My Theory of Human Evolution (Beijing furniture shopping)

I am moving to an unfurnished apartment in Beijing so I went furniture shopping at a huge “furnishings plaza” with hundreds of furniture showrooms. (Not to mention showrooms for mattresses, doors, stairs, security systems, curtains, light fixtures, and interior decorators.) It was more like a trade show than anything I’ve seen in America or Europe. I think it had more furniture choices than the whole Bay Area. I loved wandering around it, partly because it kept reminding me of my theory of human evolution:

1. The huge choice included a big range of styles, including  European, Chinese Traditional, modern, and “flat-plate” (meaning flat pieces of wood). At least 90% of the stuff struck me as ugly. Garish, too ornate, too simple, clunky, chunky, bad colors, bad patterns, and so on. Of course there were buyers for all of it. That there is such diversity of taste (“no accounting for taste”) supports a diversity of technological development. Exactly what a healthy economy needs.

2. Almost all the furniture was decorated. (If you don’t want decoration, you shop at Ikea.) Decoration is unnecessary from a functional point of view — you can sleep on a bed whether it is decorated or not — but is obviously pleasant. (Which is why I wasn’t at Ikea.) Decoration is difficult, so the demand for it supports technological innovation.

3. I write a lot sitting up in bed. After I saw a bed with a cushioned headboard, I realized I wanted a bed with a built-in cushion for sitting up. I found something better than I knew existed — the headboard cushion is detachable and cleanable. Having chosen the bed, there was pressure to buy matching furniture — the side table, the wardrobe, and so on. The furniture that matched my chosen bed was not especially attractive by itself but would become more attractive when near my bed. Because we like seeing things match. Our preference for matching stuff at first glance is paradoxical since it seems to push for less diversity rather than more. Why do we like seeing things match? The evolutionary reason, I believe, is so we will put similar things side by side to get that effect. Notice how clothing stores and many other stores are decorated. Why is that good? Because when we put things side by side it is much easier to see little differences and thus little ways one of them can be improved. When you start to notice these little differences, you become a connoisseur. Connoisseurs pay more for hard-to-make stuff than the rest of us and thus support technology that produces hard-to-see improvements.

4. Few Chinese bedrooms have closets. Clothes are hung in wardrobes. The wardrobe that matched my chosen bed wasn’t the loveliest wardrobe I saw. But the loveliest wardrobe I saw didn’t match the bed I wanted. The loveliest wardrobe I saw had something unusual: decoration of several sizes. We like a combination of large-, medium-, and small-scale decorative detail more than one size alone. This creates further challenges for artisans: There is pressure to be skilled at a wide range of sizes. So you don’t just develop technology for making small decorative details, you also develop technology for making larger details. Again, human nature promoting diversity of technological development.

5. The more expensive stuff looked better than the cheaper stuff, yes. But a lot of the expensive stuff wasn’t so much beautiful as expensive-looking. You might or might not like it — but no one would disagree it was expensive. Presumably people buy such stuff to show off, the way we do so many things to show our status. That we use difficult-to-make possessions to display status (thus creating demand for such things) is yet another way that human nature promotes technological innovation.

4 Replies to “My Theory of Human Evolution (Beijing furniture shopping)”

  1. Diversity vs. conformity …

    Several years ago, when I needed new eyeglasses, I found it almost impossible to buy the large-lens style that I had worn for decades.

    It wasn’t that the frames were mot available.

    The problem was that the sales ladies insisted that I should conform to the style of the season, with small lenses from French and British fashion designers with famous (and expensive) brands.

    After about 15 minutes of arguing with them, I finally walked out when one of the ladies asked if I wanted my sons to be ashamed of me because my glasses were unfashionable.

    It sounds like diversity may be more acceptable in Beijing furniture shopping than in my local optical shops.

    Diversity vs. conformity.

  2. Jim, it’s true that no one tried to argue with me when I went furniture shopping. They had a hard enough time telling me the most basic things. Your example is interesting since the force of “conformity” was the force of fashion — which keeps designers from endlessly repeating themselves. Fashion promotes diversity, but over time rather than space.

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