Monday, April 22, 2013

You are what you buy: Consumer Culture and Technology

Old-fashioned machines and equipment

Just a few days ago I finally gave in to the pressures of consumer culture: I bought an iPhone. I had resisted rather successfully for a number of years. I felt that technology was getting more and more complex and there were too many functions complicating, not simplifying modern life.

For example, a cellphone is convenient yes, but its main purpose is to make and receive calls. Why would we need to take pictures, use social media, surf the net and download a host of different apps and gadgets? All this I considered technological clutter. It was not only unnecessary but highly distracting.

Moreover, it was not merely a general trend; it was the fangs of consumer culture reaching into our souls and pockets. Everybody (except me) had a smartphone, and I looked old-fashioned with my simple version of a cellphone (In fact, I had asked for a beeper, but the provider just smiled and took me for a nostalgic buffoon).

Consumer culture is a smart concept I admit. Companies reach deep inside of us and claim that they can help us fill the void within. Their products, they say, will bring us happiness. Once we spend our money on them, they come up with a new, a better and improved, a faster and more versatile gadget, the next number up the technological chain, and they say that this new product will make us even happier than the first.

At the same time, there is also a significant element of cultural peer pressure to deal with. Your friends have the latest model with all its new tricks and gimmicks, and you are still using the supposedly obsolete version yourself. So you feel the need to “update” yourself to their level and not fall behind in this technological race.

It is also creating some pressure on companies themselves to come up with new innovative gadgets. You are only as good as your latest book, movie or iPhone. The competition heats up and even companies feel the pressure of having to keep up at a very fast pace, especially when it comes to technology.

So I have fallen into the trap of consumer culture, have become their latest victim. It is rather ironic because I used to give diatribes against consumer culture using Peter Singer's ideas as my erudite support. I wanted others to understand and see the futility of such a culture, that we have substantially more than we need and that we could use the extra money that we waste on those products to follow the voice of our conscience and help humanity.

It is unfair to have all those gadgets in one country and in another to have millions of people starving to death. (The same applies in terms of food itself, people spending millions on diet pills or suffering from obesity, while the other parts of the world are malnourished to the bone.) This money could be saved instead of wasted on items we do not really need, and it could be used to help save people's lives. In other words, we are talking about a moral deed and not a shallow experience of happiness or vanity on our side.

And yet, I have to tone down my rhetoric so as not to become an example of hypocrisy since I am also wasting money on gadgets that are not necessary for my general use and well-being, i.e. the iPhone. I do believe that we have become ensnared or enslaved by modern fashion and consumer culture. Yet in a way, I must say that I also understand the reasons why that happens.

The iPhone, for example, is not only handy, convenient, filling my idle moments while waiting at the bus stop, but it also gives me a certain dose of happiness. In another way, I feel more connected to the hordes of people who are constantly checking and rechecking their smartphones, a technological version of grooming, I suppose. I feel part of them now; I understand them better. The same way, I was sternly against iPads until my son asked for one and I recognized its value.

I also have come to understand the urge or rather addiction of wanting to constantly reach for one's phone to check God knows what. It is not merely a fidget; take the smartphone away from people, and they will go through symptom withdrawal. It is an addiction like any other. I already had a similar experience when I had to go without Internet for a day (it was horrible!) but now to have connection to the world wide web at my fingertip wherever I am is supreme bliss indeed!

In this case, the romantic old-fashioned and traditional version of myself has to give in to the modern technological side. It will affect my outlook. It will change my conversation habits. It affects interactions and relationships. But it is also something that has been ongoing, a continuous progression and extension of the digital age.

I miss the days of my youth where I had pen pals. I would sit down and write a letter of four or five pages. It came from a deeper voice within me right there visible in my own handwriting. I used to await with excitement the arrival of the post to see if I had gotten a response from a friend. I am still at times anxious to see what the post will bring, but nowadays it is mostly bills.

I check my email with the same fervor and excitement although a lot of my emails fall under the rubric of junk. I also check my blog stats on a daily basis and blogs are one of the best parts and the most rewarding bits and benefits of technology.

In fact, nowadays I can reach people globally; I can post my latest musings, doubts and accomplishments, and at a click, it will become visible for the whole wide world. Such a thing would not have been ever possible in a letter format. Copying letters by hand would take eons and would reach a very limited number of people.

Also I keep defining and redefining myself. I used to criticize technology and consumer culture, but that has become a rather futile struggle. It is not a loss necessarily, and I do not think I am a sell-out; I rationalize that one can gain by keeping the “enemy” close. Put differently, sometimes we will see the hidden values and benefits of even those things we tend to criticize. As my students tend to say, every coin has two sides. And nowadays, I am looking on from the other side of the shores of technology.

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