Monday night as I was biking home in the early darkness of a December evening, I felt a surprising moment of affection for… my bicycle light.
I bought the light a year or two ago in Michigan, but I never took it out of the packaging. The bike I bought to go with it ended up being too big, and after I took the bike back I never got one that I could ride. But it was a perfectly good lamp–nothing special, just the nicest one on the shelf at Walmart–and I not only kept it with me when we moved to Virginia, but even kept track of where it was. When I got a new bike last month and started commuting, it was ready for me.
I got temporarily blinded more than once by oncoming bikers with flaming halogen torches that would have been perfectly serviceable for a car instead of a bike, and for a moment I considered checking Amazon to buy one. But no, that won’t do. Trying for three years to run a startup company and get a PhD has left me with nothing but a couple of maxed out credit cards and massive student loans.
Ever since I got my first credit card at 21 years old, I’ve never really known what it’s like to not be able to buy something. Of course there were lots of things that I chose not to buy, but whenever I felt that something was either necessary or worth purchasing I knew I could whip out the card and acquire it. I racked up a few thousand dollars, then paid it down to zero, then repeated the process a several times over the next 10 years. I was a credit card company’s dream: irresponsible enough to use the card and forget a payment now and then, but always good for the balance and fees in the end.
I’ve been living without that ability for the past 4 or 5 months and, because I’m blessed to have a job that lets me pay for all the necessities so far, I’m in the odd position of rather liking the inability to just buy what I want. It’s good for me. Last week I mentioned to my dad that my radio in the car (remember, I commute 4-5 hours twice a week) is broken, and he offered to buy me a new one as an early Christmas present. I thanked him, but turned him down. Strangely, not being able to buy whatever I want mostly works to make me more grateful and considerate of the things I do have.
Some of my favorite possessions are things that were splurges when credit was easier. A lot of them have turned out to be good ideas after all. There’s an expensive, light-weight windbreaker from 10 years ago and two water-proof bike bags that I use every day now. And there’s my bicycle light. It’s only bright enough to get me home safely because I already know the path really well, but it does the job. And it’s paid for. And it’s mine.
Possessiveness gets a bad rap, and it’s often deserved. Focusing too myopically on your physical possession is obviously a recipe for disappointment and superficiality. On the other hand, I think it’s possible to have a healthy relationships with your possessions, especially when they are tools. Tools are things that you depend on, and for which you can be constantly grateful. A tool often requires you to invest yourself in it: you have to be strong enough to bike to work every day, for example, or knowledgeable enough to know how to use a computer to do your work. Tools help us, but they also require something of us. We protect them from harm, maintain them, and fix them when they’re broken. I had forgotten the little thrill of having a truly prized possession, something I’m grateful to own, but on Monday evening as I realized that shopping for a brighter light wasn’t an option, that’s exactly what I felt. I had a feeling I hadn’t had since I was a kid of thinking “You know what, I already have this light, and it gets the job done”. It seems to me that most of the trouble with materialism comes not from valuing the things you have, but from wanting the things you don’t.
They say that we live in a materialistic culture, and that’s true but it’s also incomplete. It’s not possessing material objects that obsesses us. It’s acquiring them. We’ve turned transactions into a cultural fetish. We don’t value the things we have for what they are. We just see each purchase as a rung on a ladder that we’re addicted to climbing.
A lot of it really comes from the nature of the things we possess. Consider my phone, for example, which is a nice iPhone 4S. If I described this technology to myself at age 14 I would have started salivating as if I were talking about a flying car or a jetpack. It has more computing power than a supercomputer would have had earlier in my life. NASA could easily have run the Apollo missions on this thing without even testing its limits.
And yet, for me now, it’s swamped by a sea of context. I’m acutely aware that the iPhone 4S comes after the iPhone 4 but before the iPhone 5. Even if I had Apple’s newest phone (the iPhone 5), I would know that the iPhone 5S or 6 or whatever was already in development at Cuppertino. I’m on a gadget treadmill, and there’s always something faster.
There’s actually an economic principle at work here: obsolescence. It’s so weird to think that the value of a thing can drop substantially just because something newer and faster comes out, but it’s true. When the next iPhone arrives, the price of the iPhone 5 will drop (most likely). One day your phone is valued by the market at $200 (or whatever), and the next day the same phone which works just as well as it did the day before is now worth $150. In fact, it’s economically inescapable that the mere knowledge of something better down the road will devalue things today. I understand the theory, but it still seems bizarre.
I mentioned earlier that NASA could have run the entire Apollo program on an iPhone, and that’s true (except that of course it isn’t really rugged enough for space travel). But imagine, just as a thought experiment, that you went back in time with a dozen iPhones and a few MacBooks (to write the code) and handed them out to the folks at NASA. Well, in real life they’d immediately try to reverse-engineer them and make their own, but assuming they couldn’t do that, what they would do is immediately set to work studying every aspect of the phones to learn how to squeeze every last drop of value out of them. They would pick apart the innards as completely as subsistence cultures use the bodies of animals they hunt: nothing wasted, and within months or years they’d know the iPhones better than the guys at Apple who made them.
Now imagine that instead of a dozen iPhones, you gave them a dozen different phones instead. Well, they’d still want to use the phones, of course, but now they’d have to spend a lot of time trying to evaluate which ones to use. Should they go with the Android, because there are more phones that share some characteristics? Or the iPhone 5 because it’s fastest (let’s just say it is). No matter what they decided, they’d have to spend valuable time and money just deciding which one to use, and that leaves few resources devoted to actually using the devices. Part of that is analysis paralysis (even making decisions requires analysis), and part of it is the fact that as they spread the effort and attention across different devices, they get less out of each one.
Well, how many devices do you have? A typical family can easily have a couple of laptops, an old desktop or two, some video game consoles, phones, tablets, MP3 players etc. And that’s just the devices they own now. They’ve already cycled through many more gadgets in the past and they know that they’ll run through dozens or even hundreds more in the future. Imagine how little they must get out of every one of those devices if their efforts have to be dispersed so thoroughly. How much effort did some people put into mastering their Blackberries, only to watch as RIM now teeters on the brink of inevitable and imminent collapse? You can’t get those hours back, and it’s only a matter of time before Apple, or Samsung, or Google, or Microsoft goes under or–less spectacularly–does a reboot of their whole product line and immediately renders all your learning obsolete. There’s that concept again: having too much stuff (even if it’s spread out across time) makes everything you do have less valuable than it would otherwise be..
This is the world we live in, and it’s only rational that we are all afraid to commit to our possessions, even if they are useful tools. It makes perfect sense that we all respond by just getting basic use out of our stuff without really digging deeper. I’ve got friends and family who get stuck just trying to get music moved from various computers or online services onto their phones, so even the most rudimentary selling points of modern smartphones are outside the reach of a lot of their owners. We barely scratch the surface of our technology’s potential, so it’s no wonder we don’t hold it in high regard.
Of course we all benefit tremendously from the rapid pace of technological growth, but the hidden cost in obsolescence is like jagged reef just below the surface of the water: always there even when we’re not even really aware of it. One paradox of our modern age is that the faster our technology grows in power and usefulness, the less of that potential we’re able to realize.
So, owning stuff has gotten complicated. Our relationship with our own material possessions are strained. But what about acquisition? Well, that’s still a pure and unsullied pleasure.
Everything about the process of acquiring a new gadget is designed for pleasure, and this is especially true if you have even a tiny bit of a gadget-geek in your personality. If you’ve ever opened an Apple device, then you know what I’m talking about. Every scrap of the packaging is a meticulous work of art, and the thrill of removing one layer after a layer as you progress toward the treasure nestled within brings a sense of awe. And, yet you will soon find that a device will never be perceived as reaching its full potential more than when you first cast eyes on it, reposing snugly in its container, exposed to your view for the first time, but not yet turned on. That’s the climax, and it’s all downhill from that moment forward.
And this isn’t just about Apple. Any self-regarding tech-geek knows how important the ritual of unboxing is. Just look at how many YouTube videos you can find of people unboxing a product before they review it. It has become a secular ceremony of consumerism. Everyone born after 1980 understands that shrink-wrap is sacred. You never, under any circumstances whatsoever, remove that glistening new-product sheen from a package that has arrived for your roomate, spouse, or sibling, let alone unpackage what’s inside.
How insane is this 21st century taboo? It’s not like the value of a laptop is actually diminished if your buddy sees it first. If they don’t even open the box, or if they open it just to look and then repackage it, why should you care? And yet you do. (Most of us do, anyway. My wife actually prefers me to unpackage and set up her laptops for her so that they are ready to go before she even sees them, but I think that’s actually becoming a much more rare approach.)
So on the one hand, we have ownership. You value a thing based on what it actually does for us, what it is. You take care of it, you understand it, and you even bond with it. Whether we’re talking about a toddler’s favorite stuffed animal, a teenager’s first POS car, or the US Navy’s newest aircraft carrier: we name our things. That’s pretty profound.
No one name’s their phone, though. And this is odd since our phone is the most intimate electronic device we own. We spend virtually every waking hour with it, and it’s chock full of our most private information: everything from contacts and photos to an awareness of where we are in the world. But we don’t name it because we don’t really value it. Because we know we’re just going to replace it. And because things that come in shrink wrap are all about acquisition rather than ownership.
I can’t help but think that’s kind of sad. I had forgotten, after all these years, what it’s like to value a thing. Remembering was poignant. I’m sure part of it was just nostalgia, but I also think there’s wisdom in it.
I also think–and some of you might have seen this coming while others will be completely thrown for a loop–that the obvious subtext to this whole own vs. acquire thing is a pretty strong parallel to the way we have come to view each other in our society. The best example of this, I think, is the “hook-up culture”.
Hooking up is so much like the unboxing ceremony that it is funny at first, but then sort of creepy. Whether it’s the obvious one-night stand or the more subtle belief that love is some kind of intangible force that comes and goes from our lives independent of our choices, it all ends up being an excuse to see other people as objects who are only interesting or valuable until we have “acquired” them. (Even the preoccupation with virginity as sexually relevant is a noxious echo of the shrink-wrap taboo.) This view of “love” is really just a lust for novelty that renders relationships purely transactional. The entire point is that there are no strings attached. You don’t invest yourself in the relationship because there is no relationship. Nothing to own. Nothing to maintain. Nothing to fix. Nothing to protect. Nothing to lose.
The whole focus is on the unboxing. You take something that is shiny and new–a strange person who bears within them all of the awesome mystery and wonder of a human soul–and all you care about is stripping away the physical and emotional layers to reveal what is inside. But, because the focus is all on the packaging, you never see past the surface. It’s a false intimacy. It’s a sterile shadow of communion.
And then at the other end of the spectrum you have the idea of ownership. And I’m not going to shy away from the implications of that one. I own my wife, and she owns me in return. We belong to each other. I don’t value her in relation to other people or other possibilities, theoretical “might-have-beens”. No matter who or what comes along or might have come along in another world, there’s no obsolescence because there’s no possibility of replacement. The value of our relationship is based entirely on what it is, on what exists between us, and has nothing to do with anything or anyone outside of it.
I’m not going to spend more time on this analogy. Like any analogy, you can take it too far, and like any analogy that has anything to do with sex you can turn it into a joke. That’s fine, but it’s not what I’m trying to do today.
What I’m trying to do, by the way, is not blame technology or call for a halt to technological progress. This isn’t a call for everyone to ditch their cell phone or never upgrade it. I’m not saying we should all build our own computers or name our MP3 players. All I know is that being unable to buy things has made me see the world a little bit differently. A simple little bicycle lamp I would never have noticed before is now enough to make me smile. And my smile is even wider when I realize that I’ve recovered a small joy that had been lost with my childhood.
I also wonder if, maybe just a little bit, the glamour and promise of our breakneck rush towards even more awesome gadgets is something we should be a little more cautious and skeptical of. Social networks let us reach out and connect with people who share our passions and interests and experiences, and that’s awesome. But they also let us pick and choose our “friends” like apps for for our phones. Is it any wonder that Facebook was named in a third of divorce filings from 2011? Some of my best friends are Facebook friends, and I’m not about to say goodbye. But I do hope that if I’m wise, I’ll also learn that it’s possible to make connections and friendships with the people I’m stuck with at work or in my family as well, and try to always see them for their intrinsic worth instead of as objects of exploitation.
That’s my only hope: that people might stop and question their own actions. Scrutinize their relationship to their possessions, to the things they wish they could possess, and to the people around them. From that questioning I believe we can find a little peace, a little joy, and maybe a little wisdom.