Your Giant Bag of Noise

When in doubt, bring on more electronics and CGI dancing robots. Barry on gadgets, overstuffed brains, and the future fashion reign of the Cleveland Browns.

The NFL has managed to turn itself into a nearly year-long spectacle: good for boredom-avoiding fans, not so good for those who cover the sport. June and July, perhaps, provide one of the few opportunities for NFL media geeks to do things that normal humans do, such as take vacations or dive into home projects.

So it was this Summer that I dove headfirst into my Summer project, a massive purge of our home, basement, and attic of things that we no longer needed. Large removable waste bins were ordered from Waste Management, and I put my game face ON.

There was no mercy. Toys and clothes that were cherished by my children when they were young, gone. Memorabilia wrecked in basement floods, gone. Detritus of entertainments past were flung out if we couldn't give them away: VHS tapes, CDs, books, gone. Anything we didn't or couldn't use - gone, gone, gone.

By the time I paused, several weeks later, the mound of useless flotsam filled the entire waste container.

All this money, all these trees and resources, and plastics, and clothing. All these useless things. Clutter acquired over two decades, six feet high and ten feet long, waste products of modern life.

Getting rid of some of these things was painful. But the entire experience? Well, it was cathartic. Liberating. I had trouble stopping. I wanted to get rid of more and more. That's normal, right? No?

* * *

The Browns are one of a number of teams that are bringing in FanVision, a hand-held gadget for people with elite seating, which allows them to watch game highlights and other exclusive programming during the course of a game.

The Browns, like most NFL teams, are struggling to fill their stadiums, victims of high prices, HDTVs, a bad economy, and a pricing mindset stuck in the lavish excess of the 80s and 90s. Fans are asking themselves if they should invest in season tickets when they can watch the game in great clarity on their 52" Hummervision 6000 1080p screens, sans $25 parking and waiting in lines for beer. They're concluding they can live without those in-person extras.

Browns games frequently have a large number of empty seats now, as the team deals with all the above struggles as well as the hangover caused by a decade-plus of bad football.

What's interesting is to watch what the league thinks is needed to reverse the trend. The first answer isn't lower prices and cheaper parking, it's this: "gadgets". I assume that this is the same sort of logic that led McDonalds to start including toys in Happy Meals or, perhaps more appropriately, makes hotels feel compelled to put mints on pillows

Don't get me wrong. I love gadgets, particularly electronic ones. Walk into my office, and you'll see three monitors, a Mac, a PC, an iPad, an iPhone and a nerdy guy busily jumping back and forth between them, trying to get things done. All of these purchases exist in the name of productivity (if my wife asks) but undoubtedly also exist in realm of a wide-eyed 14-year-old boy who just saw Star Wars. I just love cool technology like some guys devote themselves to sports cars or collecting mistresses.

But productivity is, ostensibly, the name of the game, and I need to maximize my productivity badly. Like many Americans these days, I juggle multiple responsibilities throughout the course of the day, and then ladle family responsibilities on top of that. My work at Fox leads to a flood of emails that come into my mailbox, particularly early in the week. Same with my work at the OBR, where I handle the customer service emails that roll in. Plus, I have development projects. Plus, a need to write for the OBR. Plus, managing the NFL portal on Scout. And so on.

All the emails that pour in get handled by applying David Allen's GTD (Getting Things Done) principles: If it can be handled in two minutes or less, do it. Otherwise archive it, or make it a later action. Actions, of course, are split into projects if there are two or more steps, and the propercontext is appliedto eachinorder tosegmentactivitiesthemproperly and and and.

And it doesn't matter.

To-dos pile up. A list of articles that I'll "read later" is lurking in my Instapaper account, hundreds deep. I have another account, called Read It Later, that holds dozens more. To do our jobs here at the OBR, we keep an eye on RSS and twitter feeds with useful information, often piling up to more than 1000 unread items in a single day if left unattended.

It's more information than a human being can consume. I've recorded enough tasks to keep me busy for months and months if nothing new comes in.

We obviously see it in the sports media, where once-a-day publishing of articles has morphed into an around-the-clock operation where five minutes is as long as exclusivity lasts, each morsel of information instantly dived on by digital cockroaches, carved up and carried away to distant corners of the internet. You can't miss a one, or folks turn elsewhere.

Maybe information-related industries are being hit uniquely, but I doubt it. Competition in any field drives the need for ever-increasing responsiveness.

And the NFL is telling me I need more stimulation? That I need to have a handheld device to pummel my brain further with video highlights, and stats, and noisy clanky dancing robots?

They're probably right, which why they're rich and I'm not.

But I can't help but think: How about something new? How about less?

* * *

Like a lot of trends, it's taking minimalism a while to reach the Midwest, but I suspect it's coming, and it echoes the end of an era.

You can find minimalism taking hold first among technology zealots and productivity consultants, and for good reason. These are people who are exposed more than anyone to the downsides of speeding technology and the effects of our 90MPH lives. Leo Babauta is one of the early evangelists through his web site Zen Habits. There are a number of blogs beginning to echo the same themes: Mnmlist, Minimal Mac. There's even a blog that simply features photos of simple, well-organized desks. For some reason I can't really explain, I find it addictive. Strange.

Tech nerds proclaim the value of living out of a hard drive, keeping very few possessions otherwise. There are increasing tales of families moving with nothing more than what can fit in a backpack apiece, bringing nothing else along, only re-acquiring what they need, and not lugging decades of material history.

Imagine no possessions.

I suspect that the reason minimalism is taking root in the tech community is because we nerds tend to be wired in around the clock, moving only along paths served by the internet, grabbing at technology that only makes the constant pounding of email, status updates and other information more relentless. The more noise banging away at one's consciousness, the more inclined one is to figure out ways to simplify, compartmentalize, get back to basics.

It's not nostalgia, it's simplification with a technology slant. The only way to cope with a wired world. Less stuff, more focus.

I suspect a form of minimalism will mutate and spread beyond the tech niche, spurred on not only by the exponentially increasing flow of information, but also by the hard facts of resource limitations, be they oil, or carbon emissions, or living space.

If I'm right, conspicuous consumption is at a plateau, perhaps heading back down. An era of gluttonous appetites, fed by cheap Walmart goods and ending in Hoarders, gone none too soon.

* * *

The NFL considers itself unassailable. If they didn't, they wouldn't be flirting with waging a high-visibilty battle over billions of dollars while Americans have their homes foreclosed and a huge percentage gives up hope of finding work.

They might be right.

But I think history shows that empires always fall, and I wonder if the NFL's ultimate demise won't come from getting out of touch with a public that doesn't crave excess like it did in the past. While a battle over billions might have gone by in the 80s without raising the ire of their customers, in these days it's a far more risky proposition.

When the NFL wants to bring its customers back in, it gives them more. More noise, more gadgets, more spectacle. At some point, it's possible that the public may move on, tired of bling and excess and over-the-top behavior.

But, if not, and minimalism is just a fad that may wash over small parts of the country, I know one team's uniforms and helmets that are going to find themselves briefly back in vogue.

And we can tell the world that we believed in simple helmets, simple uniforms, and a simple approach to football long before it was cool.


Barry McBride is a one-time useful member of society who now runs the Orange and Brown Report. He hates it when his email client mistakes email messages for spam, so please contact him via the OBR contact form, via Twitter, or on the forums.

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