Before I start I want to make it clear that I am not a hippy or socialist or likely have any redeeming humanitarian qualities about me whatsoever and so I have added a footnote of honesty at the bottom to alleviate any such misinterpretations that may arise while reading the main text. With that here we go with what is simply a thought experiment…..
I was recently told that by the time people in the US turn 60 years old they have watched 15 years of television. One quarter of our lives and almost 40% of our waking hours. I found that startling. I decided to look into the matter and found that most studies do, in fact, suggest we spend between 9 and 15 years watching television in our lives. So on average between the ages of two and seventy years old we watch 6 hours a day of television. Given (and I pull this simply from experience) commercials take up about half of television programming, we are watching around 3 hours of commercials per day from the age of two until we die.
The result is, as one expects, that Americans have become the leading global consumer since WWII (since televisions have been common in the family home). I won’t get into all the stats and figures as I think it is well known and accepted that Americans are the largest consumers in the world. What I want to explore is the concept that flooding Americans with an unrelenting message of commercialism has successfully led us to be the world’s ultimate consumer. The need to purchase more and better products and services is simply ingrained in our value structure. To be successful in America is to have the means to purchase more and higher priced products and services. Our success, prima facie, is judged by the size of our homes, the price of our cars and our clothes and the amount of extras we have in our lives. We can debate this but if we are honest with ourselves we realize that if we see two men driving, one in a BMW while the other is in a Kia we label the driver of the BMW as more successful (which we allocate a positive trait to) in our immediate involuntary judgment. The reason is that the interpretation of success is so ingrained in our subconscious to be based on material aspects that we do it without really thinking about it. And again I don’t want to make a judgment about our judgments but I would like to explore a what if.
Imagine a world that replaced the 3 hours of commercials a day with 3 hours of messages to improve our character as persons (gaining knowledge, experience, kindness, etc). What if a guy’s BMW was entirely irrelevant to our involuntary judgment about that person? In the same way we tend to ignore whether a person chooses pasta or a steak at a restaurant. We see that as simply a matter of taste not success. The impact on society would be almost too great for us to imagine. It’s like trying to imagine a fourth dimension and what that would appear like in practice. Very difficult to conceive. But let’s walk through the mental exercise. Gross consumption is not an innate trait and so it must be learned. Imagine if consumptionism was never learned so that we attached no positive judgment to any material items other than as a simple matter of taste not success. Further let’s imagine that consumptionism was replaced with attaining knowledge so that people strived feverishly to attain more knowledge (and placed no value beyond functional on iphones and nicer cars). How much better off would the world be? How much more knowledge would the world have and what would be the resulting benefits to our lives? Or replace attaining knowledge with compassion and kindness so that our perceived success is judged by how much we give back to our community or even to our own family in terms of time spent and support and development provided so that each subsequent generation would give more or know more than the previous. We often hear discussion about how each generation is supposed to be better off than previous generation and we all immediately understand we are talking about financially better off as though better off can only be represented by money. What if that discussion was about each subsequent generation being happier or wiser than the previous generation? Isn’t it odd that we compare ourselves to our forefathers based on wealth not happiness or health? So I ask, imagine a world that drills home a message of character improvement rather than commercialism for 3 hours day to our children as their value systems develop. What would that world be like?
Footnote: I would like to say I don’t want to preach or pretend to know the answer to the what if above. I actually find myself with an enormous amount of material shit in my life at this point and started thinking about why. Most of the shit I never use I just have it. I like talking about it and looking at it and find that I like people to know I have all the shit I have but I rarely actually use any of the shit I have. It got me thinking about why I bought all that shit. And well I guess it came naturally as my financial means improved I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I let myself and others know I could buy all that great shit. I mean what does it mean to have money if you don’t buy shit? Can’t take it with you right? But I think I also purchased all that shit because I thought it would make me that much happier. How could it not? I mean look at all that cool shit. It really is an impressive display of shit. And yet the reality of it all is that when I look back at my happiest times I actually had very little shit. Almost no shit in fact. And yet somehow I managed to be having a great time with friends and family and hell even at work most of the time. I can’t say that now. And maybe there are other factors like getting old is shit. But somewhere in me I believe that as we start relying on shit to make us happy we lose the ability or at the least proficiency to be happy. Happiness is a state of mind from which we go about our days. Maybe when we look to capture happiness from outside ourselves we lose it altogether and life then becomes just a big pile of shit.