It's not easy to determine the cost of materialism, but the people in our lives can give us a clue

in technology •  last year

I happened upon a very interesting article at Naked Capitalism a few days ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since. It was originally published at The Institute for New Economic Thinking and offers some insight into some of the failings of capitalism, I mean, materialism. "Kanth: A 400-Year Program of Modernist Thinking is Exploding" is article about taking notice of a wave of discontent with how materialism as it is experienced now, is working out. When 8 people in the world own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world, you know there's a problem. 

Kanth has taken notice of something called Eurocentric Modernism, the basis for much of the materialism in American culture today. As noted previously, it's been around for 400 years and has brought about what we know now to be "capitalism". My post here is intended to dig a little deeper about the observation made by Kanth, that the pursuit of material wealth has, as he put it, "unhinged us from our human nature".

Here are the nuggets of that article:

The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks:  a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.
To illustrate one of its signature follies, Kanth refers to that great Hollywood ode to the Western spirit, “The Sound of Music.” Early in the film, the Mother Superior bursts into song, calling on the nun Maria to “climb every mountain, ford every stream.”
Sounds exhilarating, but to what end? Why exactly do we need to ford every stream? From the Eurocentric modernist viewpoint, Kanth says, the answer is not so innocent: we secretly do it so that we can say to ourselves, “Look, I achieved something that’s beyond the reach of somebody else.” Hooray for me!

Every life form on the planet has to make choices based on numerous factors like the genes bestowed upon it, the environment and other living beings. Instead of being happy with what we have, we've been taught for 400 years that we must go out and do something, buy something or be something. We cannot just be. But if we exert those efforts, we do so at the expense of all other efforts.

Consider: humans have evolved reproduction for one baby at a time (most of the time), to allow for bigger brains while many other mammals have more teats for the mother and larger litters. They've focused on numbers rather than brains while humans have invested more effort into bigger brains. Since there is a limited amount of energy and resources available to each living being, we must allocate our resources carefully to get what we want.

What Eurocentric Modernism tells us is to do things, get things, be somebody. So, what about the people who love us and are waiting for a conversation with us? While we're looking at our screens, going to work, or achieving that big thing, we're not making conversation with the people around us. Most of the people we encounter online are effectively anonymous to us. We don't have relationships with them in the literal sense of the term. We don't "hangout" with them the same way we might hang out with members of our family living with us.

In a similar vein, while we pursue the American Dream, whatever we think that may be, our children are at home or in daycare without us. In the last 40 years, the powers that be decided that achieving the American Dream should be much, much harder than it was before and implemented that decision through policy decisions to make it so. The neoliberal policies that have been enacted in America have made it so difficult that it is not possible to live on minimum wage and pay the rent for a two-bedroom apartment. The median income in America is $15 an hour, which means that half of Americans are making less.

By creating a system that places greater value on money and possessions than people, we get a lot of unhappiness. Not everyone can be a billionaire or even a millionaire. Not everyone can get the American Dream. This isn't to say that everyone should have the American Dream, it's to say, "What's the point if the American Dream separates us from the people we love?"

I have a house, a couple of cars and a few doodads. But none of this is worth having unless I can share it with someone. So I share it with my wife, my kids and anyone we invite over to spend time with us. I enjoy sharing the fruits of my labor with my family. This isn't to say that I'm communist, but I'm not purely capitalist, either. I'm somewhere in between.

In all of this, I've acquired the skills to get these things. I've learned how to earn money with my skills, how to learn new skills and how to negotiate the purchase of the things that I now own. In all of life, everything we do requires skills - well, except for the autonomic functions like breathing, hearing and seeing and smelling. The point here is that everything we learn requires an investment of time spent learning that skill. With technology, we're learning how to do things with things, mostly.

Our culture seems to be focused more on spending time with things rather than people. I go to a job to work. I spend most of my day with a thing, a computer. Reading, writing, analyzing and running upgrades on very large storage systems. I spend most of my day with things, not people. Maybe this is by choice. Things are easier to manage than people. Things don't complain, they break and they're replaced. Not so easy with people. 

People have demands, they grow up, they grow old, they get bored or happy depending upon the day. With every investment of time and energy into work, we'd think that should earn us the money, which is really a symbol for energy, to have more time for family and friends. But it hasn't worked out that way. 

Technology was sold to us on the basis that it would make our lives easier. Has it? We're depleting our groundwater with technology called pumps. We're clearcutting forests with saws. We're polluting our oceans with plastic. I could go on, but I think I've made the point. As noted in the article I cited at the start of this one, with every step into technology, we have managed to reduce the space available for life. Not just for places to live, but also with the people in our lives.

I'm not here to damn technology. I like tech and work with it every day. But I think we must be mindful that if we're going to create and use technology, we must remember that we do so at our own peril. We do so at the expense of our environment, the people we know and love, and even ourselves for all of the wonder that we miss while we're engaged with a screen. 

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