Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: Quick Notes

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Quick notes on this book by Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs, a popularisation of a 10-year study in which 32 middle-class Los Angeles families opened their doors to archaeologists and anthropologists to photograph, count, and classify every single visible object in their house.

Introduction

  • In general, it’s fascinating to look inside a wide range of American households. The houses were not specially tidied for the photographer so it’s a raw and realistic portrait.
  • The photos were taken from 2001-2005, so they’re pretty dated.
  • They didn’t look inside cupboards or wardrobes or boxes. I’m sure this is partly unavoidable due to privacy concerns, but it would skew the findings somewhat. Neither did they count “abundant stacks of papers, mail, and magazines, which we deemed impossible to tally with accuracy…”
  • If you were doing the study today, you’d get a grad student to walk inside with a SLR or 4K video camera and try to use machine vision to classify everything. If it worked well, you could identify every visible book, album, picture, and even do stuff like estimate the total mass and volume of objects. It’d make for a good cross-departmental research project.
  • The authors spend a little too long talking about just how much work the project took, which I don’t doubt but probably doesn’t warrant mentioning so many times. We already bought the book!
  • If you’re wondering how the researchers selected the 32 houses, this book won’t tell you. I assume the process is detailed in one of the original research papers, but it’s surprising they don’t include it here.

General & Storage

  • Americans own way more shit than I ever imagined. No wonder you’re all in debt.
  • A lovely turn of phrase: the US is the “most materially rich society in global history”.
  • At the time of writing, the US had 3.1% of world’s children, but 40% of the spending on toys.
  • One parent: “The closet is extremely unutilised because we usually can’t get to it.”
  • “Cars have been banished from 75% of garages to make way for rejected furniture and cascading bins and boxes of mostly forgotten household goods.” The authors estimate that 90% of the total square footage of garages in Los Angeles is used for storage.

Kitchens & Food

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  • “The typical Los Angeles refrigerator front panel is host to a mean of 52 objects.”
  • Making dinners with “mostly” convenience foods is only about 10% (or 5 minutes) faster than dinners that use mostly raw ingredients. Measured differently, convenience foods involve 26 minutes of “hands on” preparation time, versus 38 min for raw foods (excluding any oven/microwave time). A 12 minute different in preparation time isn’t as small a margin as the authors make it out to be, especially for busy and tired parents, but they do point out that convenience foods reduce complexity and shopping/planning time.
  • 14% of meals were from take out!
  • “Stockpiling is an efficient foraging strategy for parents who want to minimise the number of times they have round up young children…”

Everything Else

  • No-one uses their back yards.
  • Most of the houses are single storey, including the big ones.
  • I would love to see a longitudinal study to observed the effects of the recession and the impact of smartphones and tablets on the total material load inside US households.
  • Toilets have been unchanged in form for many decades. I note that out of all the rich tech companies I have visited over the years, only Google X had those fancy Japanese toilet/bidets.
  • This has not aged well: “At no point during tens of thousands of years of human history have people been as deeply engaged with nonessential technologies as we are today. Ownership of devices associated with entertainment and mobile communication has escalated from fad to addiction.” I should add that the edition I read was published in June 2017, long after it had become apparent that computers cannot be considered “nonessential technologies” that are only good for addictions.

A verse from Pablo Neruda, reflecting on the possessions at his home in Chile

They told me
many things, everything.
not only did they touch me
and take the hand I gave them
but they were bound to my life
in such a way
that they lived in me
and were such a living part of me
that they shared half of my life
and will die half of my death.

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