The future of our materialistic selves

“I need a computer”, I told my dad in 2005. I was finishing the first year of my degree and none of my hostel friends had a computer yet. He knew that.

“Why do you think it’s necessary?”, he asked me. That was what he always asked when I made a demand. It was his way of testing me on whether I knew why I wanted what I wanted.

I told him that I had seen my seniors in college use it for many things that would be beneficial for me. Yes, there were many who wasted their time watching movies but that is not what I wanted it for. I wanted it because I wanted to tap in to the power of the internet.

A guy named Edgar, a computer whiz in my dad’s office had taught me how to use Windows ’95. By 1998, using the Internet Explorer, I had created myself a Yahoo! Mail account (I don’t know what I used it for because I had no friends who had email back then!). But more importantly, I had found Yahoo! Games. I used to love being able to play with random strangers. By the time I had finished high school, I had excelled at using Windows XP and I knew how to use Google to help me with small things.

When I started my degree in 2004-05, I knew there was a lot more I could do with a computer and I explained it to my dad. He was convinced. He bought me an expensive and powerful IBM desktop with a flat screen monitor. My mum thought he was splurging for no reason. That purchase, which costed my dad plenty of money, left me with two important lessons

  1. Buy only what is necessary
  2. If you decided that something is necessary then do your research and buy a version of that thing that serves your purpose the best. Even if it is a little more expensive.

In 2005 in India, we had desktops on offer from the big companies like Dell, IBM and HP. But there were also many computer shops that sold ‘assembled’ desktops. These assembled desktops were usually much cheaper than the branded computers for the same specifications because the shop keeper purchased cheaper individual parts and charged much lower amounts to put it altogether.

But my dad had done his research. He knew that ‘assembled’ computers often broke down and although the shop keepers fixed the machine for free most of the times, it would usually take some time to get it repaired. He preferred to buy me an IBM computer even though it was much more expensive because at least it won’t need repairing that often.

He also realised that I did not have much desk space in my hostel room and wanted to make sure that I could place the screen on my desk and still be able to use the desk (if I had one those CRT monitors, it just wouldn’t have been possible and laptops were too expensive to give to an undergraduate student then). So he bought me something because it was necessary and he did not think twice before spending money about buying only that things which served my purpose the best.

I’ve bought things for myself without having to ask my parents only since I left India but I’ve stuck with the lessons that my dad left me with. These thoughts about purchasing things came rushing back to me when I heard this talk by Bruce Sterling.

Sterling is a science writer and his talk is anything but organised. But if you are patient enough (or just skip to 26:01), he gives our generation some advice on how we could make a real difference to our environment despite consuming what we have to. Although, I don’t agree with everything he says, I cannot disagree with his take on our materialistic lives.

He says that, “You have to think about stuff not like, ‘Oh, this is a nice pen and I must keep it’. But in terms of how much space and how many hours you spend in using that thing.” He calls it a ‘good design approach’. One in which we pay a lot of attention to the purpose of the things we use and how well do those things solve that purpose (very similar to my dad’s philosophy on purchasing anything).

He also goes on to give advice on how we can think about our materialistic lives in a way that will help us improve our lives and cause a lower impact on the environment. “Buying cheaper things or organic things is not the way forward”, he says. We probably make a lot more environmental impact by choosing to buy cheap everyday objects thinking they will solve our purpose. When doing that you don’t think hard enough whether you should buy it or not because it’s cheap.”

He says, “Buy the best possible most commonly used everyday objects. Like a bed. You spend a third of your life in that thing. On a per hour rental basis, the most expensive bed would still be worth it. Get a good chair, especially if you spend a whole day sitting on it. There are great ergonomic designs out there. Use them. Don’t spend time whining about your wrists or your back.”

Makes complete sense to me and I have partly lived by that advice. For my next purchase, I will not forget this advice. He goes on to talk about how to get rid of things that you don’t need and not fall in the trap of buying things you won’t need (35:40 onwards). He asks us to categorise everything in to four categories:

  1. Beautiful Things: Will you be driven to share it?
  2. Emotionally Important Things: Does it have a narrative?
  3. Tools/devices/appliances (things that efficiently perform useful functions): Have really high technical standards for this.
  4. Everything else.

Only recently, I helped a friend move. Now she had so many things that had accrued over the years. Stuff that she hadn’t even seen since the years that have passed in between purchasing it and now. But she held on to those things. Even if it meant that she had to spend extra on the moving van or that she will have less place in the new place she was moving to. In that context, I find those categories above useful to be able to reduce the material clutter in our lives.

There really isn’t an end to our materialistic lives unless we make a conscious choice. Big businesses have spent billions of dollars and years of effort in to making us the perfect consumers. To break out is hard but it is the only sustainable way forward.

7 thoughts on “The future of our materialistic selves”

  1. A very good read. Consumerism plays tricky mind games and it is important to take a step back and rationalise.

  2. Excellent write up! I so much think the same way while spending and getting rid of things. I feel lot sad when people don’t care about their personal things and waste money on unnecessary things when they have no value for those. Same applies when buying and storing foodstuffs.

  3. Very nice Akshat! I’m glad your dad splurged for the computer. If you also apply the “butterfly principle”, it’s very likely that that purchase led straight to us all meeting you in Oxford through heightened interest in globalization and availability of the internet to you. 🙂

  4. Good one! I think for Marwari’s and gujju’s its ingrained into us so we dont need to think about it consciously, unless we want to show-off 😉

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