Archive for the ‘fashion’ Category

“I have led a good life, careful and artistic,

I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic” 

– Utah Phillips

When I was younger, I worried that I would become more conservative as I got older. However, thanks to the main trauma in my life, that hasn’t happened. Instead, I continue to hold similar views to those I developed in my teens, but in a different way – less singlemindedly, and more skeptically.

I consider my social and political positions open to revision at any given time. However, here’s how my world view looks as I serve my time as a curmudgeon-in-training:

  • Having people in authority over others is the easiest and quickest way to organize society, but generally lapses into an abuse of power. Finding alternative power structures is difficult, but creative – as well as an absolute necessity for personal quality of life and for alleviating long-term social problems. Meanwhile, questioning and minimizing authority is the best way to prevent abuse of power. Sometimes, though, the only short-term relief available is throwing out those in power and replacing them with new ones. Eventually, though, we have to do throw out the new ones, too.
  • What everybody knows or does is always worth questioning. Rather than observing or making an effort to understand the situation around them, most people rely on explanatory principles to make sense of the world. For instance, they say that all men watch sports and all women love to shop without ever examining these assumptions. While you may not get answers by questioning common assumptions, you will always get a better rounded view of the issues by going beyond the explanatory principles.
  • Fashion is a pseudo-culture. A culture is supposed to sustain daily life by giving people a set of values and community. Consumerism promises to deliver these same benefits, but, because it depends upon frequent changes and abrupt reversals of preferences, what it actually creates is a deep sense of insecurity – the exact opposite of culture. Fashion is to culture as junk food is to nourishment.
  • Sloppy thinking is everywhere. One of the most common fallacies is an appeal to authority, although where once we used to consult religion to settle arguments, we now use biology (never mind if we misrepresent or misunderstand the biology, or over-apply it). In North America, the either/or fallacy – the insistence that everything is one thing or another, and never anything in between – is almost as common, leading to over-simplification and distortion of just about every public issue you can name. Often, either/or thinking reduces issues, not to questions of rights or wrong, but a choice of half-truths, neither of which is very satisfactory.
  • To get more of the truth, find the untold stories. Official explanations and histories – including the canons of art — always leave out some events and people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes in unconscious self-justification. What the official versions leave out is sometimes lost, but, despite Orwell’s fears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, some fragments of the unofficial versions survive. These remnants often explain the inexplicable in the official versions, or give new insights entirely. For example, aside from the social changes, one of the most valuable contributions of feminism’s second wave was the rediscovery of previously overlooked writers such as Aphra Behn.
  • As Utah Phillips said, a long memory is the most radical notion in history. Consumerism and the egos of those in power encourage a foreshortened version of the present, in which it is cut off from everything that has gone before. It is true that history never repeats itself, but, as a source of parallels, analogies, and causation, the past is still one of the best ways to understand the present.
  • Most of the time, the average person gets lost in everyday concerns and ignores the larger ones, including those that might give them more control of their lives. For instances, in our culture, it is generally true that you would get more people out to a rally to resist talk of closing the stores on Sunday than to get a large corporation to reduce its pollution. Although exceptions to this trend exist, they are brief and rare.
  • Holding these thoughts is necessary for thinking clearly about society, but can be unhealthy. You need to remember that people can oppose you and still be the kind you would like to meet socially, if you are honest. You also need to avoid excessive cynicism, or, even worse, a negative identity, in which you define yourself solely in terms of your opposition to certain issues and people. Don’t forget, too, that, despite all the difficulties described her, art and clear thinking still manage to emerge. For instance, although marked as just another consumer product, the popular music and the science fiction of the 1960s are still cultural high points. Similarly, the consumer-driven rise of the popular computer led to the existence of the free software community, in which people are trying to think clearly and gain control of their work and lives.

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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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