Convenience and material culture

by Rob Horning

11 April 2007


Via comes a link to this Stay Free! interview with Giles Slade, author of Made to Break, a book about planned obsolescence. (I wrote about the book before here after reading about it here. The whole thing is worth reading, but these exchanges I found particularly interesting:

STAY FREE!: How did book come about?
GILES SLADE: I came back to North America from teaching in the Arab Emirates after 9/11, and every interaction I had in public was very curt, very rude. I wondered where that shortness developed and ultimately became convinced that it has to do with our attitudes toward material culture.

I thought this was an interesting connection—rather than attribute rudeness and impoliteness to cultural mores and leave it at that, the move to ground our understanding of the mores in material culture seems an absolutely necessary next step. I wonder whether our fixation on efficiency leads us to build in the desire for convenience into our infrastructure, into our commonsense approach to the environments we find ourselves in and how we read them, making that pseudoefficiency hard to resist. And since convenience is so often understood as the elimination of human interaction, does the way our preference for it seems already built in to society then justify to us that ubiquitous rudeness Slade mentions? The expectation and privileging of convenience seems to make things road rage seem reasonable, normal. I rarely pause to doubt my righteous intolerance when someone in front me at the bakery where I get my morning rolltakes a long time to count their change out. I get frustrated when everyone isn’t in as much of a hurry as me, and I feel that’s somewhat a product of living in New York, where haste is institutionalized.

And this:

STAY FREE!: When you talk to people about your book, do you notice a generational divide in how older people and younger people feel about these issues?

GILES SLADE: Yes, younger people don’t want to hear anything negative about the iPod. I might as well put a turban on and grow a long beard. It comes down to the social value of consumer goods as icons. If I’m saying something negative about your tribe’s icon, it’s as if I’m attacking you personally. Also, younger people have much less sense that things should last. I find that really disturbing.

STAY FREE!: It makes sense, though. If you’re born into a world where things aren’t made to last, naturally you won’t expect them to.

GILES SLADE: Sure, but then things less than 20 years old become what we think of as antiques. So your sense of duration, of history, of culture has collapsed and evaporated. If your favorite toys are constantly updated and replaced, how is that going to effect your relationships with people? I think you’re less likely to have lasting commitments to people, to family, to a country, even. There’s a well-known book called Bowling Alone, and I think this is where it comes from. We’ve become so accustomed to things only lasting for a few years we don’t invest in them anymore. We don’t see beautiful things like paintings and rugs as lasting.

If the values are built in to material culture, which is made up mostly of consumer products and embodies consumerist values, then it makes some sense that generations raised entirely within that culture, which has been proliferating steadily, would be protective of it and grow defensive if you imply that there’s something damaged about it. It’s as though you are saying they can’t help but be impaired by the culture they grew up in. But that situation holds for everyone, no matter what generation; it takes a special effort of negativity and critical thinking to escape the biases built in to the society we learn to adapt ourselves to. It’s made easy for us to seamlessly assume the prejudices of that society, and there’s little benefit in resisting that process—just a faith in principles, in the idea that there is some “real” beyond those prejudices worth aspiring to. It’s easy, though, once you’ve adopted that negative attitude (hard to differentiate from cynicism), to assume that it’s harder for the generations after our own to make the same effort, that things have become much worse.

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