Stuffocation: Living More with Less is by the self-described trend forecaster James Wallman. The argument is simple: there is a growing body of scientific and anecdotal evidence that “stuff” does not make us happy. When we are overwhelmed by stuff we are suffocated – and therefore “stuffocated” (a portmanteau which promises much, an image of choking by relentless accumulation). The solution is to shift our consumption and time towards “experiences”. As someone familiar with critiques of consumerism and contemporary capitalism all of this made sense. The book surveys various radical individuals who have changed their lives before settling on a preferred group of pioneers. Crucially these mobile and affluent experience-oriented people are normal and recognisable. They are people whom others will want to emulate unlike those who go and live on mountainsides to live self-sufficiently. According to Wallman this means they can be the basis for predicting how society will be in the near-future.
Walden to Montana
The distinction between the radical perspectives on experience and the more marketable ones is where Wallman’s arguments transition from well-thought to a stretch. The former range from 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, David Roberts’ idea of “the medium chill”, to the Montana-based writers “The Minimalists” Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. The latter includes a family who own an upscale restaurant in London and travel the world; others run their high-tech business on the road, shrugging offices from their ex-corporate shoulders, being able to retain the esteem and economic dominance of corporate life. Wallman declares that stuffocation will be such a problem that it will become a matter of public policy, like its contemporary, the obesity crisis. Experiences will become the promoted source of well-being and affluence versus the current GDP-oriented measures of wealth.
Much of Wallman’s research is interesting and there is a clear line of thought running through the book. The problem is that the end-point, his solution to stuffocation, amounts to little. Facebook becomes revolutionary, because it’s a means of you conspicuously consuming the experiences of others. In order to maintain social status, the majority will end up doing great experiences too, share them, and start the cycle over and over again. All of this is taken at face value as a good thing. Considering the way he summarily dismisses the prior attempts at voluntary simplicity this feels lazy. There are some good facts, though, pertaining to the value of stuff historically. A shirt was worth a small fortune only a few centuries ago; now you can buy one for a single hour worked on a minimum wage. Another element I found intriguing was the emphasis on social status and standing, and how the effects of this can change the situation.
Experientialism versus Stuffocation
The sword that will slay the dragon of Materialism is to be called Experientialism: that’s the grand vision of Stuffocation. This new economy and culture will have to supplant the old, it will inevitably do so in-fact. The problem with this whole idea is that ‘Experience’ is such an ill-defined term.
Wallman concludes that “good” objects, like videogames, will speak for themselves, because they create experiences. As a gamer this pleases me, of course – I’d be worried if an important industry/art form like games were to disappear, because I know it can be just as rewarding as music, film or literature on an “experiential” level.
It is funny to consider a game like Animal Crossing (see the gorgeous trailer above) in this context. You play as a boy or girl who has moved to a new town populated by weird and wonderful animals like Rover the Cat and Tom Nook the Raccoon businessman. You make money by catching fish and insects, and enrich the town by contributing to its art and natural history museum. It is easy to get sucked into the endless process of making money and buying stuff. When you pay off your mortgage owed to Tom Nook (who owns the land and acts as your eager property developer) you get to expand. More space means room for more stuff. A house in Animal Crossing that is properly coordinated looks amazing. But it is more likely you will end up with a cluttered mess of random items. It is a game that teaches covertly, in a more friendly way than The Sims, that “less is more” and relationships are the most memorable things in life. But that’s the point of Animal Crossing: you have to come to this realisation yourself. There’s no warning light that tells you you are stuffocated. Individualism is an easy path versus the hard work of playing as part of a community.
If only Wallman had thought of some more varied examples like Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. These modern day experientialists he champions come across as a new middle class, able to digitise their businesses and corporate lives so that they can make cash. What will happen to the people who work in this new leisure class’s businesses is never addressed. Perhaps some kind of trickle-down experientialism?
In turn, Wallman dismisses the stories of unusual individuals living a mode of voluntary simplicity as “quite complicated”. This comes across as facile and lazy argumentation rather than being judicious because everything has to fit into Wallman’s trends. Stuffocation reassures us that these wealthy, post-industrial corporate individuals are the appropriate icons to encourage you to change your life. But here’s the rub, life is complicated full stop. The truth is that the non-“experientialist” examples do not fit Wallman’s shaky criteria. As The Guardian‘s Steven Poole writes:
the reader is reassured that the “experientalist [sic] movement” does not threaten the engine of capitalist growth. We can still buy stuff: it just ought to be more “experiental products” such as “musical instruments, computer games, tennis rackets and books” – or, of course, as Japanese aesthetes have long suggested, an exquisite tea set…But the line between experiental and non-experiental products is very hard to draw. Does a non-enlightened modern consumer not have a pleasant experience every time she walks into a room in her new Louboutins?
The problem with Stuffocation is that it restricts itself to the most immediate of futures. This is even said so on the book’s website: “experientialism is better for the environment, better for well-being and better for inequality. I don’t think it’s a one-shot, silver-bullet wonder. I don’t think it will solve every problem. But it’s a very good start to ease the problems that come with consumer-based capitalism. (While keeping the magic: money flowing through the economy, creating wealth, reducing poverty, improving lives.)”.
Stuffocation promises more than it can deliver. Experientialism reads as a panacea for the pain caused by consumer capitalism: it cannot form a theory that the reader can use to imagine a society beyond that capitalism. In conclusion:
Why should we trust a new form of experiential consumerism to solve the problems of worldwide unhappiness?