Tag Archives: simplicity

our magical culture

Subrationedei brought my attention to this quote from Raymond Williams. In Culture and Materialism, p. 185:

It is often said that our society is too materialist, and that advertising reflects this … But it seems to me that in this respect our society is quite evidently not materialist enough, and that this, paradoxically, is the result of a failure in social meanings, values and ideals.

It is impossible to look at modern advertising without realizing that the material object sold is never enough: this indeed is the crucial cultural quality of its modern forms. If we were sensibly materialist, in that part of our living in which we use things, we should find most advertising to be of an insane irrelevance. Beer would be enough for us, without the additional promise that in drinking it we show ourselves to be manly, young in heart, or neighborly. A washing-machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than an indication that we are forward looking or an object of envy to our neighbors. But if these associations sell beer and washing machines, as some of the evidence suggests, it is clear that we have a cultural pattern in which the objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meaning which in a different cultural pattern might be more directly available. The short description of the pattern we have is magic: a highly organized and professional system of magical inducements and satisfactions, functionally very similar to magical systems in simpler societies, but rather strangely coexistent with a highly developed scientific technology.

That seems highly salient to anyone who would like to live a simpler life or, indeed, merely a rational life. Our superstitious brains seem to be built to see magic even in the midst of a world crafted by our rationality. We buy objects of “value” for the same reasons and with no better justification than a cave man trading food to the witch doctor for a love amulet designed to attract affection from the prettiest cave woman.

Imagine I go buy a really nice car for a lot of money. Now, a car seems to have more value than a horse bladder pouch filled with herbs and teeth (a voodoo love amulet). You can drive the one, but the other you just hang around your neck.

But consider: the price difference between a Honda and a BMW doesn’t represent a real increase in functional utility – the one costs twice as much but it won’t get you to twice as many destinations. What are you buying with that extra money?

Social meaning. You’re buying others’ perception that you are a man (or woman) of means. Some people might even perceive themselves differently if they own a BMW. This might give them confidence. Confidence and conspicuous wealth (perceived according to our society’s measure of such things) may actually help a person get a mate… and within another society the material object that imbues its owner with those qualities might take the form of a magical charm. And it might, therefore, work.

So let me say it again: your expensive stuff is expensive because you are buying magic.


Durable goods, maintenance, the maker ethos, and the first inroad to voluntary simplicity

Durable goods:

Real durable goods last and can be repaired and maintained.Then there are consumables, things you use for a while then throw away.The problem is that some things, in order to be competitive in price, look like durables but actually are designed to be consumables.Take air conditioners for example.

The laboratory where I work bought a a consumer-quality air conditioner for ~$500.It was supposed to run in a hot lab to take the thermal stress of some of the equipment.Within a year it had failed.It seems that the fail point was a single motor among 3 or 4 of the motors in there.Now, there might be a cascade failure situation.But in the end, it’s probably one motor replacement and the thing is back in shape.But we can’t get that one motor.The company won’t sell us just a part, and they want $75 plus transportation to have a rep come look at it without any guarantee he will be able to do anything.

So, what we have here is a disturbingly common situation of a consumable product masquerading as a durable product.What that means is that AC units used to be considered something you install, maintain, fix and keep around.It was durable.Maybe it cost $1000, but you expect that with $100 per year maintenance, it will last forever.Well, this AC unit only cost $500! A great deal! Except it wasn’t a durable good.It doesn’t cost $100 per year to maintain, it has to be fully replaced every year.

This is a different business model.How this works: produce the cheapest possible product in order to compete for foolish consumers’ attention.People are going to impulse buy on credit, so they are not investigating what is the best deal.So the lowest sticker price is going to get the sale.And, if the product is cheap and breaks, that’s all the better.Since it had a very limited warranty and no plan for maintenance (this thing doesn’t even have screws – it’s snapped together) it was virtually guaranteed to produce a second sale quite soon after.

Now I’m far from being the first to notice this trend; there is a growing subculture of people who are saying they want to be anti-consumers.They want to conserve and maintain.It’s a service-oriented culture that looks at making things last rather than making more things.I like that mentality for lots of reasons.It means more thought has to go into the product.It means less stress on the environment.It makes people more aware of their purchases and happy with their decisions.It’s a lower stress, higher reward lifestyle for more people. The people involved are contributing directly to the quality of each others’ lives rather than trying to produce as much crap as possible and trick each other into buying it.


P.S. Here’s the Rev. Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping to break it down.