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Just the Essentials: A Look at the Things We Carry

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Question: What do you need to get you through the day?

Take a second and look through your bag or pockets and take an inventory of the things you carry with you every day. A quick survey of my handbag revealed the following (in no particular order):

  • House keys
  • Cell phone
  • Wallet
  • Notebook
  • Kindle
  • Magazine
  • Business cards and case
  • Assorted pens and pencils
  • Coin purse (yes, I actually have one of these)
  • Travel passes
  • Office keys
  • Keys to my friend’s apartment
  • 3 Flash drives
  • Spare battery pack
  • Assorted chargers
  • Makeup case
  • Brush
  • Work laptop

Three years ago, I did this exercise, and I’m amused to see how my list had changed—and the ways in which it has stayed the same. I’ve definitely bulked up on the technology I carry with me; those items have a need for additional batteries, chargers, and adapters. Last time, I determined there were ways I could cull the list, but this time around, I’m not sure what I would want to cut. Sure, I could minimize the number of pens I carry, and any toiletries I have in my bag is entirely optional, but everything else plays an important part in my day.

This inspection had been spurred by an article in National Geographic about the Hadza, who are one of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherers. They live in the Great Rift Valley, one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. They grow no crops, own no livestock, and build no permanent shelters. They set up camps, and move as needed to be closer to herds and other resources. They eat everything—birds, wildebeest, zebras, buffalo, warthog, bush pig, hyrax, baboon, plus berries, baobab fruit, tubers, and honey. Their possessions are minimal: a cooking pot, a water container, an ax, and perhaps a pipe—which can be wrapped in a small bundle for easy transport, which made an impression on the author of the piece:

There are things I envy about the Hadza—mostly, how free they appear to be. Free from possessions. Free of most social duties. Free from religious strictures. Free of many family responsibilities. Free from schedules, jobs, bosses, bills, traffic, taxes, laws, news, and money. Free from worry. Free to burp and fart without apology, to grab food and smoke and run shirtless through the thorns.

During my initial analysis, I asked if the Hazda can subsist without so many things, why do I feel lost without my cellphone? Of course, our lives are different—that’s an obvious point. The disparity between our view on necessities and the Hadza’s view, encouraged me to think about the ways in which our lives and the meaning in our lives are manufactured—we determine what is important, creating a context-specific experience, which arguably gives us culture.

In light of my current list, it’s interesting to think about how these items represent an overall shift in culture and lifestyle. In the early 1990s, very few people had cell phones. In 2010, the most important item in my bag was my cell phone. A need to be connected, to be reachable and to be able to reach out, drove and still drives this need. I proposed then that the next wave of necessities would increasingly include elements used to establish and maintain our digital presence. There is some truth to this, it seems: both my laptop and my cell phone ensure that I am always within reach of my digital profiles. The accessories I carry—flash drives, chargers, battery pack—serve the life of these tools. We continue to move toward greater degrees of connectivity and examples like the Hazda are increasingly rare. To what degree is this a function of choice? Of status? Of environment? My necessities reflects the state of my social context—time to tell: what are your necessities and what can they tell others about you?

 

A version of this post originally appeared on AiP on January 1, 2010.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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