Reflections on the role and destiny of objects in a nomadic time

There is a story children like very much, entitled “A House for Hermit Crab,” by Eric Carle, which tells preschool kids what happens in the world of hermit crabs, which as they grow need to find new abodes to match their size.

While the snail, another invertebrate taken as a reference point in metaphors of habitation, teaches us that the construction of one’s home is an industrious, slow, meaningful, resilient gesture. The moral of the hermit crab story is that changes, though frightening, can become amazing adventures. Both theses have a value and a meaning. One, seen from the perspective of the other, might also seem like a desirable solution: it is probable that a hermit crab has good reasons to desire stability, while certain snails, were it a feasible alternative, might well prefer to trade their lot for the freedom of the hermit crab. But if they ever meet, the crab and the snail would have a very hard time conveying their reasoning to each other.

As the fable of the ant and the grasshopper teaches us – in a metaphor of man’s attitude regarding savings – people tend to alternate the behaviors of the hermit crab and the snail when it comes to the theme of habitation. Actually we are talking about only a small portion of humankind, the one that has a choice, wedged between the two larger portions composed of individuals that are forced to continuously change or never to change, those born as hermit crabs or snails, who have little choice in the matter: on the one hand, the people for whom nomadism is obligatory, and the fixed dwelling a dream; on the other, those forced to live constantly in a given condition, without any hope of improvement or of resistance to decay.

So we are talking about a privileged minority, geographically observable in Italy, where it is estimated that about 80% of the inhabitants live in owned homes, from which they depart about four times during the course of a lifetime to move into another owned home. Snails and hermit crabs at the same time, then, the Italians alternate two ways of thinking about the house, crossing them at times with the hybrid forms of the new millennium.

On one side, we have the hermit crabs that behave like snails: they may not construct the house that will follow them and change with them, but they hold onto a narrow set of objects that seem to define them, and which will always, anywhere, constitute their definition of home. A protective shell – or one that protects their densest part – but at the same time also a filter of the outside world, a chosen profile, precisely like that of a social network, which allows us to introduce ourselves, displaying the parts of us we want others to see.

On the other side, we find a sort of snail that in spite of owning a house decides to live like a hermit crab, constantly changing, making forms of precarious status into an opportunity to work ‘from home,’ whatever the meaning of ‘home’ might be, and wherever they happen to live. These are the so-called ‘digital nomads’ who can take advantage of income paid in strong currencies, though they live in contexts where the cost of living is much lower. Some of them, in their departure, leave behind houses that will be inhabited by other people, sometimes in stays of just a few days; houses that were those of snails become containers for everyone, in which the hermit crabs, passing through, leave their comments

Snails and hermit crabs at the same time, then, the Italians alternate two ways of thinking about the house, crossing them at times with the hybrid forms of the new millennium"

But what becomes of the objects, namely the primary, stable inhabitants of the houses, in this passage of always different tenants? What is their role and meaning in the age of nomadism and Airbnb? The most immediate response is to imagine that those who choose nomadism will preach detachment from things, with the exception of portable, adaptable ones.

Actually, the results of these new behaviors are leading to a very strong attachment to objects. In the past, ‘for rent’ adds contained the message ‘partially furnished’ because it was the solution that combined the needs of those leaving the house with an indispensable minimum for quick habitation, and those entering who could limit their expenses to factors of personalization, taking the main functions for granted: a bed, a closet, bath fixtures, kitchen cabinets, etc.

Today, the competition and the visibility on hosting platforms mean that owners have to pay close attention to the details of the homes they make available, almost more than they do in their own dwellings. This might lead in the not so distant future to a situation in which the objects of greatest value, taste, presence and personality paradoxically end up in houses that are not the ones in which we really live, as they are deployed to generate value (economic, but also in terms of image and personal gratification), speaking of us precisely when we are not there. As if these things – beyond people, intentions and functions, beyond abandonment – could also exist without us, or precisely when we are no longer present.