to Stuff


Last weekend, my apartment-mates and I were scouring the local rummage sales for decorations to use in our apartment. About halfway through the day, a theme started to be pretty obvious: we all love old stuff. A wooden radio, battered crates, a collection of children’s classics from the 1920s, antique billiard balls, a rusty wrench...everything that caught our eye had seen many decades of use.

And then we put it all in our apartment next to our TV, electric keyboard, and DVD collection. Hey, we’re college students. Nothing wrong with a little juxtaposition of old d├ęcor and new practical items. (Besides, no one liked my suggestion of buying a large barrel to put over the TV. I thought it was a brilliant idea.)

Our rummage sale adventure got me thinking. It started with a simple observation: we don’t build things to last anymore. Most of the trinkets and tools of our daily life are made of colorful, disposable plastic or cheap metal.

And many of our things—everything from furniture to appliances—are designed for functionality above beauty. You might describe a piece of technology as “sleek” or “modern,” but is there anything about it that feels homey or inviting?

Given these two things—a decrease in durability and beauty—it makes me wonder: What will represent our generation in antique stores or thrift shops in seventy-five years?

Maybe nothing. Or maybe a ton of everyday items I’m overlooking will suddenly be retro and cool. Who knows? I mean, we have a battered wooden level on our coffee table right now. Pretty sure no one thought of that as a worthwhile antique at the time it was made. But now it is, and I think it might be because old stuff reminds us of what people of that time cared about.

For example, a lot of the decorations in our apartment could be from my grandparent’s day or earlier. What do they value? Hard work. Family. Respect, especially for the past. And you can see these values in their stuff. It’s part of what they leave behind.

In the afternoon after our antiquing adventure, a friend of mine read off several technology headlines, such as Google’s creation of an experimental network millions of times faster and larger than I could possibly imagine and a touchscreen-like eye lens.

What do we value today? Speed. Information. Functionality. Success. And above all, progress.

When you trade one set of values for another, it affects all sorts of small events and developments over a long period of time, and that slowly hardens into what history will remember you for.

One way to see that is to look at the physical artifacts of a generation. That’s why archeologists take such care in uncovering bits of ancient civilization: sometimes the odds and ends of everyday life can tell you more about a society than its annals or epics.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative. There are other values of our generation, and maybe our stuff, displayed on walls by people who never really knew us, will share these too. We have a passion for social justice, an optimistic belief that we can change the world, and a great amount of creativity, especially in innovation.

Will people someday be dangling I-pods from their ceiling in an artistic arrangement, or maybe make a collage of library cards? We’ll see. Right now, I’m just looking forward to seeing what happens next, and having some great, geezerly “when-I-was-your-age” stories to tell somewhere down the line.

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