Not Buying Tableware

Posted on Jan 23, 2020

While mindlessly strolling around the leftover 18th century fortifications of a coastal Moroccan town I came across some streets with vendors of apparently local tableware. I found said tableware to be really beautiful. Sadly, the pure state of admiration only lasted briefly. The latter was soon accompanied and then progressively consumed by the concern of what to buy for whom. It got me quite excited (in a twisted way) and thinking hard about how my own tableware could be complemented, how others could use any tableware. Suddenly I wondered: Why am I thinking of buying things?

I didn’t start off with the intention of buying something. I just bumped into some objects and found those to be beautiful - in a pure, naive, maybe innocent way. How had this turned into a tedious search for a function mapping object-person pairs to likelihoods of appreciation? [0]

Well, clearly, the displayal of the tableware was not in the context of a museum or gallery but rather in that of a commercial exchange. In other words the framing turned my refreshing and uncynical enthusiasm for an object - a rare sight - into a minor headache.

Note that the root of the headache was to find a use for the object. It seems to me that there are two obvious approaches to dampen this wound:

  • Buy the object without a use, i.e. basically throw it away in expectation, over short or long term.
  • Don’t purchase and thereby don’t look for a use.

The former option isn’t too compelling to me because of the principle of wastefulness as well as some kind of disrespect towards the craftsman. I figure: it’d be really cool if I could decouple the initial, innate reaction to the object from the reaction to the context of the object, i.e. go with the latter option. In other words: appreciate it without thinking of having to buy it. While this might not be the most natural thing to do, it certainly seems to be in the realms of the feasible. It’s certainly not jedi-level mind control. Yet, as everyone who’s been to Morocco knows, vendors can be rather pushy…

Assuming I succeed in the decoupling of appreciation and drive for purchase, I suspect I would feel bad raising the hopes of vendors by meticulously inspecting their objects (which I would actually really like to do) without ever buying something. This, again, could be attempted to be mitigated by meditating it away wrt the effect on myself. Hence, I might be able to not feel bad, but the vendor would still have had his hopes crushed. Note that this is a natural and important process of learning, of updating priors based on evidence. My point being here that my datapoint would not improve the vendors estimator. It would incur a loss on him (having his hopes crushed) without enhancing the accuracy of his judgement as I believe that such a way of behaving is far from representative of normal people. I’d be a costly outlier that his loss function is not prepared to identify and appropriately disregard. Additionally, maybe more practically speaking, I would waste a lot of their time with perfect knowledge thereof.

My proposed ideal world: in a PSA I let all the vendors know about my dilemma and offer them a fee to inspect their objects, much like in a museum or gallery. This give me the ease of mind to inspect to full satisfaction without bothering second thoughts and hopefully makes the craftsmen and vendors feel appropriately appreciated for their work and possession.

[0] Note that this assumes that gifts or possessions in general are not per se of positive value. If they were, just buying anything for anyone would be an obvious solution to the problem. I don’t believe in this, though. I’m under the impression that gifts can, under certain circumstances, cause the recipient more trouble than gain [1]. Therefore I try to assess this beforehand, which as you can see, can cause some trouble on my side…

[1] E.g.: ‘What should I do with this item for which I have no use? I can’t just throw it away, can I? Should I just put it in the basement? Is this establishing a precedent for keeping de facto trash in my basement? Will this leading to panic attacks once I’m moving again? Is this raising the bar for changing flats? Is this raising the bar for changing cities? Is this preventing me to accept $great_job? Is this making me unhappy?’ [2]

[2] II wonder how, on a scale from 1 to 10, 1 being a standup routine and 10 being a eulogy, you think how serious I am. [3]

[3] I’m only through one of David Foster Wallace’s books and completely fell in love with footnotes. Monkey see, monkey do.