Posts Tagged ‘consumerism’

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Once upon a time there was a King and his kin who ate and ate and ate, and when they’d stripped the kingdom bare with their eating, they made war on their neighbours and ate their land bare too. They felt they had no choice in this, that if they ever stopped eating – even for a moment – they would disappear, that only by eating more and more could they remain fully present in the world and meaningful, and their followers, the people, who also ate excessively, would still worship them. The strange thing was the more everyone ate, the sadder they became, and the King told them the reason for their sadness – though he’d no idea really – was because they had not yet eaten enough.

But when all the neighbours had been slain and the King and his kin and their followers had stripped the earth bare, all the way down to the shore of the sea, and when there was nothing left to eat, and even the fishes were choking on the King’s excrement, the King and his kin sat down in puzzlement. They were still hungry, and sad, and in their hunger they despaired and became grumpy with one another. And their followers, the people,  were confused and afraid, and hungry too – and as they grew hungry they grew angry there was nothing more to eat. After all had the King not told them it was their duty to eat as much as they could every day?

So the King and his kin turned their anger back on the people for questioning the wisdom of the King, and they sent the King’s army out to beat them until they bled, and while they were at it, to rob the people, to search their pockets for any last crumbs that might sustain the King and his kin. But the crumbs were few, for in truth the people had been hungry for a long time. So the King took to his bed and his kin, fearing the end of the world, sent for the wise man.

Now the wise man knew the King and his kin were foolish in their beliefs, and tyrannical in the lies they told the people, most of whom knew no better. But they were many and stubborn in their beliefs, because everyone had been eating for so long it was impossible for them to think of any other way to be.

“But you’re forgetting the stars,” he said to the King.

“The stars?” said the King. “What about the stars?”

“Everyone knows there are planets orbiting the stars,” said the wise man. “I shall build you rocket-ships to take you there. Just think of all those planets waiting to be exploited in the name of the King.”

This rather excited the King. “And all of us can go?” he said. “My kin too? I wouldn’t want to be without my kin, who tell me daily whatever I want to hear.”

“All of you,” said the wise man. “I insist.”

“And what about us?” said the followers of the King and his kin.

“All who wish to go and eat, shall go,” said the wise man. “But there’s a catch. These rocket-ships will use up the very last of our materials and our fuels on earth, and there will be no chance of ever returning.”

So the King and his kin looked around at the wasteland of the earth and they laughed, thinking this wouldn’t be a problem. So the wise man gathered the experts, who gathered the materials and the fuels and they built the rockets and fitted them out with the most wondrously luxurious state-rooms, and filled their larders with the very last of the fruits of the earth.

Of course, as is ever the way in human affairs, not everyone was able to find a berth on the rocket-ships. The old and the sick were decreed by the King and his kin unwelcome, as were the poor for fear they might bring bad odours and misfortune with them. But the wise man comforted those doomed to remain, and promised he would stay behind to look after them.

“You mean you’re not coming?” said the King.

“What need have you of me, your majesty,” said the wise man. “when each of your rocket-ships is equipped with the most artificially intelligent computer ever known to man?”

“Fair enough” said the King, who had perfect confidence in computers. He didn’t much like the wise man anyway, was always afraid he knew something the King didn’t. And with the wise man gone, the King’s wisdom was once more the last word.

So came the day and all the rocket-ships blasted off into the void of space, never to return, and the wise man watched them go and he bid them good riddance, knowing everyone aboard would be long dead before they’d crossed even a fraction of the distance to nearest star. And just as well for he would not have wished such an obscene  pestilence to be visited on another world.

Then he turned to the old and the sick and the poor, and he took from his pocket a bag of seeds and he said:

“We’d best plant these then, and try not eat so much next time.”

So the people planted the seeds, and in sharing the work of the tilling and watering and the harvesting, they realised they were happy, yet they had nothing and were still hungry. So they asked the wise man: “How come we’re so happy, when we’ve not yet eaten?”

“Perhaps,” said the wise man, “the greatest nourishment is that which we find in harmonious relationship with others.”

And so the old and the poor and weak and the sick all looked at one another and agreed they’d do well to remember that, and not eat so much in future. And as the earth slowly recovered and grew green once more, and the remaining shy creatures came from their burrows and multiplied, the people looked around at this new beginning.

And saw that it was good.

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southport sunsetSo,.. out walking with my phone in my back pocket. Not a good idea, cracked the screen and killed it. On the upside it’s a Chinese ‘Droid, so it didn’t cost much, and all the important stuff was saved to the removable memory anyway. All told then, nothing lost and in true consumerist tradition I threw it away and ordered a new one from Amazon. This was Sunday, just before midnight when I placed the order, standard postage, nothing special. I was thinking it would do me good to be without the phone for a bit – teach me to be more careful. However,…

Next day, Monday, a bank holiday and there’s a white van outside come mid-afternoon: ‘Sign here mate’. Package delivered, and I’m holding my new phone in a state of bemused awe. Okay, this doesn’t happen with everything you buy off Amazon – and you usually have to pay a premium for next day delivery, so I’d clearly hit upon a set of fortuitous circumstances here, but it illustrates how the machinery is gearing up to provide us with an instant gratification. But is this what we really want? Given the direction things are moving in it seems to be what we want, and it’s impressive, but do we really need it? And rather than being served, are we not merely being used, abused and generally hoodwinked into expectations that are ultimately self destructive?

While I was sitting in my garden, sunning myself all Monday, the guy in the white van had been up since dawn, sorting his deliveries out, then sweating on one of the hottest days of the year while fighting his way through bank holiday traffic along with so many other diesel belching white vans, each making their own manic deliveries, and all so we could get our stuff faster than we really needed it. But before doing his bit, it was another guy pushing a trolley in a warehouse to get my thing, his feet and knees killing him, the machine counting him down to a telling off for going too slow, that he’d better hurry up, keep pace, deliver more stuff to replace all the other stuff he found last week that’s already been thrown away.

But don’t worry about the human exploitation angle. In the near future, our stuff will be picked and packed and bagged entirely by machine and given to a drone for delivery. No humans involved. We’ll all be living within an hour’s flying time of a fulfilment centre by then, and the thing will be dropped off to a landing zone in our back yard, or maybe we’ll be fitting delivery chutes to our roofs and they’ll be as ubiquitous as chimney pots. Then we’ll be grinding our teeth if the drop’s five minutes late, berating the quality of a drone that struggles to make time against a howling gale. Total time to fulfilment? a couple of hours, and we’ll be looking to cut that in half. The infrastructure will facilitate it, and we’ll get used to it, and expect it, whether we really need it to be that way or not.

So, safe now in possession of my new phone, having been without one for all of fifteen hours – and ten of those asleep – I drove out to the coast, secure in the knowledge it was tracking my every move and could guide me back home if need be. But the coast, on the evening of a Bank Holiday Monday was like the aftermath of a rock festival – litter strewn as far as the eye could see. The promenades were thick with it, the beaches too. You could even see outlines in it where the cars had been parked and all this discarded stuff had just spewed from the open windows. Fast food cartons, plastic bags, blobs of ice-cream,…

Feral seagulls feasted on all the food waste, and what they missed the rats would get come fall of night. The tide was coming in; scent of the sea, scent of disposable barbecues and recreational weed. In a few hours the beaches would give up their filth, and the sea would gulp it down, vomiting it back up wherever the ocean currents took it.

While the machine pioneers pioneer ever faster ways of telling us what we want, then getting it to us ahead of when we want it, whether we really want it, or need it, or not, the aftermath of a bank holiday Monday provides no better illustration of the price we pay for a society hooked on consumption and instant gratification. And the price we pay is this: we are drowning in our own effluent. And it’s too late to do anything about it because our heads are so far inside this box now we’re losing sight of the light of day.

We all had our phones out, taking pictures of the sunset and cooing over it while stepping around the trash. I took a picture of a waste bin, dwarfed by mountains of rubbish piled beside it. I was thinking to post it here, but it turned my stomach, so I deleted it, kept the sunset, posted that to Instagram, self censored like everyone else, so I can go on pretending the world is still a beautiful place.

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olad-aviaSo, seventy five years from now no one will be interested in the date of manufacture of my first generation iPad. Even I don’t remember. 2010, perhaps? All I know for sure is I’d only had it six months and it was already obsolete. Such is the march of consumerism. I still use it though, resisting the inevitable upgrade because like most people I’ve less money now in real terms than I had when I bought it.

But if it still works, why worry about it?

Shame on me. This is not the spirit of consumerism.

Perhaps the internet will preserve the history of my iPad for posterity. Who knows? That’s more than can be said for the AVIA watch company, its history being something of a blur – no one seeming to have considered it worth the writing down. Like the iPad, they shelled their watches out like peas, entirely in accordance with the bean counter’s credo  that making things has never meant a damn beyond the selling of them.

But I’m an engineer, not a bean counter. I make things and I like making things, and I’m interested in the history of making things, and how things were and are and will be made. And I like AVIA watches, but don’t ask me why. They were a quality Swiss manufacture, the designs possessed of a certain nostalgic elegance that appeals to me. I’ve no idea what my first gen iPad will be worth in seventy five years, but a seventy five year old Avia wrist watch is worth,.. well, it varies, but I just paid £12 for this one, which is next to bugger all.

It still runs, just about, but cleaning and oiling will have it back on form. As for the rest of it,.. well,.. it looks knackered to be honest. The case is very worn, the gold plating rubbed through to the brass, and the face,… well,… let’s just say it’s suffered from a long term overexposure to damp. Clean it up all you like, this old watch is never going to look like new.

I’ve seen pictures of Patek Phillipes, Omegas, Rolexes, all with crusty dials – they call it patina on watches like that, aspirational watches, but on an old consumer grade AVIA, well it’s just junk, isn’t it? Sure – with a bit of patience, I can get it telling time as if it were new – get it going for another seventy five years. But who cares about that? Patina’s only worth it on a watch worth ten grand, and in the eyes of the pillock who’s prepared to afford it. To anyone with less money and a damn sight more common sense it’s just going to look,… well,… knackered, and why don’t you go and by yourself a new watch?

So, maybe I should just have my fun, learn a bit more about what makes old tickers tick, then chuck this worthless old junker away.

What’s that? Sell it back on Ebay?

Why should I? If I’m more honest than the original seller who sold it to me (nice condition, running a bit fast), it’s hardly going to make much of a profit, is it? (Old AVIA, generally knackered in appearance, but keeps good time.)

A fiver?

I asked this question on Instagram. My thanks to @grandadbeard for the reply. If it still works you shouldn’t throw it away. You should use it. But I have several dozen watches, some of them much older  and all of them a damn sight better looking than this one. I’ll never wear it, never use it.

But someone will.

It’s come a long way since those first nimble fingers put it together. Maybe in another 75 years it’ll be more valued than it is now. I sense the responsibility, reach cautiously for the screwdriver.

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green goddessWisdom sometimes comes from the most unlikely places. I had a neighbour – a man of little education, and long retired when I met him, a man of simple tastes, fond of his garden, not well off, but perfectly content in the bosom of his family. I forget how our conversation got on to the topic of consumerism, but he said his motto was that if you needed something, and you’d the money, then you should get it, but if you merely wanted a thing, then you shouldn’t get it, even if you’d the money.

Like it or loathe it, consumerism has changed the face of the western world, and it’s changed us. Prior to 1900, it was believed people were motivated by logical responses to available data: give them the relevant information and they’d make a rational choice based upon personal need. But the work of psychoanalysts like Freud,  showed how we in fact respond to things in ways that are far from logical, that we are also driven by unconscious desires of a purely emotional and entirely irrational nature.

The advertising of goods used to focus on practical issues like how reliable the goods were, or what they did that was bigger/better/faster than all the other similar stuff out there. But it was found you could sell more goods if you could also sell the myth that a thing would make a person feel better about themselves in ways beyond the mere function of the thing itself. From then on manufactured goods were no longer practical necessities, they became lifestyle choices. We bought things because we desired them, because we wanted a piece of the mythical lifestyle that came with owning that product. It also meant that if our desires could be sated in this way, we were less likely to satisfy them in other ways, ways that might be socially or politically undesirable – things like taking to the streets in protest for example?

All of this sounds bizarre now, but a look back at the history of psychoanalysis and its links with advertising shows how our unconscious urges have been analysed, categorised and manipulated in order to maximise the sale of goods. Psychoanalysis has many critics, but we are all the living proof of how its theories have been put to devastatingly practical use, including, some might say, the control of large populations – you simply feed us a diet of “stuff”, and weave around it a fantasy of desire, and we become docile, endlessly chasing the myth of the ideal reality, instead of focussing on reality itself.

The history of the western world up to the middle of the twentieth century is one of upheaval and public revolt. But if we look at those same democracies in the early part of the twenty first century, democracies now steeped in a tradition of consumerism, our history is one of apathy. The mob no longer cares what’s going on in halls of power, so long as the postman turns up on time with our stuff from Amazon. Short of a postal strike, I can’t imagine us getting really upset about anything.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to see another pan-European war, but neither am I happy with the thought of a population so lost to the myth of stuff they’ve  no longer the will to change society if they feel it needs changing, nor even the vision to see what needs changing in the first place.

So next time you’re in town, and you see some “thing” and you think to yourself if only I had that thing I’d feel a lot better about myself, remind yourself it won’t make more than five minutes difference to the way you feel at all. Feeling better about yourself comes from somewhere else, and there, I’m afraid, we’re on our own. So try to cut back a little more to the centre of yourself, try to clear the line between necessity and desire, and ask yourself: apart from all this stuff that I apparently want, who the hell am I, and what do I really, really need most in my life right now?

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It’s been rather a soggy weekend here. I woke up this morning to find that all of my plans for the day were off because it was raining, and I’d have to find something else to do. So, I stood in the back porch and caught up on my Qigong practice, which I’ve been neglecting recently.

It’s interesting that I immediately ran into a consumerist distraction, thinking I was bored with the music I usually practice to – an album (do they still use that word?) of traditional Chinese music by Hong Ting. So I dialled up iTunes on my iPod and began searching on music for Tai Chi. Half an hour passed during which my finger hovered dangerously close to the purchase button – a quick click and £7.99 might be gone on an electronic download – except I resisted the temptation, realising in time that I was suffering from the curse of wanting what I’d not got, and no longer appreciating what I had, so I put Hong Ting on the player and I began my practice.

For the next hour I ran through the 8 Brocades, which is my usual routine, then did some memory jogging on the Yi Jin Jing – another set I learned a while ago, then some standing meditation. Afterwards I sat with coffee, marvelling at the smell of it because I’ve been without a sense of smell now for several years, and for no reason I can think of this week it’s come back and increased the depth and texture of my world immeasurably. But anyway, as I sat there, I was thinking about my writing and where it’s going, and if I should think about charging for the next one, which is called “The last guests of La Maison Du Lac”. Should I, I thought, put it up on Smashwords or Kindle bookstore, or even step over to the darkside again and resume my quest for that most mythical of characters – an agent? Fortunately I looped back through all the same arguments for why I shouldn’t. As a UK writer I need to get as US tax id before those websites will let me sign up, which is fair enough but it seems a complicated process, and am I really going to sell that many copies to make it worth my while? Smashwords distribution on “The man who could not forget” is hopeless, and it’s free. So if I charged for it,… blah-di-blah-di-blah. As for the agent, I find I’m still in not in the frame of mind to want to waste years chasing one. I mean, there are so many other works I want to pursue without getting bogged down again trying to publish something that is for me ‘old news”. At the moment it takes me about half an hour to publish, and I can pretty much guarantee a decent distribution – and isn’t that better than beating your head against a brick wall? So I come back down to Feedbooks and Lulu as my usual outlets and decide to keep things pretty much as they are. It’s a bit like that earlier consumerist distraction – why don’t I want to make a shedload of money from my writing? Why would I want to spend years writing a story – the best part of a decade in the case of “Lavender and the Rose”, beating myself up over it and wrestling it into a shape I think will make a half decent read, and then just give it away? Answer: I’m fortunate in having the day-job to pay the bills, and if I lost that job I’d have to get another conventional kind of job – though probably one nowhere near as well paid – what generation x might call a McJob, just to cover the bills while I go on writing in my spare time. Because this is how it is for most writers, and just be thankful the internet came along when it did or you’d be really bitter and twisted by now.

And then I get to thinking about my life and how it’s such a small thing, and without wishing to appear morbid, does it really matter what I think or feel or do about anything? Maybe I shouldn’t mix qigong with strong coffee, but sometimes I sit there in the qi-tingly afterglow and my mind casts off for lands unknown,… but I’m thinking that it does matter – not that many people read my words, because that’s not the point, and the most important thing in all of this is that you’re somehow offering up a gift of your thoughts for your maker. There’s a hexagram in the I Ching that’s always fascinated me. It’s called Ting, which is basically a melting pot, a cooking vessel. The vessel is you, your life, and what it contains. You heat up the contents and the vapours rise to heaven, and the important thing is that you offer up what’s most sincere about yourself. It doesn’t matter if it’s just between you and the universe. It doesn’t matter that not another living soul knows nor cares what it is that you think, and the ability to be accepting of that is an important step along the way to making peace with the world, as well as yourself. Perhaps the first step towards realising your immortality is to embrace the beautiful imperfection and the fleeting ignominy of your mortality, and carry on anyway.

The rain continued, and I tuned in to the news around lunch-time to find there’s been yet another twist in the so called phone hacking scandal that’s currently gripping the British media – where certain newspapers famed for their scandalmongering have been caught out hacking into people’s telephones and somehow accessing all manner of private details – not just of the great and good, but also of the bereaved in certain high profile murder cases. And though I share in my nation’s revulsion in all of this, I’m surprised that anyone is surprised. At the same time I thank God for my small life and that no one would want to hack my phone – not that they’d find much on it, though it impresses me that even though I’d struggle to tell you my own mobile ‘phone number, a newspaper could have it with so little effort, and access details which I probably couldn’t myself because I’ve forgotten my blasted passwords. How is it done? Well the only thing that springs to mind is corruption of those in authority who supposedly guard the digital gateways to this mine of personal information, which comes down to money again and the corruption, not only of those in authority, but through them the values we should be aiming for as human beings: sincerity, humility, and dignity. Instead the ‘phone hacking scandal seems to highlight the degree to which we have become each of us commoditised, our details, our selves apparently up for sale in an amoral free-market free for all.

And then as the day closes, we have a two hour TV special of “The Apprentice” – not about apprenticeships as I understand them of course, but a reality TV show where the future captains of this free-market free for all have the opportunity to strut their corporate stuff – and a pretty tawdry show they make of it as well. And I wonder, with the economies of the western word in such dramatic decline, if we don’t have need of a different model of leadership these days? That you can only go so far in undercutting the financial bedrock and the dignity of the vast majority of the citizens of the world – who just want to make a living – without the whole lot coming crashing down on top of you.

And now it’s 9:00 pm and the rain’s finally abated, and the sky’s a uniform blue-grey, deepening by the minute, and it’s work in the morning, and I’m contemplating a pile of stunning novels I’ve managed to pick up for a few pounds from the charity shops in town, and I’m wondering if I should start one or save them all for my two weeks annual leave coming up next week, and how, living such a small life those two weeks are the world to me, and I wonder what’s the world to those captains of the tawdry sleazy landslide of the western economies?

And what can we do about it? Well,… believe there is a power working silently for the good – behave yourself, and never mind the rest.

Thank you Beatrice.

Graeme out.

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