This research is not about stuff itself. Instead, it explores its constant reconfiguration as a collection of connected parts through a multiplicity of processes; something like stuff system dynamics. A stuff system consists of all stuff surrounding us, and is essentially endless. It entails what we use, what we touch, what we see in the distance or, even what we know is available, a cognitive presence. More than a collection with a defined boundary it is the consolidation of artifacts around us, conjugating with an increasing interdependency between them, that form the system. For this reason this research does not analyse separate parts of the whole, but aims to capture the dynamics of the lively and ever-changing structures through time and in the midst of action.
The following chapter describes a phenomenon within these dynamics that the common narrative of order (tidy, neat, orderly) and chaos (messy, cluttered, disordered) fails to explain. Both system states and the transitions between them are indeed recognizable in a house, but are unsuccessful in describing the organization of stuff that is actually being used.
Below a small selection of the two data sets used for this research can be found, both published complete in Appendix I and II. The first is a longitudinal study, in which the same room (in this case, my own) is photographed on repetitive occasions throughout a year. The room, being a student accomodation, serves many different purposes – from working and studying to sleeping, to hosting dinners and meetings and even serving as a model studio or dance floor. The other set of data is more cross-sectional in nature and pictures people engaged in activities of all sorts in all different places from above, showing the collection of stuff that has gathered itself around them. Whereas the pictures of the room are variably zoomed in and out – although within the maximum measurements of the 30m2 between the walls – the pictures of the second set are all taken on the same level of scale in order to be easily compared.
Describing the state of a space full of stuff is generally done by two simple opposites: that of order and chaos. A house, room or a desk is regarded as either tidy and neat or a chaotic mess that needs reordering. Often, tidiness is the preferred state; a clear organization is believed to boost productivity and work flow, which is the reason why many companies hold a clean desk policy (Bjerrum & Bødker, 2003). On the other side of the spectrum some state that a certain amount of chaos can help creativity and increases the chance of unintentional inventions (e.g. Tim Harford in Messy, how to be resilient and creative in a tidy-minded world) (Harford, 2016). Apparently there is a dichotomy that can be clearly pronounced.
Chaos, or disorder, is, according to the second law of thermodynamics, the equilibrium where all closed systems would spontaneously fall into when no ordering would take place. This high-level entropy state of a system is completely smoothened from irregularities; all parts can move individually, without any restraint from the system. What is called ‘order’ here is the opposite state in which the parts are sorted by their properties.
It is not hard to recognize those principles in a house. In a room that has just been tidied up, all stuff is where it belongs; the books are in the bookshelf, not only sorted by their property ‘book’, but even more precisely on topic or alphabet. Clothes are sorted as being clean or not, and further on type and season. Order has some great advantages in our houses. It is possible to find a specific part we know the properties of efficiently, it saves space as we can optimize the stacking and stowing away and it gives us a satisfying overview of what is available so that in a glance we know what we have access to. At the end of a busy week, however, stuff can be all around, moving randomly around the room. Piles of non- related papers move from the bed to the desk and back to the bed, clothes are draped over chairs and the computer desktop is clotted with arbitrary screenshots.
Four processes between the two states of order and chaos can be identified, as to be found in the scheme on the right. These transitions are similarly easy to recognize in stuff systems. They represent the act of tidying up and the process of cluttering.
Fig 1.1: The identification of four processes between the states of order and chaos.
Fig 1.2: Four processes as indicated by fig. 1.1 explained and projected on stuff systems in a house.
1.2.1 A deterministic viewpoint
But is this description complete? Since two of those processes, the ordered state falling into chaos (1) and the random movement of ‘loose’ parts (4) happen without conscious human intervention, spontaneously, any stuff system is doomed to fall into an undesirable state of disorder when no-one intervenes. This increase in ‘mixedupness’, seems inevitable, and could theoretically be calculated (Gibbs, 1876), influenced by the time since the last measurement and the amount of activeness and entrepreneurship of the inhabitant. Also it implies a dichotomy between man and nature, a struggle between what we as humans prefer the world to look like and a certain ‘natural state’ we will always be fighting against.
Both aspects of this conclusion that classical thermodynamics would give, do not only seem pessimistic or at least uninspiring, they also simply do not seem to be right. Only when we distance ourselves from the spaces we live in, and observe them in a detached, objective and laboratory-like way, we see a constant increase in disorder, until someone consciously intervenes. However, human habitats that are actually used, like the ones from the two sets of photographs in the beginning of this chapter, are comprised of other forms than these two forces can create. They are alive.
It is in the midst of action that another state appears, in which the parts are neither sorted nor completely loose. Around activities in which artifacts are being utilized a crystallization appears of particles that maintain a lower degree of freedom spontaneously. The particles dense in a cloud- like figure, that is dynamic yet preserving its structure through time.
Fig 1.3: Examples of stuff ‘crystallization’.
A thought experiment in which the amount of particles is increased can illustrate this phenomenon in a clear way. In the documentary Overal Spullen (“Stuff Everywhere”), Dutch filmmaker Judith de Leeuw is filming herself within a months-long process of counting every item she owns (2011). One of the final shots is the overview of a giant hall filled with blocks of piles and assortments and a spreadsheet on her computer showing the final addition: 15,734 pieces. The image of all this stuff is impressive, not only by its vastness. After counting randomly and loosing track multiple times, De Leeuw realizes that the only way to do the job is by working extremely systematically. Every single object is categorized, labeled with a number and put into an enormous grid that is set up as logically as possible. When the family walks in between their perfectly ordered belongings, the place is all but a house. Every item is artificially separated from all its associated items and the collection has become an alienated landscape of objects.
Now what would happen, if just when they are about to go to their home (in which they installed mattresses, sleeping bags, and some essential camping facilities borrowed from friends), one of them realizes they forgot the key? The three of them, mother, father and their six-year-old son, are forced to spend the upcoming evening and night here in the hall, luckily surrounded by everything they could possibly need. What would happen? Or in other words, how will the particle arrangement of this stuff system change?
After some grumping and sighing, the father grabs his laptop to try to contact someone who might have a spare key (which fails), while the mother looks around if she can find the most essential things they need, at least some pillows to sit on and a bottle of wine. Then she gets the water boiler that she plugs in in the closest power outlet, cups and tea bags to brew some tea, and finds a glass and carton of fruit juice for their son. In the meantime the six-year old wants to play and pushed away the clothes hangers to make room for a board game he found, and the father is finishing some work. After the game is over, the son installs himself between his parents’ LP records to read a book, while they together make a bed from a mattress, sheets and pillows, and collects clothes, toothbrushes and toothpaste to make the family ready for the night.
In this crystallization systems of artifacts are formed that showcase emergent properties, abilities of the whole that the individual parts lack. These possibilities (such as the ability to perform an activity as a whole) appear on three nested scale levels between that of an individual artifact and the house as a whole.
The first are stuff configurations, compositions that are typically still smaller than the human body and support a simple activity, or a part of a more complex activity. Examples are items lying in the corner of a desk, like pens, pencils, paper and a pair of reading glasses; everything needed to read and write. Or a ‘coffee corner’ existing of a machine, coffee, filters and sugar lumps, standing on the kitchen countertop.
Second are the most recognizable self- organizing systems; stuff cells. These fully support an activity and are mostly grown around a place for a human being to stand or sit. A stuff cell around computer work exists of a desk, chair and all stuff that is either used or useful as a back-up or background; one around the activity of sleep consists of the bed, pillow and duvet as well as the side needs on the edge, like a bed stand with a glass of water and an alarm.
The third scale level is that of stuff cell configurations, which is a combination of stuff cells that strengthen each others functionality. In a kitchen, while cooking a meal, a collection of highly interdependent stuff cells arise where the user continually alternates between. The chopping board, where the vegetables are cut, directly complements the sink, where they are washed, and the stove, where they are tossed in a pan. Also in a bedroom a series of stuff cells reminds one of all sub consecutive rituals we go through when getting up; a space in front of the wardrobe, a mirror and a chair to sit on while putting put on shoes.
Fig 1.4: An overview of three stuff system scales in between that of an individual artifact and a house.