towards a smaller, richer life

In today’s New York times is a wonderful piece, asking to condemn GDP to the dustbin of history: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/10/opinion/10zencey.html
It’s a terrible metric, and it’s much better to read Zencey’s article than for me to recount it here.
 
The model of consumerism which has predominated for last century is (A) wrongheaded and (B) omnicidal.  We aren’t that much richer in the sense of comparing how much natural capital has been destroyed relative to the human inputs increasing the value of what has come out.  Yes, industrial products have made life better.  I don’t like being cold, wet, unable to communicate, and lacking in the comforts of modern society.  But as far as the business business is concerned, more is more, and quality is devalued.
 
To pontificate, I will talk about two things that get me excited, and I see as the key to the future:
  1. Relationships
    Where would you be without friends, family, co-workers, and fellow travelers?  Even the Little Prince (sorry) travels to meet others off B612 which is rather lacking in human atmosphere.  Steam and electricity have not annihilated distance as Cyrus Field proclaimed, just reduced its impact on us.  Strawberries in Buffalo year round!  Talk to Akhil in Dehli while lying on the grass in the Stanford Oval… wondrous things, but talking on the phone isn’t the same as being there in the living room sipping chai, and fruit flown from Chile isn’t a prundent use of resources (perhaps it would be better to fly yourself to Chile!).  The richness in life is in the connections, and by strengthening them, we’re likely to be happier, and healthier.  It seems somehow wrong that in 8 weeks of living in EV4, I barely got to know my roommates, let alone the girls in the other three apartments in the bungalow.
    The anomie of the suburbs and modern life just isn’t doing it for us, which is why I think there needs to be a turn away from ‘stuff’ and towards people.  A big HDTV is grand but it’s rather mindless to watch a movie and go to sleep, rather than staying up all night analyzing and discussing.  And certainly it’s really much more fun to go to Willard Straight theater to watch a silent movie with live accompaniment (and fun people in the audience to go to Hot Truck or CTB with after the show).
    While it seems strange that more enjoyment is had from a meal with friends than buying something durable, it makes sense to me.  I won’t forget going to Daniel with my grandparents, but most of the stuff I’ve bought is just stuff, it has no emotional value.
  2. Stuff
    There is good stuff out there, but there’s plenty of ‘noise’ in the sense of commodity grade stuff obscuring it.  I inherited a wonderful 1970s vintage Yamaha tuner/amp from my grandparents, and it delivers rich sound, is gloriously heavy, and looks like it will last forever, the front fascia being milled from aluminum rather than being flimsy injection molded plastic.  Sure it doesn’t have 8 channels of surround sound, and a new NAD or McIntosh tuner/amp would meet the same quality standards, but I don’t have one of those, and they cost more than dinner for four at Daniel!  Last week I was talking to Malte (a PhD student in design research at Stanford) about the disappearance of Quality, and he shared my sentiments.  Back in the day in West Germany, kids would save up for a good stereo–and get something worth the money (like his concrete record player).  Quality might be an ephemeral concept as Robert Pirsig says in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but as Justice Potter Stewart would say, "I know it when I see it".
    When you walk in to Best Buy, there’s so much crap on the shelves, and the really good stuff is out of reach.  Maybe this isn’t a good model of business where everyone keeps buying cheap stuff and replacing it.  Have less, love it more.
    For this to work, we as a society need to reevaluate the market model, social structures everything.  If there’s less being produced (especially less low-quality goods made in third-world factories) there are going to have to be big changes to deal with the dislocations and employment shifts.  I’m not an economist or social theorist, but this is the kind of thing I think needs to be taken on.  Not making a decision is a decision, so let’s start thinking critically and reorganizing the world, starting with the stuff we own.  And if you haven’t seen Objectified, you should.

I’m still trying to figure out how I figure into this.  It’s a big thing, evaluating everything from industrial production and capitalism to culture, and passing value judgments.  In a sense it’s like the Amish way of looking at technology.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of time to think about this as I develop my thesis.

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2 thoughts on “towards a smaller, richer life

  1. I definitely think there are things wrong with our current system of capitalism, but I also think that you have to think very hard about what effect cheap disposable junk really has. For one thing, the cheapness makes stuff accessible to a far broader range of people than ever before, and here I’m talking not about the US, but about people in places like China and in third world countries. And there’s also the factor of technology. Sure, they could make things that last decades. And would you really be using your trusty 486 PC with your VGA-resolution digital camera? So to some extent things are made disposable because they are disposed, and because people really don’t care about long term quality for some things. To some extent, though, there really is a serious problem here, and that’s that our current capitalist system can’t really plan over any sort of long term, not 30 years, sometimes not even 5 years. That’s why companies have all those problems with pensions and health care and subprime mortgages.

    • While progress is necessary, waste, as we consider it now, is not. That 486 PC and low-resolution digital camera should be considered part of a closed-loop technical nutrients cycle–they should be designed to be reprocessed into new equipment. I like my Nikon D80, but it’s obsolete and I’ll foist it off on my father at some point soon, and get something more advanced with video capability, a better sensor, etc. Eventually it will die, and the body will end up in either a some sort or recycling operation, or (hopefully not) in a landfill.

      Part of the designer’s task is to design for end-of-life. Barring bouncing down the side of K2, the body of that D80 will be in pretty good shape when the time comes for me or dad, or somebody else to put it in the waste stream. It would be nice if Nikon were like Leica, who have designed their cameras to be upgraded (the shell stays, the sensor and CPU go).

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