A couple of people who are close to me have been undertaking similar projects over the last few days. Both individuals are going through extensive archives of their past writing and work and, to put it bluntly, chucking most of it. I’m fascinated by this, as both individuals are brilliant in their own ways, and my first reaction to both projects was one of horror. It was a truism of my education that holding onto some sort of archive of your creative and professional work was very important, though as I’ve been forced to confront this, I realize that I never fully understood why this should be. Was the assumption that if you ever hit it big, some future biographer would have need of the accumulated detritus of all the years during which you basically sucked at your chosen art? Maybe, as you gradually began to suck less, you were supposed to be able to glean important insights into your own progression, but what exactly would that entail? The more I’ve thought about it, the less I really understand that original dictum to hold onto your work. And watching what I’m sure (knowing both these people) are some perfectly non-sucking works get hauled off to the pulp factory, I’m wondering if it was ever correct.
One point to note is that when it comes to the dictum, I’ve never actually followed it myself. I can’t do a similar purge personally, because I’ve got almost nothing to purge in the first place. I think a couple of college papers have survived in a tattered blue accordion file in my garage. There’s a dog-eared journal, partly filled, that I could probably find if I had to. But there are no drawings, no serious attempts at fiction, no outbound correspondence (though I think I have a handful of letters from friends, dating back to the days when people actually wrote that sort of thing). That’s about all. Which means, essentially, that somewhere along the uneven arc of my own pursuits, thousands of pages of other crap have gone where the woodbine twineth. And I don’t find this particularly troubling. I mean, I did read the college papers a couple years ago, before tucking them back into the disintegrating blue file. They were fine – good undergraduate papers on which I scored well. I imagine that’s why I kept them in the first place, though by state college standards I was a competent writer and didn’t have a lot of academic misses in that department anyway. But they taught me nothing in particular about myself, or my development as a thinker. I was a reasonably analytical nineteen year-old who could string a few words together, but I could have told you that already. I was something of a socialist, which in that time and place was more or less a normal manifestation of puberty. That’s kind of it. I’m not at all sure that my life (or writing, or professional work) now would be meaningfully enriched by having a couple more boxes of this stuff. Nor can I imagine anyone else that would benefit from the same. There are people who care about me enough to dutifully wade through it if I dumped it on them, but this would be an act of personal sacrifice on their part that I don’t pretend to deserve.
So on reflection, I do get it. I don’t have the boxes myself, but if I did, this would be a viable moment to consign most of their content to the recycle bin, and I probably would. But this raises an interesting question: why is this such a popular moment to be purging one’s archives? Two people in my own life don’t, by themselves, don’t constitute a trend. But it’s not just them.
You’re probably familiar with Marie Kondo, who’s having quite a moment right now. I do’t mean to suggest that either of the individuals I’ve mentioned are in any way under Ms. Kondo’s sway, but there’s a kind of broad cultural alignment at work here. Ms. Kondo has achieved some viral popularity (and quite a few book sales) by arguing for a sort of minimalist lifestyle, with a focus on de-cluttering one’s environment, and surrounding oneself only with items that “spark joy,” or something. I’ve actually avoided her like the plague, but at a certain point you can’t avoid at least encountering the reactions, however unfair that may be. But of course, Ms. Kondo isn’t the cause of any of this. She’s a symptom – someone catching a wave at just the right moment. But what’s the wave?
It’s popular to position this overall movement away from material acquisition as a kind of generational change, but I’m not sure that’s right. The dominant narrative seems to be that Millennials, however defined, have turned their backs on the whole idea of ownership. They’re renting rather than owning, subscribing rather than buying and, when they must own, they’re owning less. Ride shares, scooter rentals, tiny houses – all symptoms of a generational failure to embrace consumer culture, and a rejection of the long-held idea that he or she who dies with the most toys wins. Millennial writers like to complain about the alleged presence of indignant, older commentators who accuse millennial cohorts of “killing” traditional industries and institutions, though I’ve rarely seen an example of this critique in the wild. Nonetheless, the standard, equally indignant millennial response is that these changes aren’t necessarily being undertaken by choice. Broke, burdened by unsustainable debt, they simply can’t buy all the things that previous generations did, and are seeking value in more ephemeral experiences simply because it’s all they’ve got.
I don’t think this is entirely wrong, but both arguments – those of the apocryphal curmudgeons and of the affronted young – miss an important dynamic. Which is to say, this is actually all just business. Moreover, it’s good business, at least on paper. But it’s also a tidy illustration of unintended consequences at work, particularly when it comes to the macroeconomic impacts of microeconomic strategies.
I’ll put it like this. In business generally, recurring revenue streams are better than one-time revenue streams. There are a lot of reasons for this, but Scott Galloway compares the dynamic, I think very effectively, to that of relationships. Dating, as he puts it, is expensive. You buy cars, watches and clothes that you don’t need. You spend money on restaurants and shows. You overextend yourself in order to impress. Monogamy, by contrast, builds financial stability. You lose the extraneous costs, and you and your partner get to maximize financial benefit together.
The analogy works well for business. New customer acquisition is hard, costly, and resource intensive. Dating and seducing new customers is a long, painful process that cuts into margins and burns dollars like a furnace. Repeat business, of any kind, is better. And best of all are recurring revenue models in which you build a long-term, predictable relationship with customers that can grow over time. These are fairly basic principles, and if you start a company, don’t expect your investor community to let you hear the end of them. Nor should they: the market valuations of companies with recurring revenue businesses nearly always outstrip the valuations of companies who specialize in one-time sales. If you hold equity, you’ll soon be thinking along the same lines. Right up and down the chain, motivations to move toward a recurring revenue model are everywhere. Annoying, dangerous, electric scooters have been around for a long time, but for as long as the only question was whether or not to buy one, they remained a niche product (there’s always someone willing to shell out several hundred dollars to look like an asshole, but a few mobile assholes does not a market make). No, electric scooters only became a global crisis when some genius (I’m not even bothering to look up who, because it will only stoke my resentment further to have an actual human to blame for the condition of downtown) figured out that you can extract far more revenue (or at least, far more venture capital funding) from the scooter business by repositioning the wretched things as “micro-transport” and renting them out than you ever could by trying to sell them one at a time.
This whole phenomenon is basic, well-documented and a big part of contemporary capitalism. And full disclosure: I’m basically a capitalist at heart. While I still harbor plenty of Keynesian sympathies, my actual Marxist puberty has decidedly passed (Remember that whole discussion about least bad options)? One thing capitalism can be relied on not to deliver is stasis, and the bigger and more pervasive the economic idea, the more disruption you can expect to see. So while Millennials aren’t exactly wrong about being broke and hobbled by debt, I’m not sure that we’re actually witnessing a purely generational phenomenon here. What we’re looking at, I’d argue, are the bitter fruits of the recurring revenue model itself.
Put another way, everyone is learning, and continues to learn, how not to own. I’m no different. I can state with certainty that I currently possess five CDs, well-curated gifts from my father which live in the glove box of my car (which in turn houses my only CD player). I still technically own, in some digital sense, a good portion of my iTunes library, but couldn’t actually tell you the last time I added to it. Like everyone, I overwhelmingly stream music from subscription services. I wasn’t an early adopter to this by any means, and at first it made me nervous. But at a certain point I had to admit that almost none of the hundreds of CDs I used to own had seen the light of day in years. After I finally did donate them (giving, I like to think, some aging fan of obscure music the best thrift store shopping day of his life), I never missed them. But none of this has anything to do with my generation, and I’m well past millennial. It’s just a pervasive buying model that works well, and I’ve gone with it. I also, as a result, spend a fraction of what I once did on music overall. My total monthly outlay is a very predictable $15 or so – the cost of a single CD in the old days. Music sales don’t make anybody money anymore. The models became predictable and recurring, but they also died.
Now in fairness, all this happened (more or less literally) over the dead body of the music industry. But that’s the unintended part of unintended consequences. As you start to develop models that make good business sense for sellers in some contexts, nothing guarantees that those models won’t quickly be picked up in other areas that make much more sense for buyers (and perhaps a few disruptive early entrants). And when those models become standards, lots of things can change. I once needed almost an entire room to house my music collection. It’s now in my pocket (give or take my glove box). That’s an impact on future housing decisions. Now take that limited scope of impact and expand it to the lifestyle of an already financially-distressed generational cohort, and you have what appears from the outside to be a distinctly generational phenomenon. But I’m not sure that it is. I think it’s just what markets have decided to reward, and as a result, it’s what a business-driven culture has decided to do.
I realize I’ve traced a bit of a winding road through this post, but I’m interested in the binding thread between what you choose to own and your relationship to your past. There’s more to explore here, but I’m intrigued by these questions: when material ownership starts to fade from a culture, do those physical anchors to past experience start to fade too? And is it necessarily a bad thing if they do? Were we giving those sagging boxes of totems too much power all along? I’m inclined toward the latter idea. The fixed nature of the past is an important existential idea about which I’ll have more to say as we go. What really changes, in the actionable, present moment, when you touch it? And what really changes when you throw it out?
Our deeply imperfect and malleable memories themselves, would be one potential answer. But that’s a discussion for another day.