Archive for the ‘manufactured needs’ Category

To my distinct displeasure, I am now the owner of a credit card and a smart phone.

To anybody else, these possessions may seem trivial, such a regular part of daily life that they aren’t worth talking about. However, to me, they represent major compromises between how I would prefer to live and modern culture.

You see, all my adult life, I have been wary of manufactured needs. I never bothered with a mobile phone because I mostly work from home, where a landline is available. When I’m away from home, I’m on my own time, and didn’t want to be accessible to business colleagues. As for friends and family, they never had business so urgent that they couldn’t wait for a few hours to get in touch. By not carrying a phone, I removed unnecessary stress from my life.

Similarly, I didn’t carry a credit card because I worried about plunging into debt, and because I am scornful of demands for instant gratification. Instead, I used a debit card and PayPal, paying as I went and resting much easier as a result.

The trouble is, personal phones and credit cards are so convenient that modern life no longer leaves room for those like me who would prefer to be without them. Oh, I suppose I could live an Amish-like existence, but, for all my stubbornness, I’m not prepared to do that. In the last few years, the inconvenience of not using these artifacts of modern life have simply become too great.

I started carrying a phone because Trish’s illness meant that I needed to be accessible in case of an emergency. Ironically, I bought my first phone two weeks before her death, but I kept it because around the same time pay phones started to disappear. You can still find them at Skytrain stations, but elsewhere in greater Vancouver, they are almost extinct. When you do find them, they are in dark corners where nobody sensible ventures, and using them means standing knee-high in garbage and trying not to gag on the smell of urine that’s all around.

Also, many bus stops no longer post schedules. Schedules are usually a case of wishful thinking at the best of times, but if I want any indication of when the next bus might come, my only alternative is to use the phone.

In the same way, credit cards have become equally unavoidable. I can do without them from day to day, but the book and music stores that I used to frequent have slowly disappeared. For that matter, so has the large Virgin and later HMV store downtown. I can order in one or two stores, but have to wait three to six weeks for delivery, and then only if I don’t want an e-book. By contrast, an online order saves me money, and, in the case of music and ebooks, is often immediately downloadable. Usually, the sites I order from won’t take PayPal, or online debit from my credit union. Under the circumstances, I can be perversely stubborn and penalize myself or else get a credit card. I chose not to penalize myself.

I have to admit, the credit card is convenient and the smart phone I bought yesterday is a marvelous piece of technology (there was a sale on; otherwise, I’d have stuck with a basic phone). And I do keep within reason. The credit card has a low limit that’s paid off monthly, and I’m not going to be doing much searching of the web on the new phone.

But I still feel like I’ve lost my integrity. More importantly, I feel angry that I can’t live the way I prefer unless I do without and suffer inconvenience.

I didn’t ask much – just to pay as I go, and not be tied to a piece of technology that keeps me always accessible. To me, these seem both modest and sane goals, and I suppose that I could have denied myself a few things to have the satisfaction of standing on principle.

Yet after a while, such rearguard actions become futile. Peevishly, and with a good bit of grumbling, I’ve been dragged along with everybody else — and feel lesser because I’ve given in.

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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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