It’s no wonder we aren’t coming to be truly at home in this world when there is nothing that makes it worthwhile to do so.
Human relationships seem fleeting. Not only our social ‘landscapes’, but also actual ones, keep being changed and becoming poorer. The things we interact with daily are basically all just junk.
Clothes can’t be lived in, they are a dime a dozen (and you are to change them not so much with the actual seasons as with those of fashion); the all-important electronics that give great power to work and connect but also make things virtual and fleeting are all made to seem dated just as soon as they are paid for; most things are just meant to be lusted-after, purchased, and soon found insufficient.
It all sates and stokes the desire that makes the consumer economy hum, but it also makes us poorer as good things disappear – and not in the positive way in which good things can disappear because they get out of the way of one’s doing.
Act 1: Stuff, Stuff All Around, But Not a Thing to Keep
With consumerism, we have been seeing one disappearance of good things: They just seem to be made less and less.
The idea with electronics is that this is just a natural side-effect of the rate of progress; there may at least be a few that look good (Hello, Apple fans!), but their obsolescence seems a natural given.
Computer chips keep getting more powerful, storage keeps getting cheaper, and so new things become possible and new products are made and marketed…
But of course, a lot of the obsolescence is also deliberately built-in and planned. Things are meant to break or at least not to be easily repairable when they break, and even before that, there will be a new product that makes the older one look somehow less good, anyways.
It’s not just electronics, either.
From fashionable clothes to kitchen gadgets, from cheap furniture to disposable convenience products, lots and lots of things are meant to make life easier and better by making a person not have to care about looking after the thing anymore.
No need to prepare ingredients, cook food, wash dishes; just buy it, heat it up, throw out the waste.
No need to stick with old clothes, old furniture, old you; just get some new stuff, live a new life, make a new you.
No need to learn how to handle a knife or a razor, just use the tools made just for you, just for that one particular job…
We keep describing ourselves, in that context, as materialist, but it really is consumerism in a throw-away economy we follow.
We keep talking of growth as a good thing – and there sure are signs of progress – but we still overlook how often that growth is one in terms of a deluge of stuff and a mountain of junk to flatten the countryside with landfill, not a growth in terms of quality of life.
It may well be the case that we are, after a fashion, not materialistic enough…
Act 2: Tools that Re-Shape the Self in Their Image
As human beings, we need things to hold on to, to become familiar with, and to know so intimately that they may disappear into the background. Not because we want to forget about them, but because they become so much a part of who we are in what we do – and because they fulfill their purpose in that so well – that there is no reason to notice them anymore.
Many of our tools have (life-)historically become but an extension and expression of a self that is and does in the world. Just imagine a craftsman…
We are seeing this psychological tendency of ours very clearly, but unfortunately somewhere where it is being exploited in favor of consumerism and the obsolescence-driven economy, when we look at smartphones: The many services they provide, especially linked up with social networks which are all about self-presentation, make them the hubs of our social lives and personalities.
It’s not the circles we run in and not just the music we carry around in a Walkman that makes us feel that we belong to a certain group anymore. Rather, all our individual-isolated selves are all connected, and it’s also the music and media – and everything – we do and show and talk about and share that make us ourselves in our presentation to others.
The problem is that this is a tool that very much shapes us, and it is a tool meant to not just be replaced itself, but also to replace our older habits, if not selves, with new and market-driven ones.
Quiet times for reflection, never the most popular thing for many a person, are replaced even more strongly than ever before by a constant barrage of notifications that feed little fixes of dopamine with every ping of a new event.
When we have to suffer the disappointment of a dearth of new likes or mentions for us, we can still plug into the silence of sound, enveloping us in a cocoon of music, disappear into games or the virtual worlds of film or TV.
It builds habits as every moment of downtime is used to check into social media and every new notification is naturally followed by a look at what it was about.
If you don’t look, you fear you may be missing out; if you don’t share what you saw and thought, did it really happen?
Act 3: Skills Grow, Tools Disappear, Selves Expand
With the dominance of disposable and convenience, and soon-obsolescent, products, many of the older good things have come to disappear. Sometimes, they are truly not being made anymore; sometimes, they are still there but hidden under the deluge of stuff that is cheaper up-front and promises easier handling.
Good things tend to be strange, compared to convenience things, in how they do not necessarily have immediate and easy appeal.
They are often more expensive, at least up front; there is more of a learning curve involved in the decision for and use of those things; the combination of expense and inconvenience makes them a harder sell, in marketing from others and in the individual decision for them.
If you don’t know why (or even that) it’s a good thing already, you might not know what it is and why it’s a good thing; and even if you know, that knowledge may be the only thing that makes it attractive, at least at first, until you learn to use it properly and appreciate its power.
The good thing about those good things, however, is exactly in their quieter appeal.
Clothes that aren’t just flashy and fashionable but well-made, well-fitting, and suiting you (and there’s a reason why it’s called “it suits you”…) can express a lot about a person and become a second skin to feel comfortable in. (At the same time, in their effect as “enclothed cognition,” they can also make their wearer better…)
The kitchen knife that is good and that you have learned to handle with skill becomes an extension of your body that enables you to do more than you would be able to do without the tool; and it replaces a whole host of gadgets that would otherwise clutter your kitchen and complicate your cooking.
A decent razor makes for a good shave, alongside a reminder of the need to pay attention to one’s care for oneself (and I enjoy the example even more because men tend to forget about their physical side more than women, and be made fun of if they pay too much attention to their looks because it’s considered not manly to do so – but what could be manlier than a well-groomed man, shaved with a straight blade?)
Good writing may not follow magically from good tools for writing, but such tools can focus the mind nicely and represent the earnestness of one’s approach to the writing. Just like enclothed cognition, it is not everything, but it will help if properly used – as a good tool.
Surrounding yourself with select good things – the best – (without falling into the trap of thinking that it’s only the price and luxury cachet that makes for something good…), learning what is good and learning to use it so that it is good for you makes for a deeper engagement with life itself, a re-valuing that we so sorely need in these times of cheap disposability that treat everything – and everyone – as throw-away.
Good things matter for good lives. Not in the sense that you need the most expensive and luxurious “only the best,” but because it helps to have good things you can cherish and use in creating the good life you want to live.
Civilization is not (just ;) ) made by conspicuous consumption, let alone in conveniently disposable consumption.
It is crafted with creativity and care, which require good tools – the material, the physical, and the mental.