What money can’t buy

The Post’s guide to gifts that don’t exist but should

What money can’t buy

The Post’s guide to gifts that don’t exist but should

No one wants to receive a dud gift, but in a year when a pandemic has narrowed our experiences, stuff has a heightened allure. It’s hard not to feel especially invested in the idea of shopping well, of swashbuckling through the retail landscape to find just the right thing.

So we turn to gift guides, as many as we can get our hands on, targeted to age, interest and price point. The gift guide promises to steer us to the good stuff and ward off clutter. It aims to maximize function, value, ease and pleasure. It will identify the item that will delight the pickiest, least scrutable person on your list, and seeing their reaction will — for just a moment — make them feel known to you. This is why we click through the endless recommendations for condiments and soft pants and ornaments shaped like rolls of toilet paper.

But two-day shipping can’t fulfill every wish. So, for this bizarre holiday season, The Washington Post asked five writers to dream up the presents that they’d love to parcel out this year but that don’t exist.

— Sophia Nguyen

(For The Washington Post)

An Internet that protects your privacy

The gift I’m offering, a micropayment browser, comes from a timeline that split off from ours in the 1990s, when the Web was first taking shape. Back then, people wondered how anyone would get paid for the webpages they wrote. One proposal was a micropayment system. Each time you read a webpage, you’d pay the author of that page some tiny amount of money: a nickel or a penny, maybe a fraction of a penny. The more people who read the page, the more the author would earn. The other proposal was that Web browsing would be free, but websites would display ads and get paid by the advertisers. We all know who won in the timeline we live in.

Ted Chiang is the author of the short-story collections “Exhalation” and “Stories of Your Life and Others.”

In the alternate timeline, micropayment browsers took off. Using a micropayment browser is like buying a subscription to the entire Internet. Every month you refill your account, and the money goes to the sites you visit in direct proportion to the amount of time you spend on those sites. Whether it’s local news or a superfan’s recaps of your favorite TV show, the site gets paid when you consume its content, and you don’t have to look at ads or click on affiliate links to support it.

While micropayment browsers were intended for sites with authored content, their widespread adoption in the other timeline meant that the Internet evolved a little differently. For example, social media sites like Facebook are all subscription-based because no one tolerates ads; you pay a monthly fee for membership, and in exchange your hobbies and interests, your demographic data and political leanings, remain private instead of being sold to advertisers or Russian troll farms.

So this holiday season, enjoy a different way of browsing the Internet. It’s not a conventional gift, because it requires the recipient to spend money. But you’re already paying for your browsing without realizing it, by surrendering your personal data; at least this way, you’ll know exactly what it’s costing you. And maybe you’ll find that keeping your privacy is worth spending some cash.

Party of One for The Washington Post (For The Washington Post)

The gift of subtraction

What if, this holiday season, you gave someone the gift of nothing — the freed space and peace of mind that come with the absence of an object?

In 2015, during my artist residency at Recology San Francisco (otherwise known as “the dump”), I saw that many of the items there were perfectly usable; they hadn’t broken, only outlived their welcome. “Trash” seemed less like a definitive category and more like a decision: Something becomes trash when we no longer have use or desire for it.

Jenny Odell @the_jennitaur, is an artist, lecturer in Art Practice at Stanford University and the author of “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.”

In a subsequent art project, I asked participants to give me items from their homes that they no longer wanted — their “pre-trash” — and interviewed them about the objects. The majority had originated as gifts — stuffed animals, clothing, keepsakes — that the owners felt guilty about getting rid of but had never wanted in the first place. After I exhibited the objects in a gallery, I let visitors claim anything they liked. Often, the items most reviled by their previous owners were the ones new owners were most excited about. For example, a teddy bear that someone had hated because it was “not cuddly enough” was snapped up because it was a collectible from Steiff, a German toy company dating from the 1880s.

Instead of giving someone an item, your “gift” would be taking an unwanted item off their hands and finding a new home for it. The gift could come with a photo of the object with its new owner or a simple chat with the new owner about the object’s story. Ideally, this practice would not only stem the needless consumption of gifts for the sake of gifts; it would also allow all marooned objects to go to people who actually like them.

(For The Washington Post)

A measure of good faith

I cannot remember the last time I had a meaningful exchange online with someone whose opinion I didn’t already agree with. On the Internet, where any rando feels entitled to our full attention, where empathy is a weakness rather than a strength, the party that “wins” any argument is by default the one that cares the least. Out of self-preservation, we cease engaging with those who claim to want to converse but who are just as likely to be barking sea lions.

Ken Liu @kyliu99, is a futurist and the author of “The Grace of Kings” and “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories.”

Good faith — the sincere willingness to listen, to understand, to learn, to take in new information and, possibly, to change one’s mind — is the foundation of meaningful human interaction, whether we’re speaking through screens or face to face. Without good faith going both ways, we cannot strip off our armor and dare to feel each other’s pain.

So my dream gift this holiday season is a touchstone for intention. Make it the size and shape of a phone but translucent, pulsing with an inner light whose color and pattern are determined by your interlocutor’s good faith (or lack thereof).

Point it at a tweet in your feed: an ugly purple shimmer. The author is “well, actually” concern-trolling, so tap that block button with satisfaction. Point it at an email containing a barely punctuated wall of text: waves of undulating, bright-red sparkles. The words deserve your effort, even if the style and reasoning seem offputting at first. Try it out on a talking head on TV, a dismissive colleague during a meeting, a family member whom you never understood, and see what happens.

I’d buy dozens and hand them out to those I admire as well as those I despise. I’d invite everyone to have the detectors ready as we started to talk. I don’t expect we’d agree on everything, but at least we’d know that we had put skin in the game and fought against human beings, not shadows.

Party of One for The Washington Post (For The Washington Post)

A miniature Interrotron

It can be hard to communicate in the remote landscape we’re in — the stilted, lurching rhythms of in-and-out network signals, the absence of body language minutiae that help tell us what’s happening beyond the words we hear. Videoconferencing has made many new connections possible, but when it’s the medium for everything, the diminishing returns are palpable: I look at you on my screen and you look at me, but our gazes never meet.

Sara Hendren @ablerism, is a professor at Olin College and the author of “What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World.”

Documentary filmmakers have thought about this for a long time: How do you connect the viewer with an interview subject when the latter is looking away, somewhere off to the side? The filmmaker Errol Morris invented a device, the Interrotron, to solve this problem; I want one adapted for our laptops. The miniature Interrotron would create a likeness of direct eye contact on the endless hours of video calls that now make up daily life for so many of us. I’d gift this to a lot of people I know — a tiny clip-on mechanism mounted over the eye of your computer’s camera that would project an image of your call partners, allowing you to look into their faces as you speak.

This camera attachment would reproduce the signature cinematic style of Morris’s bracing, candid interviews: direct eye contact with the audience. The Interrotron is a box contraption with a two-way mirror that makes it possible for an interview subject to look into the camera and see Morris’s face reflected there. That simulacrum makes the conversation natural, an authentic exchange between interviewee and filmmaker, that, by extension, creates the illusion that the subject is speaking directly with us, too. The Interrotron cuts out the mediator. It makes hard conversations more dimensional.

We’ve adapted, of course, to the videoconference gaze — not really looking at one another, eyes directed just out of the frame, negotiating whether to “hide self view” to avoid the magnetic self-consciousness of our own faces on screen. But a miniature Interrotron would return a feature of social life that I sorely miss.

(For The Washington Post)

A magic box

The bow-topped car has been a staple of holiday commercials since the late ’90s, when Lexus launched its “December to Remember” campaign. The ribbon was visible down the block, but the vehicle underneath was a gift for one. During the pandemic, most kids have been indoors, isolated, driving digital hot-rods solo down pixelated streets, constructing Lego sets of places they can’t visit, assembling projects from art kits made for self-expression; they have been missing playgrounds, playdates and playgroups. Giving them another video game, or a craft box subscription, feels like more of the same: a gift for one, for someone unable to go other places or spend time with other people.

Alexandra Lange @langealexandra, is a design critic and author of “The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids.”

What if there were a way to make a gift for the neighborhood? What kind of large, bow-topped object, dropped on a driveway, schoolyard or cul de sac, would draw kids out rather than keeping them in? Something light, something tough, something cheap, something malleable enough to spark the builder’s imagination.

The Magic Box, a six-foot cardboard cube, would be delivered to your doorstep with a big red bow. It’d be designed to give your kids, and your neighbor’s kids, and the kids down the block, something big to do together. The box is just the start: Inside you’d find sturdy scissors, tape, rope and string, along with paint, markers, wheels and tubes, everything a pack of kids might need to build their own village, hold a soap box derby or fashion an arcade. These starter supplies could be supplemented with more boxes, cans, plastic bottles and containers from the family recycling. A group could build together in one backyard; a more distanced approach could use lines marked on the schoolyard, front yards or adjacent parking spots so kids could see and shout about each other’s work without getting too close. At the beginning of the 20th century, educator Patty Smith Hill increased the scale of classroom blocks to the size of kids themselves, realizing that bigger pieces spurred cooperation and imagination. The Magic Box would offer a similar boost in scale, bumping the traditional holiday gift from an individual present to a gift for the community.

Illustrations by Party of One for The Washington Post

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us