Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Opiate of the masses

This morning, I overheard a young woman on the train- a college student, perhaps- telling someone on the other end of a phone call that she was planning to get the new iPhone as soon as they are available. Apparently, her current iPod is "just so big", and her phone is nearly 2 years old, so she was going to throw it away, anyway. The fact that they both seemed to be in working order didn’t appear to be a consideration. This ordinary exercise in consumerism got me thinking about for a moment about cost, before raising the broader questions of value, values, and self.
It’s no surprise to the reader that people, especially Westerners, increasingly define themselves by what they own. I don’t need to dwell long on the ubiquity of advertising, nor on the shift of "music lover" from meaning one who has studied and practiced music (even if informally), to one who spends a great deal of money on MP3s.
I’m not suggesting that humans have not long been technologists. Our modern understanding of the history of humans is based substantially on what we have made, whether that be fluted stone spearheads, constitutions, or rifled muskets. Nor am I suggesting that humans have not equally long spent much of their time and energy learning technology.
A key difference I see is that people are increasingly losing the knowledge of how to provide for themselves, even in the most rudimentary ways. A century ago, even many city-dwellers kept garden plots that helped to fill their tables. Fifty years ago, a person able to afford a pickup truck likely knew something about how to maintain it beyond taking it to the dealer when the light comes on. The practical appreciation for how technologies like agriculture and automobiles work increased their perceived value.
I find myself again looking at the question that Pirsig raised, that of "what’s new" versus "what’s best". Perhaps if we could move toward this mindset, we could pursue genuine happiness and community, rather than drugging ourselves with new diversions and creating ever-larger piles of trash.


Pat Jenkins said...

good address here e.r. socities have definitely changed. i often tell my wife those a few moons ago lived to survive as we somewhat live for possession. no harm, but a softer lifestyle. i personally am not concerned with abundance, but what does bother me is the expectation or demand of gain.

twotymer97 said...

Great post E.R.

Technology is just one type of purchase that many feel justifies their existence. I saw a man the other day begging on the street, clipped to the side of his jean--a cell phone. [shrugs]

I'm not a huge technology consumer (meaning: I don't own an LCD television or itsy-bitsy digital camcorder, etc.) but your post made me think of my living space.

Living in a smaller space (barely 800 sqft) is often frustrating to me, and I find myself wanting more space. But then I realize that 40-50 years ago a family lived in this space and made due--they probably just didn't have as much "stuff" to fill the space. They didn't need as much stuff.

So, when I get into these frets, I try to realize that my house is not a storage unit for gadgets--it's a shelter, a place of escape from the insanity of the outside, and that's all it needs to be.

I don't need that much stuff.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad I’ve struck a chord. I think you’re right about that sense of entitlement. It’s very dangerous to our humanity to demand so much more than we need or genuinely want. We’re surrounded by people selling things, constantly suggesting that there is something wrong with us for not owning what they offer.
I disagree on the statements of "no harm", and "abundance". On the former, there is harm in exhausting resources faster than they are replenished, and in dumping waste anywhere we can get it out of sight, out of mind. Moreover, there is that pervasive harm to oneself by existing only to acquire. This crowds-out important things like relationships with friends and family, charity to those in need, and spiritual pursuits.
On the latter, I agree that abundance is a great thing. However, is living beyond one’s means and increasing the disparity between the wealthiest and poorest people really enjoying "abundance"?
I should be clear that I think it is possible to enjoy "abundance", "no harm", and that "softer lifestyle" concurrently, but we need to rethink certain values to make these states a reality. Thanks again for reading.

E. R. Dunhill said...

I was sorry to read about your struggles with Blogger, but I’m glad to see you’re back in the fold.
You raise an excellent point about homes (and this point lights a fire under me to post on something I’ve been planning to write about for several months, my own smaller home). People in the US are buying bigger and bigger homes, while having fewer and fewer children. This equation doesn’t make sense to me. I think having fewer children is sound logic, given the shift from a primarily rural-agrarian lifeway to a primarily urban one. But the absence of those extra little feet does raise the question, "What’s the big house for?"
I think your right-sized house is a wise choice. It takes a strong sense of self and sound values to fight the social and market currents.

Pat Jenkins said...

er, fair enough!!(to your response) i would just caution that individuals' personal struggle i.e, greed, jealousy, lack of responsiblity in taking care of his possesions, should not be included in a debate on whether it is right or just for one to have abundance. that would be about man himself.