Consumerism

November 15th, 2012


A few months ago, we decided that maybe we should start thinking about replacing our 25-year old Sony 28th cathode ray tube television with a flat panel. We took our time, thinking over what we might want, how we would re-arranged the furniture, and researching. We talked to friends, getting their opinions. We looked at products in stores. We noted prices.

But still we hesitated. The problem was that our old TV still worked just fine. Yes, the picture stank, compared to modern machines, but it just seemed wrong to throw away a perfectly good device. We hummed and hawed.

Finally we decided that we were definitely going to make the change. We researched the latest prices, figuring we’d wait until Black Friday or perhaps just after Christmas. But then our local Costco had a deeply discounted Samsung 55” TV, whose price was better than anything we had seen anywhere. It was time to put up or shut up.

So Thursday morning we set to work rearranging everything. Huge amounts of junk had to be cleared out (the upcoming garage sale of a close friend was another impetus to make the leap; it would provide a perfect way to get rid of the junk that emerged from all the furniture moving.) We had to move two big cabinet-things, pull the old TV out of one (the damn thing must weight 100 pounds), drag it away… I worked all day long just with the re-arrangements. There was a lot of cleaning, too – this area had not been cleaned in 15 years. The amount of dust that had piled up on the tops of the cabinets was impressive.

Kathy got home around 5:40 PM with the new television; it took about an hour to get it set up. Oddly, it did not include any HDMI cables, which are pretty much essential. We tried out the TV with the RF cable connection; it looked better than the old TV but it still looked lousy. The next morning we continued the work of cleaning, re-arranging, drilling holes for new shelves, cleaning glass, sorting… Throughout most of our lives, we moved every few years, and this is easily the longest we’ve ever stayed in one house, so we weren’t prepared for the amount of work involved.

Have you ever noticed that old people never change their houses? Decades go by with exactly the same pictures on the wall, the same chairs in the same places, everything frozen in time. I now have a better understanding of why that happens. First, when you get all the stuff you want, there’s simply no reason to replace it. In fact, I don’t like to throw away stuff until it is truly broken or quite worn out. Nowadays, most stuff lasts forever. Yes, the fabric on our couches is faded and frayed at the corners, but they’re still comfortable and we really don’t give a damn what other people think about them.

But something fundamental has changed in our relationship with our possessions. Until quite recently, you kept something until it broke or wore out. That changed with computers; starting with my Commodore PET in 1978, I have steadily replaced old computers with newer, more powerful ones on a regular basis, even though the old computer was always working just fine when I replaced it. I have noticed a learning curve; in the early 1980s, I replaced my computer every two or three years; by the early 90s, that had stretched out to four or five years. I’ve had my current computer for four years and I see no need to replace it anytime soon.

Something similar happened with mobile phones, although because we don’t get cell service in our valley, we didn’t participate much in that wave. But our friends were buying new and better cellphones every few years. We joined the modern era with the iPhone 3, and now I have an iPhone 4, which I’m satisfied with. It’s damn slow, so I’ll replace it with another iPhone in a few years – but only if it performs all the basic functions like calendar and note-taking faster than my current one.

This process will continue. Electronics is insinuating itself into almost everything, and as it does, it ages faster. We have a van my parents handed down to us, and it was state of the art in 2005 when they bought it: it had a built-in DVD navigation system that relied on voice output for directions. Nowadays, it’s nowhere near as good as the LCD display maps. But we’re not going to be buying a new car anytime soon; this one has about 50K miles on it and I put only 2,000 miles on it per year.

I’m uncomfortable with this. A few months ago I wrote a short essay about my reluctance to throw things away (Waste Not, Trash Not). Buying stuff all the time is a treadmill I don’t want to ride. While we were going through all the stuff buried in the drawers and shelves of those cabinets, we found stuff that we didn’t even remember we had. We’ve established a simple rule: if we haven’t done anything with in the last ten years, we don’t need it, and out it goes.

The new TV is really great; I’m glad we spent the money on it. When they haul my desiccated body out of this house a few decades from now, they’ll look at that ancient TV and shake their heads, thinking “Gee, that old coot was still watching one of those old things?”