Seeing Our Culture with Fresh Eyes

The other day, I read a novel called Prester John, by John Buchan, published in 1910. This story about a Zulu uprising in South Africa as experienced by a young Scottish immigrant is an entertaining read in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling or H. Rider Haggard: adventure in the furthest outposts of the British Empire.

But what makes this book most worth reading today is how many things the author takes for granted that we now know aren’t so, and even find distasteful. The racism of the book is shocking precisely because it is so casual and thoughtless, the innate assumption of white superiority.

Edward R Murrow smokingIt makes me wonder what people a hundred years from now will think of our popular fiction, our popular movies. What do we take for granted that they will find odd, and perhaps even distasteful? You can already see some obvious candidates in things that are still accepted, but barely, like smoking. How curious it is to see a movie in which everyone is puffing on a cigarette – for example, in Good Night and Good Luck, where Edward R. Murrow is shown delivering prime time television news with a cigarette between his fingers.

What will people think of our enormous steak dinners and obese portions of food? That’s on the cusp of changing. What will they think of our profligate use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources? Our assumption that the American way of life will go on forever, just as it is, much as the British thought their empire would go on forever? What about our assumptions about unlimited technological progress? Will science fiction visions of star flight or “the Singularity” seem as quaint as “the White Man’s Burden“?

Above all, what will they think of the appalling amount of waste in our culture? Have you ever walked through a tourist area – say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco – and seen entire stores devoted to schlock, made in developing countries by people who must scratch their heads in wonder at a people so wealthy that they can afford to spend money on things that are so utterly and obviously useless?

But even the stuff that is useful is the product of a world that is as outdated and unnatural as the colonialism of the British Empire. We live in a throwaway culture sustained by sweatshop labor, which has replaced a culture of heirloom products that last generations. And that’s progress? (See Saul Griffith’s thoughts on why owning products that last a lifetime is an important part of going green.)

In this regard, I urge everyone to read Fake Steve Jobs‘ amazing column about the Foxconn employee who committed suicide after losing an iPhone prototype, I’m really thinking maybe I shouldn’t have yelled at that Chinese guy so much. Nat Torkington just quoted this piece in his Four Short Links for today, but the quote he chose is so appropriate to the post I have been writing that I just have to include it:

We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.

Not a pretty picture. But sometimes a look in the mirror is a good way to wake up and change your life.

We’re in the middle of a global economic downturn. Many of us imagine that our goal is to get things back to the way they were. I believe it’s an opportunity to imagine a better future, to build an economy that is more robust and more fair than the Ponzi economy of the last fifty years.

tags: , ,
  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    Such is progress, and Adam Smith explained why it must be so.

    China is climbing up the ladder, one rung at a time. We can give her a leg-up, but she must do the climbing herself.

    Perhaps in a hundred years time the absurdity will be of describing China as a producer. By then – with little bit of luck (and a little bit of democracy) – she’ll be a consumer, like most everybody else.

  • http://irrationalfocus.blogspot.com/ Paul W. Homer

    I always figured that when they look back at us, they’ll be really surprised by how muddled our thinking was. At some point, once we stop using them for entertainment, computers should start being able to help us construct clearer, more structured views of the world around us.

    I could imagine a society where we aren’t just randomly adding masses of irrational laws into our system, or just wasting billions in un-achievable projects. Were our knowledge isn’t a combination of spin, hype, myth and a little bit of truth, instead it’s a well structured arrangement of knowledge that was been rated on quality.

    These days we are so messy, so erratic and so irrational that it’s not hard to picture a huge change in our ability to accumulate and process the tonnes of information around us.

    In the future, they’ll laugh at our hubris for calling this the “information age”. Of that, I am pretty sure.

    Paul.

  • http://www.axoplasm.com Paul Souders

    I think people 100 years’ hence will wonder why we squandered so much that they might find useful. That we binged on fossil fuels, lines of credit, topsoil, fresh water, arable land. And that we used it all to such dubious ends as you point out.

    I remember going to drive in movies as a kid and lots of folks kept their engines running for the sake of the air conditioner. They went to an outdoor movie, and burned up a couple gallons of gasoline for the virtue of indoor air.

    I wonder if stories like this will be received like the “banality of evil” bits in 19th century slave diaries.

  • http://www.thenetworkgarden.com Mark Sigal

    The counter to this one,Tim, is that the more things SEEM different, the more they are often the same – albeit with different artifacts of the time.

    Along those lines, I hearken back to an old Herb Caen piece where he’s lamenting about Market Street in San Francisco, how perennially it is under construction, traffic’s a mess as a result, and how the city’s losing its old charms, etc. Then he tells you that he wrote the piece in 1956!

    What seemed true to those standing in 1956, seems just as true to those reading the same words four decades later. It’s all relative to your frame of reference.

    Cheers,

    Mark

  • Jim

    I learned a few days ago that the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere was about 318 in 1958 when I was born, 350 when James Hansen testified in Congress that climate change was a real risk, and is now 390.

    You can look at a month-by-month chart of carbon levels rising since 1958 at
    http://bit.ly/OmOTq

    I plan to attend a meeting where I live to help plan an action on October 24th for 350.org — these actions are going on all over the globe that day.

    Another good approach to this problem was laid out this morning at TEDGlobal by Rob Hopkins. Here are some official notes of that talk:
    http://bit.ly/3wh7CG

  • Dan

    O’Reilly 2012!

  • jan white

    Definition of a Yankee: wear it out, fix it up, make it do, or do without. Those few of us who’ve always tried to live by example feel we’re in a tsunami who just don’t get it.

    As Sputnik geek girl & computer pioneer, we who built tools, we must reign in misuse of technology in global society. Pls see my linkedin & earlier Twitter posts.

    Thank you for all your good work, Sarah & Tim.
    In addition to iPhone Twitter Book I also got ” real” book 

    Appreciatively,

    jan

  • http://www.megginson.com/blogs/quoderat/ David Megginson

    I agree that we need to be willing to look closely at how everything we consume is made, from hamburgers to computer gadgets, and who/what is hurt in the process. If you’re not willing to look at where it comes from, you don’t deserve to have it.

    We also have to try to do no harm, though. As horrible as the jobs in some overseas shops are, the people are working there because all their other alternatives are even worse.

    If we simply stop buying third-world goods — or what amounts to the same thing, impose poorly-thought-out requirements that would make those goods too expensive to buy — then we throw the workers back to the even worse alternatives they were trying to get away from. I agree with enforcing basic safety and human-rights standards, no indentured labour, and education and healthcare requirements for child workers (e.g. 4 hours/day of school), but it’s not practical to try to enforce a North American minimum wage or work week in a countries where many people earn less in a year than North Americans earn in couple of weeks.

    As other commenters have mentioned, conditions at North American factories were also pretty horrendous 100 years ago; however, people still moved to the cities, and they seemed to find the work less awful than farming.

    In fact, we still tolerate child labour on American and Canadian farms in 2009 (and accept the accident rates from children driving tractors, baling hay, working in silos, etc.). And the last time you walked into a convenience store in California and saw the family’s 10-year-old son or daughter behind the counter, did you think of calling the police? Is that kind of child labour even illegal?

  • http://twitter.com/bigkafka General Kafka

    Wow! I think what I see here is all the frustration for the ‘evil of the moment’.
    You know, I’m all for green, but I don’t think it was evil to burn a gallon of oil during an outdoor movie… that was stupid, not evil.

    But, yes, our ponzi economy will hopefully be a thing of the past – the irrational racism of today, and yes, maybe, real information will be used to cut waste.
    But 100 yrs from now, robots will have been doing most of our jobs better than us for the previous 50 yrs… jobs, work and traditional capitalism will be really weird!!

  • http://www.trajectory.com J. Bryant

    Our national economy has been nurtured on the growth of the fast food industry and strip malls filled with chain stores. Where is the real innovation with these business models? What impact have these businesses had on the “local economy?”

  • http://www.thinkfold.com Guy Dickinson

    Bruce Sterling gave an exceptional talk (as always) at Reboot, Denmark in June, that covered a lot of ground, including a very pragmatic call-to-arms about getting rid of unused objects and purchasing high quality tools and objects that you’ll actually use, including a brilliant, impassioned plea to buy a great, expensive, bed (“…rich people have great beds…You spend a third of your life in it…”).

    The video of the talk is here:

    http://video.reboot.dk/video/486788/bruce-sterling-reboot-11

    I used Mechanical Turk to transcribe the talk and I’ve published into an outline if people want to read the text (disclaimer, I’m a co-founder of the outliner webapp I used). The last two sections of the outline have the bits about ridding objects:

    http://www.thinkfold.com/pub/sterling-talk-Reboot-June-2009-3

  • bowerbird

    i’m guessing the future will harshly judge those people
    – like you, tim o’reilly — who supported the notion
    of the google book settlement, which transformed our
    poor-can-read-books-for-free-at-no-cost libraries
    into only-those-who-can-afford-to-buy bookstores.

    it’s as if we forgot the value of an educated society…

    -bowerbird

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    bowerbird -

    You clearly don’t understand the google book settlement (or my position on it).

    I haven’t actually supported it (though I did support Google’s digitization of the books.)

    Those books are not any less available in libraries than they were before. All of the public domain books Google has digitized are available for free to anyone with a computer. If the books that are owned by publishers or authors, or have ambiguous ownership status, are less available, you have the Association of American Publishers and the Author’s Guild to thank for that. And I’ve spoken out against the foolishness of both wrt the settlement.

  • http://simpleconstraints.blogspot.com Steve Shapero

    I am surprised no one else said anything about this already. I’ve been thinking that there is a real parallel in the US to other empires as they began to slide into decline, like the British empire at the turn of the 20th century.

    The trajectory of the American empire yet is still being driven by the various elements of our cultural DNA that have yet to be altered in the face of overwhelming evidence of the damage they are doing. Slavery, genocide, violence, and exploitation, all tools common to many past empires, have created a mean, bloated, and mostly useless culture where we sell each other junk (McMansions, SUVs, 69″ TVs) we don’t need on credit. Again like all other empires, a tiny powerful ruling elite is and remains extremely wealthy and powerful while the citizens squander their fortunes on trivial banalities.

    So the more interesting question is, what to do? For me, the answer is nothing. It took WWII to shake Europe out of its sick and twisted stupor. The European trajectory too was shaped by slavery, colonialism, a ruling elite exploiting the masses, etc., but they were unable to correct their situations without self-destructing. It is unlikely that America will change course on its own – that moment of looking back may occur after whatever self-destruction we bring on ourselves that will be required to foment real change. A weather-induced holocaust for example that just completely resets the North American way of life. Until the American public has their way of life destroyed, probably by violence, nothing will change in a meaningful way.

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > You clearly don’t understand the google book settlement

    oh, really?

    aside from the fact that it’s a terribly complex document,
    raising many more questions than it answers, all without
    presenting anything close to the realm of data that google
    already knows and the rest of us just have to try to guess,
    i’d say that i have a reasonably good grasp on the basics…

    and the basics are that the public is gonna pay for access.

    either _directly_, or indirectly through public institutions –
    like universities — in which the wealthy are disproportionate,
    while the poor queue up for hours awaiting their 15-minute
    appointments at the one free terminal in each public library.

    > You clearly don’t understand the google book settlement
    > (or my position on it).

    i would be happy to apologize if i’ve misstated your position.

    but i distinctly remember you saying that the “settlement” is
    “the best we can get”, or similar words to that same effect…

    so please, tim, point us to a u.r.l. where you state your position,
    clearly and unequivocally, so we can hold you to it in the future.

    > I haven’t actually supported it

    a pointer, tim, please. put yourself on the record transparently.
    we will want to look back to see if “leaders” deserved the title…

    > (though I did support Google’s digitization of the books.)

    so did i. because i truly believed they were going to create
    the library of the future — one where books are free to all.

    then i found out it was just gonna be a humongous bookstore.
    still cool, no question. but not nearly as uplifting. not nearly.

    i prefer brewster: “universal access to knowledge.” period.

    > Those books are not any less available in libraries
    > than they were before.

    oh, but they _will_ become less and less available, for sure.

    why pay the huge cost of stocking physical books when you
    can turn the public thirst for knowledge into a moneymaking
    scheme that puts even more cash in the google bank account?

    didn’t you read that michigan has just announced plans to
    work with booksurge to milk money out of its digital assets?
    they even made a specific point of saying that some of the
    proceeds will even work their way back to godfather google.

    > All of the public domain books Google has digitized
    > are available for free to anyone with a computer.

    until google decides otherwise. and even though those books
    are _public_domain_, google isn’t giving us the _digital_text_,
    just the scans. as michael hart of project gutenberg has said
    all along, “a picture of a book is not a book”. and he’s right…

    > If the books that are owned by publishers or authors,
    > or have ambiguous ownership status, are less available,
    > you have the Association of American Publishers and
    > the Author’s Guild to thank for that.

    oh, believe you me, there is a special ring in hell just for them.
    just for them… and they won’t be able to opt-out of it, either…

    > And I’ve spoken out against the foolishness of both
    > wrt the settlement.

    i noticed that. i’m paying very close attention, tim. i am.

    and i’m gonna make sure that _everyone_ has their position
    put clearly on the record so the future knows who to blame.

    i’m not just picking on you, either. there’s a _lot_ of blame
    to go around, most of it sitting squarely on the shoulders of
    the librarians who should’ve been protecting books all along.

    -bowerbird

    p.s. as to the original question you were asking in this thread,
    i think that meat-eating is gonna mark us as clear barbarians,
    and i say this as a full-on carnivore. vegetarians are enlightened.

  • Curtis Roberts

    Do you really think that the thing that makes Prester John most worth reading is “how many things the author takes for granted that we now know aren’t so, and even find distasteful”? I don’t. Obviously, the book contains what you describe as the “innate assumption of white superiority”. But since you clearly enjoyed it, I hope you’ll agree there’s a lot more of value and quality in Buchan’s novel than what you mention here. If you enjoyed Prester John, you should try reading other selections from Buchan’s vast canon — the Richard Hannay novels and the Edward Leither stories, including Buchan’s last novel, the extraordinary Sick Heart River, which is set in the Canadian wilderness and contains, as many of Buchan’s novels and stories do, incomparably sensitive and acute descriptions of nature. There’s a lot of depth in Buchan’s work and I think one can and should profitably navigate past what seem like some antiquated attitudes to the heart and soul of the writer. He was enormously popular in his time for good reason and an amazingly accomplished man.

  • http://www.alexandertolley.com Alex Tolley

    “Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into”

    So how else are these people going to get a better life? Hand wringing about awful conditions does nothing to change that, and not buying Chinese made schlock just throws them back to where they started, maybe even worse. This is really economically illiterate, and sentimental BS. 100 years from now it may be the Chinese who pity the state of citizens of the US.

    To answer the question you posed, there will no doubt be many things we take for granted today that will be distasteful tomorrow. Even the values espoused at the turn of the C20th were not universal, and were recognized at problems even then by some groups. There are plenty of examples that we could point to today and suspect that they will be unacceptable in the future. Then there are the things we know are not true but we accept them anyway. No doubt the future will have them too, like astrology. The biggest may still be that “economies can grow forever” even though we know there must be physical constraints. That assumption may still be not gone in 100 years.

    But to me the most interesting questions are more like science fiction, what discovery or event could possibly come out of left field and change a culture’s beliefs radically. Over my 50 odd years of life, I would have to say that despite the discoveries of science, the biggest cultural change was the rapid rise of Feminism that completely changed social beliefs (at least in the UK at that time) about the role of women in society. Watch almost any movie made before the 1960′s (excepting those with Katie Hepburn) and it is almost shocking how diminutive female roles in society are. The contrast with movies in the 1980′s are stark. While one could argue that the Suffragette movement presaged Feminism, Feminism certainly seemed to appear out of nowhere like a hurricane, sweeping away old beliefs like a blowtorch. Attitudes to sexual orientation may be another that we are going through. To read that Alan Turing committed suicide to avoid “treatments” because homosexuality was illegal in 1950′s Britain seems like looking back on a barbaric age, even though attitudes about sexuality are clearly not really changed yet.

    I could imagine that if just one animal species’s interior thoughts and feelings could be experienced, perhaps with some new neural technology, that might change our whole view of how we treat the planet.

  • bob

    The white person thought he was innately superior because he had the best weapons. It’s a hard argument to beat. America would do well to ponder on it before its next invasion.

  • http://twitter.com/objectivec Mark Boszko

    Interesting piece, but why are all these non-Mac related posts showing up in the MacDevCenter RSS feed?

  • qka

    Your comments on tourist schlock made me think of the Potlatch ceremonies of the Native Americans of the pacific Northwest. A focus of these ceremonies was the extensive giving and receiving of gifts. This could be done because they were a culture that lived in a rich and productive environment, which easily met their essential needs, so that producing luxuries was possible. Interestingly, the Whit missionaries and governments were opposed to this lifestyle that they viewed as extravagant, and for a time thse ceremonies were banned by law.

  • Lee

    David Semeria: Way to COMPLETELY miss the point, dude! Your comment is actually a fine illustration of exactly the sort of thinking this post was intended to debunk.

    If China becomes “a consumer, like most everybody else,” whose backs are they going to be stepping on to do it? And then when that country “climbs the ladder, one rung at a time,” who will THEY be stepping on? And the next one, and the next one? The world is finite; resources are finite; sooner or later there isn’t going to BE anywhere with a large source of exploitable cheap labor.

    The “it’s turtles all the way down” model just doesn’t correspond to reality.

  • http://lmframework.com David Semeria

    Lee,

    China is still predominantly an agricultural economy (in terms of distribution of labor). She is undergoing a transformation into an industrial economy just like all the developed nations did at very stages in the past. It’s not pretty, it’s not particularly ethical – but it’s the only way forward (Adam Smith).

    My last point regarding China becoming a ‘consumer’ (ie. the final stage of the transformation – when she will become a service economy)was *meant* to be self-defeating. As you yourself point out, just as our natural resources are finite, so is our ability to produce goods. When both run out, who is going to satisfy our insatiable need to consume?

  • http://realism.com Hypo Crite

    Nice censorship, showing your true colors.

    • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

      Hypo Crite:

      It’s not censorship to delete insulting ad hominem comments without substance, especially from an anonymous poster. We don’t allow personal attacks on this blog. As the target, I thought about leaving them, but in the end, bad behavior shouldn’t be recorded. If you have something of substance to say, you can say it without insults and unsubstantiated accusations. And you can stop hiding behind anonymity. It should say something about the courage of your convictions if you aren’t willing to sign your name.

  • http://oreilly.com laurap

    Hi Mark Boszko,

    I’m a web producer with O’Reilly, and I can explain why you’re seeing iphone related material in the macdevcenter feed.

    This was intentional — blog posts tagged with ‘iphone’ and/or  ‘mac’ are showing up in the Macdevcenter feed because at the time we updated that feed’s setup, most iphone tagged posts were related to the mac developer focused iphone development blog.

    Since the last post we had with a ‘mac’ tag was from June 9th, the feed is a little iphone heavy at the moment. We’ll keep an eye on the feed and if it seems like the ratio continues being too out of balance we could decide instead to refocus on just iphone app or iphone sdk posts.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Alex -

    I’m well aware of the notion that making schlock under bad conditions may actually be an improvement for people in developing countries. But:

    A) It’s still schlock. If we don’t need it, we could be paying a fairer wage, and a more realistic price, for things that we do need.

    B) Given that the consumption driven US economy of the past few decades has been shown to be based in large part on an illusion, we’re going to be buying a lot less of that stuff anyway. Again, we’re better off if both sides get an economy with less distortion in it.

    Real production and real consumption are a better economic basis than exploitive production of goods paid for with funny money.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Curt -

    Of course there are other reasons to read Buchan and other popular authors of the past. My point was that one really good one is to get perspective on ourselves. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t others.

  • http://www.alexandertolley.com Alex Tolley

    @Tim O’Reilly: “It’s still schlock. If we don’t need it, we could be paying a fairer wage, and a more realistic price, for things that we do need.”

    Would we be paying a fairer wage? What evidence do you have that the higher quality stuff pays a fairer wage? Is stuff originated in China the same, better or worse that stuff designed in the US and manufactured in China for import, and are the wages associated with either better than the schlock wages? Isn’t it just as likely that producing schlock drives up competitive wage rates. Recall the Keynesian idea of employing men to dig holes and fill them with money and employing others to dig it up again – something that makes sense when the economy is running well below capacity. China needs to grow the economy by double digits just to sop up the flow of people moving to the cities. What happens to wage rates and the economy when this slows up? It feels like a little of the “let them eat cake” to me when you opine about buying quality goods.

    “Given that the consumption driven US economy of the past few decades has been shown to be based in large part on an illusion, we’re going to be buying a lot less of that stuff anyway. Again, we’re better off if both sides get an economy with less distortion in it.”

    The distortion was US housing prices inflating due to excess demand (excess mortgage supply) and using the inflating values as an ATM for personal consumption. Just how much of that was to buy:

    1. “Schlock” – as in tourist ‘tchotchkes’
    2. “Schlock” – as in low vs high quality goods.
    3. Luxury goods, such as cars and boats.
    4. Home improvements.
    5. Services, such as vacation cruises.

    No doubt the distortion will correct itself, but why should patterns of spending be considered a distortion, rather than the aggregate?

    But rather than talk in generalities about 3rd party products, let’s look at the products of O’Reilly publishing.

    A spot check of 3 of your books on my bookshelf shows no indication whether the paper is acid-free for longevity, or whether the paper was sourced from sustainable forestry. This is in contrast to 2 other titles from different publishers in your space.

    Questions to ask you are:

    1. Are O’Reilly books printed on acid-free paper for longevity? (Should I assume not as it is not labeled as such, and therefore of lower quality paper)

    2. Given the life span of these types of books, does it even matter? (Perhaps paper quality is not important, but in which case, doesn’t this undermine the general case of buying quality’?)

    3. Should O’Reilly books be printed as cheaply as possible, and sell for a lower price, or should they be of higher quality materials? (The issue of content quality is set aside here).

    4. Should all books be as concise as possible (like the “In a Nutshell” series) to prevent over-consumption of paper and the “more pages per dollar” competition of titles?

    5. What about title content control. I note that Bruce Tate apologized publicly for the mess of his “Spring: A Developer’s Notebook” published by O’Reilly Media. No doubt you had a postmortem and fixed the problem, but this would count as producing low quality product, wouldn’t it? If quality is so important, shouldn’t this have been caught before it went out the door?

    Don’t get me wrong, I value O’Reilly publishing a lot. In general you produce good titles. I have no doubt that you could answer my questions in a logical, thoughtful way that would justify your actions. But that really is the point I am trying to make. If you cannot ensure that all your own products are of the highest quality to meet some platonic ideal of high quality, then perhaps the ideal is neither pragmatic nor so desirable, as you imply in this thread and a previous one.

    The ecology of human artifacts and culture is perhaps not so different from the rest of the natural world. Are goods perceived as “low quality” or “schlock” or “kitsch” no different than animals that are perceived as “less valuable” or “pests” or “icky bugs” that should be eradicated? We know all living things have evolved and maintain their state in a competitive fitness landscape, so why a priori denigrate products in an analogous fashion?

  • bowerbird

    tim, still waiting for a clear statement from you
    on the google book search “settlement”. thanks.

    -bowerbird

  • BillFurnback

    You want to “fix things in China, Have you ever even been to China? I have. They are incredibly nice people. The only thing I saw that was disturbing was the military presence every where you looked. If we could stop international trade now we would drive their society straight into a black hole. Billions of people starving in a land with the largest land army in the world. An interesting mix, no?

  • http://lundbergmedia.com Abbie Lundberg

    If people only thought about it for 2 minutes, it would become pretty clear that we accumulate all this stuff because we think it’s going to make us happy, and it doesn’t. If the state of our culture in 2009 isn’t proof of that, then I don’t know what is. But consumer capitalism is a powerful force. We’ve been lobbied to buybuybuy all day long, from the time we’re born. (When my kids were little, there was a Barbie called Cool Shopping Barbie, and the jingle they played on the commercial was “just pick up the phone and order some more.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s as bad as Joe Camel). After 9/11, Bush exhorted us to fight back against terror by going shopping.
    Some thought this recession would start to change all that. Perhaps it’s given people an opportunity to pause – an opening for awareness. But until we as individuals examine our lives and realize that having the newest iPhone, the flatter flat-panel TV, the nicer car, this season’s hottest fashions, or that schlocky tee-shirt or snow globe from Fisherman’s Wharf have *not* made us fundamentally happier and in fact can’t, it will be too hard to break out of the cycle of consumption we’re in. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with owning and enjoying nice things, we’ve taken it too far and made them our gods. They can’t make us happy, and being obsessed by them distracts us from what can. Real happiness comes from living a meaningful life.

  • http://www.mydistributedlife.com/ Garett

    Very thought provoking indeed.

    I actually stumbled on this blog while searching for something completely unrelated, but I’m glad I did.

    I have to say that sometime last year I came to a realization, as Abbie succinctly stated, that I had all this stuff in life and I don’t really need much of it to be happy anyway. Now armed with this realization, what does one do? Especially in a culture where “more, more, more” seems to be the mantra. It requires quite a bit of discipline to change this mode of thinking.

  • Kaleberg

    1) Buchan wrote some great stories including The 39 Steps and Island of Sheep. He also drew a careful distinction between regular, good Jews and deceitful “Asiatic” Jews which is a bit dated too. BTW, he was Governor General of Canada for a while.

    2) Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden” was an appeal to the U.S. to develop the Philippines having recently taken them from the Spanish. You can argue about colonialism, but Britain and the U.S. tended to leave their colonies in much better shape than Spain or Portugal.

    3) The Chinese just want what we want, except that we already have a lot more of it. Sure, it might require rethinking our use of our energy resources or developing new ones, but I sure hope we don’t go back to a world lit only by fire.

  • Raza Latif

    Interesting to see how we can model and explain the world around us with patterns such as the ones Mr. O’Reilly talked about. Here is the pattern I see in the post – things change over time and a peek in to the way things were can be an input to some introspection/retrospection. Good stuff. Now think about the following pattern – things that are bad and have not changed over time. Since we are talking about one of my favorite movies of all time, think about how politics of fear based on divine bravado was served to us all over again in the last decade. So as we think about what our future generations will find stupid about us, let us also think about the stupid ways that we continue to sustain from those who came before us. In fact what I got from “Good Night and Good Luck” was more about what has not changed despite the advantage of time and progress as opposed to what has changed (like acceptance of smoking etc). Same coin different sides? Maybe.

  • http://friendfeed.com/webmaven Michael R. Bernstein
  • http://friendfeed.com/webmaven Michael R. Bernstein

    Now, that’s very interesting. Brady, I’m guessing the FF integration appears on your comment approval form?

  • Ryan

    Read about Evolutionary Psychology and it will all become clear why we buy things that seem “pointless”. Survival, status signaling, and mating still rule our world.

    It’s not going to change.

  • Dennis

    It’s so weird to read this post about reading old 1910 literature in our shiny world of iPhones. Because right before I saw this post I was looking at Steampunk Tales, a new short story magazine. They run fiction with an old 1910 kind of style, not on paper – on iPhones!

  • http://stephaniegerson.weebly.com stephanie gerson

    I’ve been meaning to respond to this since I read it, and surely this comment falling in an ‘empty forest’ will make no sound, but feeling compelled to comment anyway.

    “Have you ever walked through a tourist area – say Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco – and seen entire stores devoted to schlock, made in developing countries by people who must scratch their heads in wonder at a people so wealthy that they can afford to spend money on things that are so utterly and obviously useless?”

    of course I agree with all of the above. BUT. have you ever considered the miraculousness with which we’ve manage to keep so many people (approx 90+% of Americans) employed, making enough money to afford shelter, food, and other basic necessities? I’m well aware that studies like Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed” disprove that, but imagine for a sec the seeming impossibility that the ‘work’ societies do should whatsoever correlate with the ‘employment’ they need. and welcome to Dependency Theory: we in America and other developed nations get to do most of the fun stuff. so if we’re gonna go green have products that last a lifetime, clearly we’re gonna have to employ a gargantuan host some way other than making useless shit. surely there’s an equally gargantuan amount of useful work to be done, but not everyone wants to be farmers or emergency technicians or social workers for life.

    one possibility is mandatory civil service.

    not the Israeli kind, i.e. mandatory military service, but a broader conceptualization of civil service, e.g. farming or caretaking in homeless shelters. throw it in pre-college or roll it into college education.

    but ultimately, if we wanna stop producing waste and employing people inhumanely in order to do it, we’re gonna have find other work for them to do, and therefore more equitably distribute both the necessary civil work that takes care of the bottom of Mazlo’s pyramid *and* the enjoyable, self-actualizing work that takes care of the top.

    sigh.

  • http://tim.oreilly.com/ Tim O'Reilly

    Stephanie –

    I agree wholeheartedly. But there is no lack of useful, important work to be done. We do need to figure out how it all comes together as an economy, though.

    It’s a hard problem, but one worth working on.