Away for a spell
I will be gone until after New Year's day. My wife and I are taking a trip to India to celebrate dear friends' 50th wedding anniversary. It's too far to travel just for a few days so we are also taking a tour of the southern parts of India.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 10, 2013 2:25 PM ::
Are You Sirious?
I don’t usually write two posts without the separation of a few days. It takes me some time to recover from the first one. But today I make an exception. Shortly after reading David Brooks’s piece, my eyes alit on the next item in the Opinion listings in the NYTimes, a movie review by Frank Bruni, that told me much more than the plot. Bruni was writing about the film, “Her,” directed by Spike Jonze. Here is his quick summary.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man in love with the operating system for his smartphone-esque device, a sexy Siri that — or should I say who? — tells him not only when he has mail but what a terrific male he is, and does this in Scarlett Johansson’s come-hither coo. There was much fuss recently over the decision that Johansson was ineligible for the Golden Globes: Should a disembodied voice’s contribution be regarded as any less real than a visible, palpable person’s? The debate echoed questions in the movie itself, which was written and directed by Spike Jonze and was just named the best picture of 2013 by both the National Board of Review and (in a tie with “Gravity”) the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
I bemoaned, in the Brooks post, the move toward reducing us to vassals of computers and the Internet, but here what has been the epitome of personal experience is reduced to a love affair with the voice at the end of our computer operating system, Siri for those familiar with the iPhone. The article is rich with Bruni’s comments on the impact of entering into a relationship with a “being” whose actions are like the genie in Aladdin’s tale: ask and I will obey, Master. You should read the whole column, but here are a few choice snippets.
I savored a few themes in particular. One is the Internet’s extreme indulgence of the seemingly innate human impulse to contrive a habitat that’s entirely unthreatening, an ego-stroking ecosystem, a sensibility-controlled comfort zone. You want an endless stream of irony? You can have an endless stream of irony. You want unfettered invective about the politicians you’ve decided to hate? Set your bookmarks and social-media feeds accordingly. You can frolic endlessly in foregone conclusions. You can revel in the anecdotes that affirm your cynicism or articulate your fantasies, gullibly believing what’s actually performance art, like a young television producer’s tweet-by-tweet account of his smackdown of an annoying fellow passenger on a Thanksgiving flight. He was briefly a hero, his valor gone viral, until he revealed that he’d made the whole thing up.
This movie is all about making things up. Siri can sound like a compliant and loving partner, but there is nothing human about her. Real relations, as in the film, have moments of complete asymmetric satisfaction between the actors, one subservient to the wishes of the other, spoken and unspoken. But they also always must have symmetry and mutual care and respect. If we come to respect and care for a dissociated voice as if it came from a real person, we are in deep trouble. I haven’t seen the film, but will certainly view it, based on Bruni’s description.
If it were science fiction, I would not be so concerned, but this story appears to be something quite possible in the here and now. Bruni writes, “that with our amassed knowledge and scientific accomplishments, we may be succeeding in rendering ourselves obsolete.” Only if one assumes we are nothing but machines that that can no longer think and feel. Apparently such opining is quite possible and is encouraged by stories like this film tells. I will stop here and write no more until I watch the film. In the meantime, do read his column; it won’t spoil the movie.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 10, 2013 2:10 PM ::
Our Own "Brave New World"
One of my favorites sources for this blog, David Brooks, is back at work on the New York Times after a long hiatus to promote his latest book. His column today is all about the increasing need for people to adapt to the computer in their work lives if they are to prosper in the future world that he and many see coming.
We’re living in an era of mechanized intelligence, an age in which you’re probably going to find yourself in a workplace with diagnostic systems, different algorithms and computer-driven data analysis. If you want to thrive in this era, you probably want to be good at working with intelligent machines. As Tyler Cowen puts it in his relentlessly provocative recent book, “Average Is Over,” “If you and your skills are a complement to the computer, your wage and labor market prospects are likely to be cheery. If your skills do not complement the computer, you may want to address that mismatch.”
Then, Brooks lists a number of job categories which fit this prediction. Here is one of them: “Synthesizers. The computerized world presents us with a surplus of information. The synthesizer has the capacity to surf through vast amounts of online data and crystallize a generalized pattern or story.” There are seven more similar descriptions. But one is quite different and strikes me as quite relevant to my work.
Economizers. The bottom 85 percent is likely to be made up of people with less marketable workplace skills. Some of these people may struggle financially but not socially or intellectually. That is, they may not make much running a food truck, but they can lead rich lives, using the free bounty of the Internet. They could use a class of advisers on how to preserve rich lives on a small income.
I find this quite depressing. Not that it will necessarily happen, but because Brooks (and others) write as if our lives will be dominated by the Internet and all the devices that makes it work. I believe strongly that there is much more to life than the “free bounty of the Internet” can provide. If not, the fate of the human species is not very promising. Flourishing, the condition I believe would be the centerpiece of the kind of world we would want to sustain, rests critically on our relationships with the whole world, not just the omnipresent computer. Brooks’s column could easily be mistaken for a book review of Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. The world of ‘synthesizers” and “economizers” doesn’t sound like a world I would choose to live in.
Brooks’s partially recognizes that in adding the last category.
Weavers. Many of the people who struggle economically will lack the self-motivation to build rich inner lives for themselves. Many are already dropping out of the labor force in record numbers and drifting into disorganized, disaffected lifestyles. Public and private institutions are going to hire more people to fight this social disintegration. There will be jobs for people who combat the dangerous inegalitarian tendencies of this new world.
But he misses the point entirely in this technocratic way of thinking about the future; we can solve all our social problems by putting “experts” to work. If you are “disorganized” or “disaffected,” just hire a new kind of therapist, a “weaver,” to lift your spirits such that life takes on new meaning. Huxley’s answer for the disaffection of the totalitarian world of the future was “soma,” a tranquilizer-like drug he invented long before Prozac and Valium came on the scene, perhaps to deal with the same kind of issues.
Brooks and other opinion writers are rarely willing to dig deeply into the causes of the social problems they seek solutions to. Does he really believe that the “weavers’ can allay the disaffection already present in the country? Or are they, like soma, simply going to make disaffection seem like the normal way to be? If there is an answer to the tightly bound life of the future, it will lie in recovering the caring core of our humanness. Hopefully, there will be people who choose to become “connectors,” my addition to Brooks’s list. Connectors are people who teach and motivate (maybe cajole) us to recognize and act through connections (and relationships) to ourselves, to other people, and to the whole world out there, most of which lies beyond the reach of the computer and its grasping extension, the Internet.
Connectors can come in many shapes, ranging from the powerful figures in our society to much more humble people like parents and schoolteachers. Imagine what might happen if President Obama used his bully pulpit to encourage us to hug one another as a small beginning to actually care for one another. Imagine what would happen if schoolteachers would instill respect and care for people and the world instead to turning their students into the machines to serve the new world that Brooks and others picture. Imagine a world where those same teachers taught their students how to think for themselves so that they become capable of digging below the surface of cultural life to find what really matters.
Connectors could lead parties into the wilderness (if it does still exist) so that we could begin to recover our sense of relationships with the non-human world. Care always takes place within a connected pair: the caring actor and the target of the caring action at the other end. Care requires consciousness to enable the actor to intentionally think about the other and what might be missing or necessary at the other end. Caring attempts to fill a missing piece of the other’s existential context. We can recognize this whenever we deem somebody’s action as coming from love.
Care is largely missing in the mechanized, numerical culture of today. Becoming extensions of the computer or the Internet can only make matters worse. It is fashionable to write about a completely mechanized future replete with robots and computer terminals, but it lacks a critical sense of what this means for human beings. We are not robots that can only perform the tasks for which they have been programmed to do. Our humanness rests in our authenticity to be ourselves, doing what comes from inside, certainly not what some machine out there forces us to become. It is unfortunate to see good thinkers like Brooks write as if the computerized world of the future is inevitable and we can be taught to live within it. Not much of a life without authenticity and care.
Such a world may well come to be; we do seem to be headed that way. But we do not have to become robots, real or metaphorical. To whatever skill sets these writers anticipate we will need, they can and should add something related to the need to remain human beings. We have already lost in our modern culture much of our understanding of what this means and how to act accordingly, but we can recover a consciousness of that understanding with help. I have used “connectors” here as one way to make that point. Whatever we do to adapt to the future must include some means to recover and sustain our human essence, that of caring. If we do not, the future of Homo sapiens is more likely to be resemble the condition Brooks and Cowen (who he quotes, above) describe.
Please Mr. Brooks and others like Cowen, when you write about our future, do not take such a inhuman world for granted. It may be a stretch for you, but try to think about the idea that “connectors” conveys, and add your own means for “humanizing” to your work. Those of us who are trying to recover what being human means so that we may flourish can use all the help we can get.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 10, 2013 11:56 AM ::
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 1, 2013 6:05 PM ::
Flourish and the Search for Meaning
It is said that it takes a crisis to bring out our innermost beliefs. This appears to be happened to a whole generation of young people in the US, the milllennials. They are featured in an opinion piece in today’s NYTimes Sunday Review by Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker.
Today’s young adults born after 1980, known as Generation Y or the millennial generation, are the most educated generation in American history and, like the baby boomers, one of the largest. Yet since the Great Recession of 2008, they have been having a hard time. They are facing one of the worst job markets in decades. They are in debt. Many of them are unemployed. The income gap between old and young Americans is widening.
The gist of the article is that these young people have turned to find meaning in their lives, rather than seek material rewards.
Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness. They report being less focused on financial success than they are on making a difference. A 2011 report commissioned by the Career Advisory Board and conducted by Harris Interactive, found that the No. 1 factor that young adults ages 21 to 31 wanted in a successful career was a sense of meaning. Though their managers, according to the study, continue to think that millennials are primarily motivated by money, nearly three-quarters of the young adults surveyed said that “meaningful work was among the three most important factors defining career success.”
But it is not just their goals that I found interesting; it is how the article talked about them and about meaning. Here is a key extract.
Although meaning is subjective — signifying different things to different people — a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself. There is no one meaning of life, but rather, many sources of meaning that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections.
They are seeking the satisfaction that meaning brings from the search for and discovery of it. The numbers of those expressing this outlook has increased since the Recession of 2008, before which time they were often characterized as “narcissistic and flaky in their professional and personal lives, and [are] more selfish than prior generations.”
I find this shift very important to the subject that underpins my work on flourishing. Without using that word, I read this shift as evidence that the millennials are seeking a flourishing life, judged by how well they are taking care of the meaningful domains of their lives. “When individuals adopt what we call a meaning mind-set — that is, they seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose — clear benefits can result, including improved psychological well-being, more creativity, and enhanced work performance.”
The article points out that this mindset and self-assessment are not the same as expressions of happiness. If true and lasting, this new characteristic bodes well for flourishing and the repair of our increasingly unsustainable world. The article uses mostly psychological language, but it also could be translated into the ontological vocabulary I use. I would say that this cohort is experiencing the fullness of “Being” instead of the unsatisfying Having” mode of life that Fromm (and I) write about. The reference to “connections” is more passive than what happens with them. Caring always comes via connections but when actors are focused on the distant end of the tie, not on their end.
Another ontological aspect is authenticity, which, most simply stated, refers to actions in the course of being. The source is mysterious, some have named it a “calling,” which I do not use because it has too many religious overtones. But if pressed to explain why one acted in such a caring fashion, the response is often, “because it was meaningful.” Meaningful actions are virtually the same as caring actions; and a meaningful life is one in which flourishing is possible.
Consumption theorists have offered many explanations as to why people consume unceasingly without deriving much in the way of happiness. Here I find the work of Tim Kasser very clear. Kasser (and others) have arranged people’s expressed values in an orderly manner and have been able to define two distinct (but with fuzzy boundaries) sets “intrinsic and extrinsic.” The arrangement is shown in the diagram which I found in several of Kassers’ papers.
He writes “Goals next to each other in this circumplex [ the roughly circular pattern] are psychologically consistent with each other; that is, people who care about personal growth also often care about affiliation, and people who care about image are often oriented towards popularity. Goals on the opposite side of the circumplex are in conflict with each other; for example, spirituality and hedonism oppose each other, as do financial success and community feeling.”
My point in this blog post is to show that the search for a meaningful life is virtually the same as a search for flourishing. The difference is only semantic, not substantive. The difference between these two goals can be found in many places, the ontology of being, the psychology of values, and, directly, in the attitudes of this population cohort. All represent a mode of life that has broken away from the dominant unsustainable, materialistic norms of our present culture. Without leaving that culture behind, there is little or no possibility of flourishing. Any such leaving is bound to be disruptive and anxiety-producing, but, as the article concludes, it appears to be worth it. (Frankl refers to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote a widely read book, Mans’s Search for Meaning)
Of course, nobody likes living through tough economic times — and the millennials have been dealt a tough hand. But at the same time, there are certain benefits to economic deprivation. Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes. By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have — the very thing that Frankl realized makes life worth living.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 1, 2013 4:24 PM ::
A Holiday Syzygy
This year our traditional Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Chanukah. It is a rare event when the Julian and Hebrew calendars coincide. It will come again in 2070 or so, and then not for a very long time. Not only do the two holidays coincide, but share common roots. Both are celebrations of thanks for the gifts we have had bestowed upon us. The Jewish tradition celebrates a miracle that occurred when the ancient Temple was repatriated, and its rescuers wanted to rekindle the Eternal light. Only a day’s worth of oil remained, so a party was sent to obtain a fresh supply some days away.
Miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, after which the party returned and the lamp could be replenished on a daily basis. Today it is celebrated by lighting candles for eight nights, adding a candle each night. It is also a time for giving gifts; some give something every night. Most years Chanukah comes closer in the calendar to Christmas, and the commercialism of that once holy season becomes ecumenical and affects Jews and Christians alike. The meaning of these holidays has become seriously diminished by the commercialism.
Thanksgiving is, as its name signifies, a day for acknowledging the gifts we have received. The origins of our Thanksgiving arose in the very earliest days of the first settlements in The New World when life was harsh and uncertain. Almost half of the original settlers in Massachusetts died within the first year. At its roots the Day celebrated the sustaining of life, explicitly appreciated by those that survived. The so-called First Celebration took place in 1621, following a plentiful harvest. The local Native Americans, the Wampanoags, had taught the settlers in Plimoth the art of growing crops in this foreign soil and shared in the celebrations.
Their role is important as their culture placed humans in the same interconnected network of life as the animals. They culture was deeply communal with sharing of resources as the norm. As the Indians were systematically wiped out by the European settlers, these beliefs and norms were substantially lost, replaced by the idea of private property and the separation of humans from the web of life. The long-lived native culture which had survived for several thousands of years, at least, virtually entirely disappeared.
What a great loss! Our present unsustainable life styles can be attributed in part to our acquisitiveness for (private) property as a measure of our identity/worth, and the substitution of individualism for communitarianism. In the nearly 400 years since that First Thanksgiving, we have pushed our natural support system (the web of life) toward its limits, and in a few cases beyond its limits. The idea of sharing is virtually gone as evidenced by the rapidly growing inequality where the wealthy own the bulk of the resources and the associated capacity for thriving and the rest are merely eking out a bare existence.
I doubt whether this heritage of the day is celebrated by many. The Thanksgiving meal has become an empty ritual complete with the pardoning of 10 turkeys by our President. For many, there is a celebration of family, but little more than that. For most others, it is only a blip in the wait for Black Friday. I have seen various estimates of the numbers of shoppers expected to mob the Malls and big box stores, but some reach as high as around 100,000,000. This year, the wait was shortened by a number of giant merchants that were going to open on Thanksgiving Day as soon as a respectable delay had passed. It would make more sense in the future to designate this holiday as Thanksgiving Morning, acknowledging that much of the day was to be spent not in offering thanks for what has been given, but in rush to acquire more and more.
I cannot imagine a more serious indictment of our consumer culture and the damage it is doing to humans and the world than this debasement of what was a recognition of our place within a system without which none of the gifts would be forthcoming. There is no real satisfaction in this frenzy. There is no caring in it. It is a madness. It is a sign of our addiction to materialism. It is also a sign of the power of manipulation by the torrent of advertisements that reflect the omnipresence of the corporate sector.
I am deeply saddened by this spectacle. We were never a culture to value history very highly, especially our own. If we did, we would see the irony in our present behavior on Thanksgiving. Maybe we would even stop and reflect, and put ourselves back into the 1600’s and recall the Native American ways that underpinned the institutionalization of Thanksgiving. Their beliefs that they were a part of the web of life led to a care for it. Giving thanks is an acknowledge of interrelationship or interconnection. Thanking nature for its gifts is the obverse of taking care of it. Communal living is a manifestation of care for one’s fellow humans. These are values and norms that have gotten lost in our becoming moderns, which loss stands in the way of flourishing.
The loss itself is serious, but there is a positive side. If care and connectedness are something we have lost, we can get it back. It is evidence that we are not doomed to be narcissistic, selfish creatures. For me this is perhaps the most important lesson of Thanksgiving. It is not just for the material gifts we have received but, more importantly, for the memory of how we have cared for the world in the past and for the hope that we can recover our caring ways in the future and ultimately flourish.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 29, 2013 5:42 PM ::
By The Numbers
Central to flourishing is the recovery of being—what it means to be human. In many ways we are the same as other animals. We need food and shelter to survive. We have offspring to keep the species going. But the comparison soon stops, as we have language allowing us to coordinate our actions with others of our species. Language enables up to act intentionally as the result of cognitive processes greater than almost all other species. Whales and dolphins may share some of this capability with us, but it is very rare among the animals. We can invent words to describe what we encounter through our senses. Over time, we have developed a huge vocabulary that grew from the limited perceptions of early hominids to encompass what we have observed through the technological devices that extent our limited vision.
The words we have invented start with observations of distinctions—phenomena that stand out against a familiar context and come to possess meanings through their application in practice. Our language represents the phylogeny of our species, its history of experience. Words come into play while others disappear. Parallel to the evolution of our species, individual human beings acquire their own language, out of that shared by all, from their particular lived history (ontogeny). Since every being has a distinct life history, we are unique creatures; no two are alike at the genetic level and at the practical level, the domain in which we act out our lives. We share meanings of the language we all acquire through or development in a shared culture. It is that set of shared meanings that allows us to coordinate our actions with others. Part of being human is to hold these two opposing distinctions. One is the recognition that we share the world with others, that is we are social animals, acting out of a common pool of words and meanings. The other is our sense that we are unique, not like any other individuals. Even identical twins show differences.
I have been very concerned about the tendency of contemporary practices to blur that distinctiveness. Our well-being has come to be measured by numbers, created by economists. And now I see a much more ominous invention, big data, coming. I read a chilling, for me, article in the latest The Atlantic issue telling how big data are going to be used to decide who gets hired and who gets fired. First used to build baseball teams, big data analysis is spreading to the larger corporate world. Companies that create and employ algorithms that pick out “winners” are sprouting up everywhere. This innovation merely extends the methods that have been used to select employees for decades, but the extension is huge. The article says,
The potential power of this data-rich approach is obvious. What begins with an online screening test for entry-level workers ends with the transformation of nearly every aspect of hiring, performance assessment, and management. In theory, this approach enables companies to fast-track workers for promotion based on their statistical profiles; to assess managers more scientifically; even to match workers and supervisors who are likely to perform well together, based on the mix of their competencies and personalities. Transcom plans to do all these things, as its data set grows ever richer. This is the real promise—or perhaps the hubris—of the new people analytics. Making better hires turns out to be not an end but just a beginning. Once all the data are in place, new vistas open up.
I think it is hubris, reducing people to some score. I think it is always hubris whether it be the new “people analytics,” as the article identifies this new technology, or the older cruder testing methods. Choices do have to be made. These methods presumably bypass the biases we all have and use as we filter a slate of candidates through our thought process. But it also reduces those making the choices to mere tools for a system based on somebody’s guesses at what is important in the life of the organization. More and more, what is important is also just a set of numbers, profits, productivity, market share, and so on. Workplaces are not just mechanical systems; they employ people, real people to make them go. Perhaps less people all the time as “robots” and automation take over, but there will always be people.
People are essential because the world is complex, and new problems will always crop up that haven’t yet been reduced to some algorithm. Lean manufacturing, the latest standard in productivity, rests on the ability of everyone to observe what has been happening. Sometimes it is the lowest person on the totem pole that comes up with a solution. I wonder if these new algorithms would have picked out the “right”assembly-line workers or shop cleaners.
But what I most criticize about this new way of making business evermore efficient and, in theory, more profitable is the further reduction of humans to numbers. Our nation was predicated on the equality of humans, even though it did not walk the talk for quite some time (maybe not yet). We are clearly not a nation of equal human beings. It used to be that we could say, with some honesty, that equality meant equal opportunity to advance up the social ladder. No longer. I can imagine that this new use of big data will make things worse. The article argues otherwise.?
Ultimately, all of these new developments raise philosophical questions. As professional performance becomes easier to measure and see, will we become slaves to our own status and potential, ever-focused on the metrics that tell us how and whether we are measuring up? Will too much knowledge about our limitations hinder achievement and stifle our dreams? All I can offer in response to these questions, ironically, is my own gut sense, which leads me to feel cautiously optimistic. But most of the people I interviewed for this story—who, I should note, tended to be psychologists and economists rather than philosophers—share that feeling.
It is not surprising that psychologists and economists look on this as positive. They have been in the vanguard of those scientists reducing people to machines. I would like to hear what the humanists among us think. Their input would be most helpful, as this development is neither completely black or white, and most importantly, not reducible to some fancy algorithm.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 24, 2013 3:53 PM ::
Correction to the Book
I received an email from a reader who noted that I omitted one of the key players from Interface Carpet's "Dream Team." See page 124-125. I left out Karl-Henrik Robert, the founder of The Natural Step (TNS). Interface used the Natural Step in developing their program.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 20, 2013 10:37 AM ::
The Power of Idleness
One of my colleagues on the Case Western project I have written about here sent me this quote. It is most relevant to this blog and to my writings about flourishing. One of the essential domains of care in my taxonomy is that of idleness/leisure. Here is a good explanation as to why it is explicit in the scheme.
Being and Doing
The fact that our being necessarily demands to be expressed in action should not lead us to believe that as soon as we stop acting we cease to exist. We do not live merely to “do something” - no matter what. We do not live more fully merely by doing something more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before. Everything depends on the quality of our acts and experiences. A multitude of badly performed actions and experiences only half-lived exhausts and depletes our being. By doing things badly we make ourselves less real. This growing unreality cannot help but make us unhappy and fill us with a sense of guilt. There are times then when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all, we simply have to sit back awhile and do nothing. And for a man who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. We must first recover the possession of our own being before we can act or taste or ?experience reality.
From: Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 18, 2013 10:27 AM ::
Mindless Consumption and the Media
The electronic news media has been suffering a continuing decline for some time. A typical half-hour show has only about fifty percent news (if it can be called that) and the rest is advertising. I tend to watch the ABC national news whenever I turn on the TV around dinner time. I haven’t taken a stopwatch to time each segment, but I estimate that there is less than 15 minutes of good hard news. There are nightly specials, like “Made in America” or “Real Money” and a few others that I cannot name even after watching them. These are followed by two or three spots under the rubric of “Instant Index” which name says nothing about what is to follow. This is devoted to all sorts of oddities that are often entertaining, but rarely newsworthy. I can’t even remember what was included tonight.
I am particularly disgusted by the “Real Money” segments. Tonight, it was all about how to make money by selling the clutter that has accumulated in peoples’ houses. Featured was a house so cluttered that the garage couldn’t be used for its normal purpose, to park the cars (usually 2). ABC provided a clutter-removal specialist to assist the overwhelmed couple. She pointed to all sorts of apps that could help them put prices on all the stuff, including many items that had never been used. The real story here is not about removing the clutter but asking how it got there in the first place.
I know that this family is not atypical. many, many garages are similarly packed to the gills with stuff and in many cases even this is inadequate. The overflow goes into a self=storage cubicle. I remembered that I had written a post about this quite a long time ago (September 10, 2009) , but went back to see what it said. Pretty remarkable and a real indictment of our profligate consumption behavior.
“A lot of the expansion we experienced as an industry was people choosing to store,” Litton told me. A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.
Back to the topic of this blog-the mindless media. I apologize to educational programming but it touches only those already generally in the know. I know that mainstream electronic media are primarily designed to be entertainment, but we can get more of that than we could possibly absorb from the rest of the shows. Democracy is struggling these days and this is part of the cause. Social thinkers going back to our Founding Fathers and perhaps even to the Greek philosophers have argued that democracy requires, not just benefits from, an educated public. Not just educated in the sense of understanding the foundations of government, but capable of thinking critically, that is, sorting the wheat from the chaff so prevalent in political rhetoric.
Couple this to the deterioration of public education, an institution that John Dewey singled out as an essential thread in the democratic fabric, and you get the disaster that has come and is coming in spades. We are teaching our young more and more subjects aimed at making them employees in this knowledge (a lot of irony here) economy, but providing less and less capability to be citizens. This loss of discernment is serious by itself, but even more so in the noisy, persuasive context of the media I am writing about. Perhaps the most noticeable feature of our culture is the drive for goods, especially mobile devices, but also things like sneakers. Peer pressure has always been a strong motivator of consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses” is an old American habit. The piece on the TV news tonight only begins to show the folly of this behavior. Sure with an uncluttering professional, one can recoup perhaps a fraction of what was originally spent on all that stuff. This is a very different pattern from the ubiquitous yard sale which tends to offer clutter to the public, but mostly old and outdated items, not cameras still in the original packaging.
To end tonight, here’s a footnote about stuff. My wife handed me a story about life in India’s slums that she got as an adjunct to her book club’s choice of a novel about such life. I found the numbers staggering. (Almost any number about India tends to be staggering.) The article reports that there are 670 million mobile phones in India at the end of this last summer. Pretty good penetration in a country of around a billion. But then it noted that there are about the same number of people who lack access to toilets and are forced to defecate in the open or fight for a turn at the few scattered public latrines. Granted that mobile phones have made a large contribution to the poor, there still is something wrong here.
Posted by John Ehrenfeld on November 14, 2013 8:17 PM ::