Table Space: The Final Frontier

Once upon a time, before the acronym revolution that brought us VCRs and DVDs and CD-roms, before the Internet made so much information and creativity so easily accessible, Hollywood was the oracle. People would commune in darkened theaters or living rooms and revel in a fictional future flickering on the screen. For those of us born in the ’60s, Hollywood told us that the future was only a few decades away, and that a shining technological glory awaited us: robots would dutifully perform our chores; computers would generate answers to our homework assignments; communicators would connect us without the obligatory coiled cord that kept us inconveniently tethered to the base unit.

Amazingly, Hollywood pretty much nailed it. True, many of us are disgruntled that we still don’t have jet packs, and teleportation is a convenience for which I still hope, but whether life has imitated art or art simply anticipated our capabilities, the promises made four decades ago have, in large part, been kept.

On a recent lazy afternoon as I was busy testing the resiliency of my television remote’s “next” button, I chanced upon 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I watched Kubrick’s futuristic vision unfold, amused that eight years after the title date it looks less like the future and more like a retro ’70’s furniture installation, I noticed something essential that had not occurred to me before, a promise that the eyes of my youth never noted, and only as a parent and a homeowner do I now recognize as unfulfilled: The future was to have no clutter.

Nothing. Kubrick’s vision offered a world completely devoid of the dense accumulation of detritus that plagues every flat surface of our modern lives. Nowhere in the script did Hal say, “Dave, I made you a wobbly clay bowl at summer camp. You should display it for the other astronauts to see.” At no point in the film does Frank purchase a sweetly scented candle to brighten up the Discovery interior. In 2001, there would apparently be no need for staplers or a jar of ball point pens or a collection of mismatched batteries that may or may not have any juice left in them.

But it’s not just Kubrick. Gene Rodenberry’s future, as dramatized on the original Star Trek series, never depicted Scotty sitting at a dining room table as it doubles as a horizontal filing cabinet, or stacks of outdated magazines in Dr. McCoy’s office, or Spock with… well, of course Spock had no clutter.

The scientific and engineering communities have devoted immeasurable hours to fulfill the promises these movies and shows made so long ago: Artificial intelligence may not be quite as intuitive Hal, but it can mop the chessboard with any human opponent; PanAm isn’t offering non-stops to the moon, but the International Space Station is open for accommodations; Captain Kirk’s flip-top walkie-talkie was the stuff of daydreams at the time, but its technology is dwarfed by even the most bare-bones communicator on T-Mobile’s current roster. Enormous efforts have been made, and equally enormous results have been achieved.

Yet no one seems to be working on the clutter issue. There’s no Nobel Prize for advances in tidiness. There’s no secret room in the basement of Office Depot’s corporate headquarters where “organize” is a forbidden word, where Big Brother-esque posters urge, “Do not organize: Eliminate.”

In fact, we are sliding backward on the clutter issue. The mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is chanted so loudly in some communities that much of our collective clutter never makes it to the trash heap but is instead deposited in Salvation Army donation bins or onto yard sale tables where it becomes affordable clutter for someone else’s home.

iPods have helped to condense our music collections into a single location, but most people still keep all of their old CDs as back-up. Ebook devices offer the promise of eliminating the need for home libraries, but people’s love affairs with books extend beyond just the words, so bookshelves remain densely packed with titles. Email was expected to eliminate the need for paper communication, yet all it has done is eliminate the handwritten letter—the mailbox fastened to my house is still full of glossy pitches and dull requests for payment that will spend a week or more occupying table space in my living room.

Realizing that no one else is making an effort to bring the junkless future to life, I reexamined Kubrick’s film, looking for clues for how our species was to conquer the ever-growing piles, drawers, and shelves of stuff. As I studied, I realized that the barren desktops and uncluttered counters resembled the austere interior landscapes featured in Dwell magazine, whose photo spreads show family living rooms with improbably bare coffee tables, the shelves in the children’s bedroom displaying one or two pristine toys like museum pieces.

What that magazine removes isn’t clutter – it’s life: the hoodie tossed lazily over the back of the chair, empty juice glasses accumulating on the kitchen counter, retired coffee cups stuffed with ball point pens, dog-eared catalogs accumulating in the corner. In the effort to portray simple, they err on the side of antiseptic.

The science fiction of my youth removed the same evidence of daily living, but went one step further: also gone are the photographs on mantles, preschooler paintings posted on refrigerator doors, handmade trinkets and cheap tchotchke mementos. It seems that as seen from 40 years ago, the world was to become increasingly efficient but decreasingly sentimental. Is that what we’ll be required to do to control our interior sprawl? Do we simply need to value the empty space more highly than the items currently occupying it?

If so, perhaps it’s better that the great minds of our generation remain focused on the jetpack.

Image (partial) found on Jeromes