Archive for July 27th, 2007

Except when buying books, I have tried to avoid reflex consumerism since I was a young teen. I don’t want to be a Luddite (as a computer journalist, I could hardly be that), because, while I sometimes admire the independence of such people, I also think they take a neurotic pleasure in denying themselves. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to buy the latest appliance or follow the latest fad unless doing so fits my long-term needs. In trying to avoid these extremes, I have become somewhat paradoxical, on the one hand having up to date computer equipment, and, on the other hand, having chosen to live without some of the things that most people take for granted, like microwaves, credit cards, and cell phones. The paradox leads to a very different outlook on life — a slower and less harried one.

To me, a microwave simply duplicates what’s already in the kitchen — and doesn’t function as well as a standard issue oven and stove. It’s nearly impossible to prepare a sauce in one, or anything except non-gourmet meals, because it eliminates most of a hands-on approach to cooking. For this reason, they encourage the use of prepared foods, which add to household expenses.

Their most common use seems to be to heat coffee quickly, a use that hardly justifies the counter space they occupy. So, why bother with them? I don’t stand waiting for water to boil for my peppermint tea — I busy myself with something else — which means that I don’t need the extra few seconds that a microwave promises.

Nor have I ever carried a credit card. Why should I? Living with debt makes me uneasy, and I’m no longer an adolescent who demands instant gratification. Saving beforehand, I appreciate a new car, a new house or a trip more than I would if I were paying for them for months or years after I had them. Sometimes, while I’m saving, I have second thoughts, and realize that I don’t need the high ticket items that I thought I did. At other times, I can enjoy the anticipation of waiting for gratification.

This approach confounds bank employees, who insist that I should take out a card to build a line of credit. “But I don’t care about credit,” I say. “But you should,” they reply. “You never know when you need it.” “But I’ve arranged my life so I don’t need it,” I reply — and so it goes, in an endless Abbott and Costello routine in which neither side understands the others. The bank employees are dumbfounded at the idea of a life without credit, while I have no patience with the idea that you have to increase your levels of anxiety just so you can momentarily act like an infant.

The only real drawback to life without credit is that I consistently over-estimate the income of others. What seems like a wealthier lifestyle than mine is often just a similar income with credit.

(By contrast, I approve wholeheartedly of debit cards. They’re pay as you go — a concept of which I heartily approve — and much more convenient than carrying large amounts of cash, so I’m quite prepared to pay processing fees for using one)

In the same way, I was probably one of the few people in North America who had no interest in the iPhone as the pre-release hype built to the release date. Whether I work in an office as I once did or at home as I do now, I am always within a few meters of a land line. When I am on an errand or on my own time away from my place of work, very few people ever have business with me that can’t wait for an hour or two — and, when they do, it’s extremely rare. I have no wish to have those interminable monologs that sound like a homework assignment at announcers’ school.You know — the ones in which cell phone owners describe the mundane details of their daily activities: “I’m standing in front of the frozen peas now. Is it cold! And there are all sorts of different types of frozen peas here…” Personally, if I was that interested in public performance, I’d have become a mime.

The few times that I do need a phone, I can usually find a pay phone (although not so much recently, since public planners are starting to assume that everyone has a cell phone). At other times, not being connected 24-7 means that I actually have a few hours most days that are mine. The result is that I’m a much calmer person, because I suffer fewer interruptions.

The truth is, very few of us need a cell phone. Those who do — for instance, those whose work day takes them to many different locations in the day and who would otherwise be impossible to contact — are welcome to them. But, for the rest of us, cell phones are a self-indulgence that have little practical use, and serve only to add to the problem of high-tech waste piling up at the landfill, or being exported overseas to endanger the citizens of developing countries who try to recycle them.

Personal coaches and motivational speakers like to talk about taking control of your life and building the sort of life you want. However, I wish a few of them would apply such glittering generalities to our culture’s love affair with technology and fashion. Navigating between going along with the crowd and a perverse self-denial is tenuous and difficult effort, and it doesn’t actually succeed. However, unless you can get ride of the artificial needs foisted upon you, how can you hope to realize the needs you actually have? You’ll only get sidetracked and wind up vaguely unhappy.

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