There’s a concept called the hierarchy of needs and it basically boils down to this: As soon as your most basic level of needs are met (i.e., you have air / water / food), you forget about them and progress to the next level of needs (i.e., shelter and clothing for protection from danger and harsh elements), and then to the next level (i.e., securing a stable source / supply of those needs), and so on and so on until you get to the need for status.
And today, despite people complaining about crushing debt and limited buying power and lack of affordable health care, we are by and large living fat ‘n’ sassy and can afford to worry about status.
Our economic system has spent literally centuries telling workers that they were useless unless they produced wealth for someone else.
Even so-called self-made gazillionaires were producing wealth for investors and stockholders, not exclusively for themselves.
Anybody who tries going off the grid is dismissed as an impractical eccentric at best and a kook at worse.
Culturally, it’s even more daunting. It doesn’t matter if you are a bona fide hermit or a California nature lover or a self-contained religious cult or an early Delta blues musician or a jazz player or a rock’n’roller or a Greenwich village bohemian or a Beat or a hippie: If you opt out of the rat race, if you set your own goals, if you establish your own standards then you are suspect at best, despised most likely, and actively persecuted with depressing frequency.
We are expected to participate in the grand scheme of things.
The model created at the beginning of the industrial revolution is no longer viable: Large numbers of human beings aren’t needed to grow food or make things; most of those jobs can be eliminated.
What do we replace them with if not a consumer society? How can you have consumers if they have no money with which to consume?
The average human being travels in a relatively small community.
I’m not referring to actual physical location, but to the people who make that community up.
Most people have about 250 people in their lives whom they interact with enough to be comfortable with.*
Facebook and other social media lets us have thousands of ”friends” but in truth once one starts growing their Facebook friend list beyond a hundred or so people, one discovers those people are really fans or followers, people who find something interesting in your posts and keep an eye on what you’re doing.
Which is fine.
Nothing wrong with that.
But there’s a core of around 250 people who matter to us, even if they’re just Facebook friends or pen pals.
We want them to look favorably on us.
Even among the world of celebrities and / or billionaires, there’s only 250 people they’re trying to impress.
They may want fame and fortune so that millions of schmoes will envy them, but having millions of schmoes envying them is how their 250 friends rank status.
We have an economy and attendant culture based on making / moving / marketing things.
We encourage people to consume things not for the obvious basic reasons of pure survival, but because by conspicuous consumption our status may be displayed to the rest of society.
shit stuff >means> "They make a lot of money" >means> "They must be important."
We literally live in a culture based on this deliberate and incessant perversion of the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt covet…
Our digital world is undercutting all this.
We no longer need to physically possess something in order to enjoy it.
We don’t need ownership for much of what we want, merely access.
So why do we need things to display status?
Consider a society / culture / world in which status was adjudged by doing something.
Hard to imagine?
That’s the world most people lived in the western world in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early part of the 20th century.
That’s the world of classical Greece, of pre-Columbian American, of the Polynesian peoples.
A world rich with amateur and semi-pro athletics, of literary and art guilds, of amateur musical groups ranging from choirs to brass bands to full symphonic orchestras, of amateur theatrical troupes, of home makers displaying their skills and competing in local / regional / national competitions, of animal shows, of gardening clubs, of a thousand and one special interest groups, all built around the concept of their members doing things.
Read any history of popular culture in those eras. People worked hard, but had no mass produced diversions; they had to entertain themselves.
What happened to that world?
Consumer economy, that’s what.
[to be continued]
* “Comfortable” here does not necessarily mean pleasant, merely that both sides know their respective roles in the relationship and can thus anticipate what the other will do in a given situation.