Saturday, November 24, 2012

One Danger of Consumerism

There's an ad on Youtube circulating, an ad that states "we need to make stuff again."


Why do we need to make stuff?  The specious part of that statement is the word "need."  Obviously as people we tend to want things, and the way we live predicates certain material things like houses and clothing.  But what else is there that we need?

Food.  That's not making stuff, that's growing stuff.  I guess you could call it "making" when you send it to a factory for canning.

China, and in fact all of Asia, is stealing a march on other parts of the world when it comes to manufacturing jobs in the electronics sector.  Up until fairly recently it was a given that the best electronics came from Japan.  But just recently both Sony and Panasonic, longtime leaders in the Japanese electronics industry, were downgraded to junk status.


So who's enjoying the bounce?  When major players fall from the heights like that, somebody else must be on the rise.  When the tide is going down here, it's going up somewhere else.  Samsung, a Korean company, is climbing fast as Sony's and Panasonic's influences contract.  Also on the rise are Lg (also Korean), Huawei (China), HiSense (China) and Vizio (ostensibly American, but with offshore manufacturing).  I contacted Vizio but got no indication of Vizio moving manufacturing to American soil anytime soon.  Admittedly, I didn't contact very high in the food chain and I didn't pursue very hard.

There's cars, of course.  We all know who the major players are there, and none of that has really changed much.  It's worth noting, too, that there really is no such thing as a foreign Japanese car anymore.  Subarus are manufactured in Indiana, Toyotas in California, Nissans in Tennessee...the only really foreign cars are European.  And even some of those are made in the States: Volkswagen has a plant in Chattanooga, BMW a plant in South Carolina.

But the question I'm asking is: do we need all this stuff?  Our economy is driven by people wanting, and buying, stuff.  Buying it in huge quantities, no less.  Huge quantities are stock in trade for such retailers as Costco and Sam's Club.  You can buy 1-gallon tubs of "heavy duty" mayonnaise.  Exactly how does mayonnaise become "heavy duty?"

You can make the case for 1-gallon tubs of mayo: if you're a church or club and you're putting on a picnic, there's a valid need for a large container.  Same with #10 cans of baked beans, a #10 can holds three quarts of food and delivers a lot of product for a relatively small outlay in packaging and handling cost.  But when you're just a family of four, it's going to take a lot of leftover dinners to get through the contents of a single #10.  There's not much point in having a can that size, let alone being a small family and buying it.

The things we use up need to be produced at a regular rate: toilet paper, clothes, food.  Energy products like fuel and electricity, those need to be generated at the source and delivered.  But so many things that people suddenly think they need, they don't.  Not really.

You can make the argument for a cell phone.  It's a lot harder to make the argument for a smart phone.  It's damned near impossible to make the case for, and really really hard to defend the decision to dump your old smart phone just so you can upgrade to the latest model.  People are knocking each other over for a brand-new iPhone 5, but why?  It's not that great.  Between utterly hilarious iOS Maps screwups and difficulty updating the silly thing to the latest operating system, you might wonder whether bothering with the new one is even worth the trouble.

An original iPhone got quite a lot done.  And none of what it does - aside from making and taking phone calls - is really what you need.  It's just what you want.

These capabilities these devices bring, the extra goodies we bring into our home, most of them only excel at one thing: making us less human.

Instead of calling someone and speaking to them directly, do you send a text message?  Too bad.  Texting leaves vocal inflection behind, and then you're stuck relying on foolish smiley and frowny faces to imply emotional weight to your otherwise dry, robotic message.

Bigger and better TVs so you can stay home and watch a movie that is delivered to you by the Internet.  Do you remember when going out to a movie was an event, something you planned?  If you're younger than about 25, you might not.  I certainly do.  I also remember sneaking out to movies at the local $.99 theater, a place that showed second-run titles.  When the big multiplexes were showing the brand-new titles for $5.00 a show - this was in the 80s, mind, and $5.00 was nearly two hours' wage for a kid my age - I could catch something affordable if I didn't mind waiting two months.  And forget waiting just four to six months for the movie to come out on video - you were lucky if it came out within two years.

A large part of being human is the social nature of humanity.  But as we further insulate ourselves from each other with our electronic devices that distract and entertain without requiring us to be anywhere near each other, we're giving up crucial skills that make us a powerful force.  We're losing our ability to interact, to cooperate.  We're becoming a nation of people that are used to having their every whim ready to be answered by whatever gizmo we're carrying.  Can't remember a name?  Look it up.  Want to order a pizza for dinner?  Just click the box, fill in your address, pay via PayPal.  Too bad you have to talk to the pimply guy driving that rustbucket jalopy the pizza's delivered in, but whatever, right?  You got what you wanted.

Our wants are becoming the driving force of social evolution, and we're allowing it to happen.  Put the gizmo down.  Turn off the TV.  Go find a book, read to your kids.  Play a game, shuffle the cards.  Be less connected to the huge wide world of distractions, and more connected to the family and neighborhood around you.  You'll be better off if you do.

Turn off the computer.


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