Tuesday, June 12, 2007

We are becoming hybrids part 2

[continuing last week's train of thought]

The whole trend [of endlessly replacing consumer technology with newer versions] is driven by business and 'lust for the new' which we have been conditioned into.

If I can take you back to where it started - end of World War I. Soldiers back from the war, here and in the US. After the rebuild, most households had the basic necessities, and manufacturers were worried that they would go out of business as their markets dried up.

At this point, a nephew of Sigmund Freud began using Freuds's ideas about the unconscious to design advertising campaigns that made people believe for the first time that it was not enough just to have a washing machine, but that the washing machine had to be aligned to their sense of self-image.

It was he who made it ok for women to smoke, for example, by photographing some glamorous women smoking at the end of a Women's Emancipation march in New York in the early '20s. This associated in women's minds freedom with smoking. Of course smoking is addictive so they weren't being freed at all. Glamour is a smokescreen for sordid reality. This is what my short story, Perfection, posted last year here, was about.

Fashion is the supreme example of this. It's not enough to wear clothes, but the clothes must say everything about you and you don't want to seem out of date and you have to look cool. Fashion has existed for much longer, but the concept was in the 20th century systematically applied to other products.

Manufacturers love this as it means that markets will never dry up as long as people remain insecure... and their advertising makes sure that they do remain insecure.

Innovation is the other side of this. You have to buy the latest phone and computer after a few years because your old one, even if it works perfectly, will no longer be compatible with everyone else's. Some analogue products work better or are more appropriate than their digital counterparts (watches, radios), but the strong current towards convergence is sweeping them or has swept them all aside.

So the waste mountains pile up, and we ae actually running out of the natural elements which are used in these products. Last week's New Scientist looked at all these metals - such as iridium, galiium, etc, - and found that most will run out in our lifetime. Perhaps human ingenuity will come up with something to replace them, but it does demonstrate graphically that the corporate-driven growth and pace of change is - to use that over-used and tired word - unsustainable. It has severe limits.

We don't like limits. We like freedom. But we rush headlong into a tangle of self-delusory madness and the very opposite of freedom, because we don't realise how, by imagining that we can buy freedom with every new product, we are actually increasing our dependency on ties that will really constrain us.

One constraint I am concerned with is this human-hybrid tie-in with technology. We are/will be unable to function without it. And how many of us understand it? - forced to use (as in your case Sharon) - or even hypnotised by (as in your friend) - the glitter; uncomprehending (if I can say so without sounding patronising) of the specialists who invented and designed it - who seem almost a different breed of human.

'Consumers' cruise the shopping malls of the developed world on their days off, looking for the next fix, using text messages to alert their friends. Elsewhere, one billion people in the world live in slums and own next to nothing.

We are in the last days. I'm sorry, I never wanted to be a doomsayer.

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