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Posts Tagged ‘consumerism’

Several weeks ago, I bought myself the Christmas present of a Fiio X7 portable stereo. Since then, I have raved about the quality of the sound to the point that old friends are surely contemplating crouching behind hedges and trees when they see me coming.

My one complaint is how the screen gathers finger print smears. The X7 is packaged with a protective film, but I have yet to apply one of those films without air bubbles I cannot remove. I much prefer a glass screen protector, which are sold separately. I have one for the music player I carry on the bus and Skytrain, and it is far preferable than a protective film.

On Amazon.com, the American site, a glass protector for the X7 screen costs $11. Allowing for exchange on the Canadian dollar and extra postage, I would be willing to pay about $20 for it. However, on Amazon.ca, the Canadian site, the same glass protector sells for $69, plus $17 shipping – about four times a reasonable price. Apparently, the glass protector is being sold by a third party that is using its monopoly to set outrageous price.

After paying for the X7 and Bluetooth speakers, I suppose I shouldn’t complain about aother $87. But I dislike being taken advantage of, and I determined to see if I could do better.

My first thought was to buy from the American Amazon site. But the postage to Canada was unacceptably high. Somehow I balked at paying more for shipping than for the glass protector itself.

Feeling stubborn, I contacted DISAGU, the company that had made the glass protector for my about-town music player. It didn’t make one for the X7, but its representative said that, if I send the dimensions, they would start to. Moreover, they would send me a free one.

At the same time, I contacted Fiio, the manufacturer of the X7. I explained the price difference on the two Amazon sites, and asked if the Canadian price was a mistake. The Fiio representative replied that her company could do nothing, since the price was set by a reseller. However, she also gave me the address of Aliexpress, a Chinese site that sold the glass cover for $10US and shipped free world wide.

Suddenly, I had two solutions. Naturally, I was pleased to save money, but what pleased me more was that I had stood up to consumer exploitation. I’m going to remember this small incident and the lesson that I can never know what might happen if I stand up for myself, and complain to the right people.

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Our washing machine started leaking this week, like a puppy relieving itself in a corner, so we’ve been spending our spare time looking for a new washer/dryer combo. It’s a good thing that appliances last over a decade, because it will take at least that long to ease the horror from my mind. Part of the problem is that we have very precise space constraints, but most of the problem is the way that appliances are sold.

Most of the time when I’m looking for hardware, it’s a computer or a computer peripheral. Because the competition is so fierce for computer hardware, manufacturers and vendors document everything about what they’re selling on their websites. Speed, physical dimensions – you name the spec, and you can find it on every site. Consequently, you can spend a hour or two in front of your computer and arrive at the store armed with an exact idea of what you want, and get out fast.

By contrast, household appliances aren’t sold that way. For several local appliance vendors, having a web site is simply a means of announcing their existence. In one case, their site is a single page. In another, you can can learn what brands they carry, but not which models or what the prices might be, because most of their site is simply links to manufacturers. Another one doesn’t bother to give dimensions. None of them update their site with any regularity.

Consequently, if you are trying to be a conscientious consumer and shop around, you have to do a lot of old-fashioned legwork. I’m no stranger to exercise, so ordinarily I wouldn’t mind, except that the trudging around was in the service of a necessity that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. Frankly, reading washing machine stats and peering inside their drums is so mind-numbingly boring that a mentally sub-normal yak would be bored by it. Personally, boredom set in after the second or third examination – and we’ve looked at dozens in the last few days.

Then, just to make matters worse, the sellers of appliances seem strangely reluctant to take your money. Our first stop had only a couple of models on the floor. We could ask about other models, we were told, but how would we know about them if we didn’t see them? We would have to jot down the brands the store sold, then go home and do research.

Our next stop was the Sears store in Metrotown, a complex that has long had my vote for the most hideous shopping complex in the whole of Greater Vancouver. I can’t confirm that minotaurs roam its corridors freely, but if I hear any bull-like rumblings as I pass the service hallways, I’m not investigating.

But the Sears store has its own special horror, because its staff is apparently competing with each other for the fewest times they have to talk to a customer. You can see the staff scuttling low down the aisles a few over, but, by the time you learn how to get one’s attention, you would have the experience to track big game anywhere in the world. About the only thing you can say for this attitude is that it is marginally better than having the clerks dance attendance on you with unrequested information.

At Future Shop, the pricse were good, but each time we were ready to buy, we were told that the warehouse was currently out of stock and was likely to remain so for the next couple of weeks. I strongly suspect (although I cannot prove) that this was a variation on bait and switch. To be fair, we did receive a phone call saying that one of our choices was available, but, by then we had already bought.

The next stop was Home Depot. I realize that the company has built its business on do-it-yourselfers, but the staff didn’t seem to understand that plumbing is a bit beyond the average home owner. The company didn’t even a list of suggested contractors that customers might hire to get their new appliances connected. Nor did the staff see anything ridiculous in the attitude.

Finally, with madness nibbling at our brains like a glimpse of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods, we stumbled into Trail Appliances in Coquitlam. There, we were left to browse for a few minutes before an employee approached us. He was helpful, even giving us some advice we probably wouldn’t have thought of. And, wonder of wonders, the floor model that was our first choice was actually available. Within minutes, we were paying and arranging delivery.

What the other companies didn’t seem to understand was that washers and dryers are not the most glamorous of appliances. While some conscientious but anal souls might conscientiously remember to have them serviced every year, I suspect that many people are like us, and don’t think of them until they need servicing or replacement.

The result is that, when people go shopping for washers and dryers, they are usually in urgent need of a replacement. They can’t afford to spin out the process, because, if they do, they will have to find a laundromat or an obliging neighbor who will let them have the use of the machine.

What Trail Appliances offered was simply efficient service. The result? We’ve decided to replace our fridge at the same time, since it is running on borrowed time, and we’ll do so by returning to Trail again. Trail’s website is no better than any of the others – in fact it is one of the worst ones – but at least its staff understands how to treat customers. So, naturally enough, it gets our other business, too.

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“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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In my circles, at least, an increasing number of people seem determined to escape the consumerism associated with Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, they’re making donations in the name of people. One man goes even further, telling those around him that he doesn’t want gifts. Intellectually, I am all for these ideas, and feel that I should emulate them more than I do. However, on another level, I wonder whether, in struggling against the tawdriness of the season, they go too far in the opposite direction.

Your feelings on this subject, I suppose, will partly depend on the level of consumerism you associate with the season. If you’re accustomed to buying one large gift and going deeply into debt, then cleansing yourself of these expectations will likely be a relief. Too many people see gift-giving as a kind of competitive potlatching, in which their extravagance assert their own status or worthiness.

If, however, you’re like me, and prefer to give small, carefully chosen gifts that don’t exceed your budget, then a completely anti-consumer Christmas risks being joyless.

From the point of view of giving, finding a gift for someone is an act of empathy and imagination. Except, perhaps, in the earliest stages of a relationship, industrial culture doesn’t have many customs that encourage these things, so we shouldn’t eliminate the few that do. For me, selecting a gift for someone I care about is a pleasure, and I consider a day well-spent as I try to imagine this person reading that book, or how that set of earrings might match that person’s skin or hair. And despite the chances of making a wrong choice, I admit, too, to a little pool of gratification inside when I see that my choice pleases the recipient – or, at least, that they’re pleased that I made an effort.

From the point of view of receiving – well, the inner child (as we’re calling Freud’s Id these days) always enjoys being pampered. For myself, I have to admit that an unread book can reduce me to a state of intellectual gluttony. Give me a stack of unread books, and I am in the same state of happy frustration as a parrot trying to choose between a playtoy and a millet stock. No matter how much I try to be an adult and socially concerned, I have to be honest and say that a card that says a donation has been made in my name just doesn’t compare.

Besides, a donation card seems reminiscent of of a gift card, that most impersonal of presents. Unless very carefully chosen, it can seem the gift of someone who doesn’t know you very well, or, perhaps, of someone who doesn’t want to know you. Either way, it seems contrary to the whole point of gift-giving, which is to claim or reaffirm a relationship. Gifts between strangers are sometimes useful or necessary, but, even then, they are more successful when they are chosen to given pleasure to the recipient.

And if that sounds childish, I agree. But we place such a premium on responsibility and maturity these days that maybe letting the inner child out for a brief romp isn’t so bad an idea. At least that’s better than repressing it until it escapes in the form of an entrepreneur’s greed for money or power.

I do make donations at this time of year, if only for the selfish reason that it’s the last chance to reduce the years’ taxes. At times, too, my gifts do include donations. But I much prefer to keep my charities separate from the art of gift-selecting. Insisting that everyone must constantly be an adult and act out of enlightened motives is simply too high an expectation to place on anyone.

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