I’m sitting in my Milan hotel room, preparing to pack. I open the safe and take out my laptop, BlackBerry, and iPod. I retrieve my bill, check over the charges, making a note to tell them my morning’s breakfast didn’t appear on the bill. I gather up my wallet and prepare to leave.
My world has limits. Limited time. Limited resources. And it’s amazing how much time and resources I waste counting and tracking to make sure all the accounts balance.
My entire morning was spent counting. My laptop is in a safe because someone might steal it. So we forge a safe from metal and energy, and I now use my life time and energy to remember the combination, open, close, pack, and unpack the safe. Every time I enter or leave the room. After all, my Blackberry, iPod, etc. were expensive! Must count and recount them. Otherwise, some evil person might make off with them. And then where would we be? My life might become meaningless.
And the bill! Goodness, now that I’ve been here four days, we use a Manager’s time, computer, printer, paper, toner, and a bellman’s time to deliver the piece of paper insuring we all know how much time I spent and everything is tracked to the last penny. What a grand use of our life, time, paper, and ink: counting things. At least it provides employment (and meaningful employment, at that. Counting things. Our most valuable activity.)
I’ve heard most of the expense of the phone systems isn’t in the physical infrastructure, but in the accounting and billing systems to track who called whom for how long. I can believe it.
We’re addicted to ownership, and to the counting and tracking we do to make sure all the right things are owned by the right people. Some degree of ownership may be hardwired, but that’s no excuse. We’re not hardwired to wear a suit and conform to our job description, yet billions of us do it flawlessly every day for 40+ years. We can overcome our hard-wiring. Instead, we’ve raised it to an artform. The flow of money–nothing more than counting–keeps Bill Gates worth as much as the bottom 175 million Americans, keeps billions in poverty, and distorts our very governance processes from creating nurturing communities. Instead, we nurture the sources of money.
I sometimes wonder how much infrastructure, time, lives, and effort we would save if we simply mellowed out and found a way to share as needed without this frantic need to own own own in unimaginable quantity. I suspect the “chaos” caused by relaxing our controls wouldn’t cost us humans a fraction of the resources currently sucked up by accounting firms, receipt printers and processors, billing systems, transaction processing, etc. What if all those resources that go into the relentless tracking were made available to feed, clothe, and help people be happy. It would certainly be billions (accounting firms alone make billions every year). Maybe it would be trillions. Perhaps enough to finance America’s looming Medicare crisis.
When my mother was dying, the day came to take her to hospice. She looked around her room. I asked what we should bring. She waved her hand dismissively and replied, “Stuff? These are only things. They don’t mean anything.” She took nothing. And she left this world with nothing except two children who loved her.
On the drive home after she was gone, I noticed her “Rodney Raindeer” beanie baby on the car dashboard. It’s the only thing of hers I kept. It was soft. It was loved, and she smiled when she saw it. At the end, that’s all that counted.