Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Merry Materialism

Christmas Eve, a day for idle speculation. I saw a gif of Chris Rock saying in what looked like an SNL opening "Jesus was the least Materialistic person ever, yet we have made his birthday the most materialistic..." I don't know because I don't think it is a very good point, But that point sparked a point for me.

When did Materialism/Consumerism become a problem? I don't know and I can't be bothered finding out. What I've noticed though, is that my main pursuit in life kind of depends on Materialism, and my direct experience of making transactions over art, is that they have been incredibly emotionally meaningful acts of consumption.

Selling art means quite a lot to me. Because I produce the physical goods themselves. My pieces mean a lot, my patrons mean a lot. It is an incredible experience.

This leads me to think that Consumerism/Materialism are recent problems, recent phenomena. This is fairly orthodox and generally attributed to mass production, age of abundance type causes.

I suspect it could be found to coincide with the rise of the 'knowledge worker'. A vague and ambiguous term coined by Drucker to describe people whose chief economic activity was thinking. A manager for example is a 'knowledge worker' because they have to think, decide and communicate. They might work in a toy shop populated by elves manufacturing toys, but they do not manufacture the toys themselves. They just know about the business.

Over the last century, a lot of jobs have stopped producing anything tangible, nor delivering any direct service (eg. shoe shine, massage, X-ray, psychotherapy) They perform an indirect service like 'market analysis' internally to other knowledge workers. Much occupations in the west produce nothing but knowledge products - advice, charts, reports, statements etc.

Machines increasingly build the actual goods. A person now looks at data output and uses their brain to make inferences about how to optimise manufacturing equipment.

I even question say a shoe designer in the US sitting down with an athlete and creating a new basketball shoe, sketching the concept, figuring out the materials, getting a prototype sculpted, sewn and stitched and then breaking that down into a manufacturing process - that is then outsourced to a different country. Does that yeild the same hedonic impact as when I finish a drawing and hang it on a wall for sale?

I suspect not, somewhere seeing a shoe you drew become a stock item in Athletes foot and knowing it vaguely points backwards in time to a paycheck or bonus you recieved might result in more material comfort but I suspect it is not the same moment.

My point being... who am I kidding, I can't make a point that soon. I'm reminded of hearing this kid at work saying to a colleague (we both got older) of Valentine's day 'I think every day should be about love, not just one day a year' a nice sentiment, but I disagree in practice. It's good to just pick an arbitrary day and say 'fuck it, on February 14th at the very least, I'm going to make a big deal about loving someone.' because our heads have to juggle a lot of shit.

In the same way, Christmas is as good a time as any to just buy people you care about some fucking gifts. If you dial it back to a hunter gatherer tribe that have prophetically foreseen the coming of Jesus and celebrate his birthday ahead of time, you had a small community, a direct barter system, no currency, no medium of exchange and a bunch of people made gifts of the berry's they picked, the yams they dug up, the honey they found, the pelts they skinned etc. do you think somebody would have said 'Christmas has become too commercial, too materialistic, it should be about family and community!' I think not.

For me at least, in the hunter gatherer system, it's evident that everything they've hunted and gathered are exactly what the community is. In a society where it is standard to ask a stranger at a party 'so what do you do?' I don't really see any difference. I don't really know what imaginary life I am supposed to be leading where a family just gathers around and hangs out. Life is complex, and although you don't think on it, a t-shirt performs a function beyond warmth and modesty. It transmits a message about the wearer that help facilitate doing what they do.

And what we do is evidently important to us. People invest more of their life in it quite often than they invest in their families - just so they can have families. It may be true that our nomadic hunter gathering ancestors spent most of their time resting, conserving energy - precious callories. They also all operated very much a family business. We still do, it's true there's a lot of bullshit jobs out there and beyond the threat of technological automation to jobs, I often wonder if Pareto holds up and we could lose 80% of the workforce and only 20% of productivity... ah, get back on point... We are all in this together.

We have just, I suspect through disconnect, developed an emotional barrier to the gesture of gift giving. If your job is auditing somebodies credit return process for ISO accreditation, then yeah maybe it seems weird to then buy a set of carbon fiber nordic walking poles for your baby-boomer parent, and yeah, maybe your job is total bullshit too and you hate your life but you fear your expenses more.

This gesture though that people complain about though, is really just this 'I want you to have something you want, and be happy and I hope it helps you do what you do.' why can't you just say that and dispense with the gifts, the shopping, the stores and the advertising between retailers competing for our dollars? Because most times well done is better than well said.

I can only testify to my personal experience that there's a certain hollowness to the Christmases where my family have limited the gift giving, we've done Kris Kringles limited to $50 and you each got designated just one family member to buy for. The relief of the time and financial strain of Christmas resulted in a pretty non-eventful day. Some great moments require a period of suckiness to come good.

As a kid I may have been naive and stupid, but I can recall how utterly magical and miraculous it seemed to just be able to fulfill all your earthly desires by writing a letter to a dude that turned out not to exist. I now struggle to think of enough material desires to allow my gift givers to get me something, I'm fortunate to not be deprived enough, but I don't know, I believe in tangibility, I believe in evidence. I like getting something from somebody. Anything really, it doesn't matter. I just like to hold something in my hand sometimes as a durable impression that somebody cares about me.

I see nothing wrong with that.

There are things I dislike about Christmas though, relating to the Peer Problem, but that's another post and I have gifts to buy.

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