Products and Security
A good friend of mine is helping his parents declutter their home, a process which involves selling or otherwise getting rid of many items they purchased a decade or more ago. He confided that his parents expect to sell these items for only a small percentage less than what they paid for them, and he has had a very difficult time convincing them that their big screen television, no matter its pristine condition, will not fetch $600 when there are brand new HDTVs on the market for the same price.
In many ways, my friend’s parents represent the last generation that I spoke about in this post, who still regard products as investments. They expect the things they buy to keep their value, and didn’t realize that the world had already begun to move on from that model by the time they bought their big screen television. They believed that buying expensive things was a form of security.
If this was ever true at all, it certainly hasn’t been for the past several decades. We now live in a world where you can spend a thousand dollars on a device that will be obsolete within six months. Once your product is outdated, God help you if you try to resell it, because along with this revolution in product advancement, we also live in a world where people believe it is natural and acceptable to replace these items the instant something marginally better comes along.
I know what you’re thinking: Apple products. It’s the most blatant example of this kind of consumerism, and it makes charts like this one extra depressing. If I had been able to invest the amount of money I spent on my PowerBook G4 instead (which lasted all of nine months before it broke irreparably and I ended up selling it for parts for $300), the stock would now be worth $120,000. Look at your life, look at your choices.
So where does that leave us impressionable consumers, hungry for security? Well, security has had a revolution too. We no longer want things that will last us the rest of our lives and still be worth something when we’re done with them. We want the newest things, the coolest things, the flashiest toys, because image is security. It’s no longer about having everything we need, or a net worth we can liquidate if necessary. It’s about being able to stay on top of the latest styles, the hottest technology. If you didn’t replace your iPhone 3G with an iPhone 3GS (and then replace that with a 4), you’re a schmuck. If you don’t toss out all your old clothes (which aren’t worth anything now anyway) and replace your entire wardrobe each season, you’ll look like a tool.
Our security now comes through the eyes of others—or rather, through what we assume other people are thinking about us, because we have been indoctrinated to believe our every act is being analyzed by those around us and placed on a scale that will determine whether or not we are worth knowing. This is the kind of psychology that motivates children in grade school. Aren’t we supposed to grow out of it?
Even the top rung on the American dream, home ownership, has lost its sheen of ultimate security, and it’s partially because a lot of people decided they’d rather have brand new stuff all the time than things that last, or money in the bank.
Security is subjective… or at least, it should be. People have to decide for themselves what their form of security means. Is it a big house? A good education? A large savings account? These should be the kinds of questions every human being ponders as they transition to adulthood. But the mass-produced form of security has been sold so effectively to our children that no one even bothers to challenge it anymore, and so we are locked in this mindset for life.
Just so you know, I’m typing this post on a MacBook I bought four and a half years ago (which is obviously a lot more durable than that ill-fated PowerBook), and when my cell phone contract ends this summer, I’ll switch to a month-to-month plan and use my jailbroken iPhone 3G, which was given to me for free by my best friend when she upgraded. Right now I’m wearing a shirt I’ve had for years, and simple leather shoes I bought last year, which I intend to repair as needed and keep in good knick with the expectation that they will last me the rest of my life.
I’m not trying to be preachy when I use myself as an example; I’m just saying I know firsthand that it’s possible to live a different way. It requires thinking independently, doing extensive research, and being conscious of why you make your decisions, which is why most consumers don’t bother. But in the end it’s far more rewarding and less stressful. We may never be able to return to the idea of security embraced by previous generations, but we can address the question of what security means for us as individuals, and reject the harmful parody that is perpetuated by the industry.