Random finds (2017, week 44) — On curing affluenza, our sickly-sweet obsession with comfort, and the science of the wandering mind
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
If people continue to embrace the benefits of ‘convenience’, the impact on the natural environment will be devastating, says Richard Denniss, the author of Curing Affluenza: How to buy less stuff and save the world.
“Affluenza has not just changed the world, it has also changed the way we see the world. Short of money? Borrow some. Caught in the rain? Buy an umbrella. Thirsty? Buy a bottle of water and throw the bottle away. Our embrace of ‘convenience’ and our acceptance of our inability to plan ahead is an entirely new way of thinking, and over the past seventy years we have built a new and different economic system to accommodate it.
There is nothing inevitable about this current way of thinking, consuming and producing. On the contrary, the vast majority of humans who have ever lived (and the majority of humans alive today) would find the idea of using our scarce resources to produce things that are designed to be thrown away absolutely mad. But the fact that our consumer culture is a recent innovation does not mean it will be easy to change. Indeed, the last few decades have shown how contagious affluenza can be. But we have not always lived this way, which proves that we don’t have to persist with it. We can change — if we want to.”
Denniss defines ‘consumerism’ as the love of buying things. Its benefits are inevitably short-lived as they are linked to the process of the purchase, not the use of the product itself. Consumerism will therefore only provide a transient sense of satisfaction.
“Salespeople and psychologists are well aware of this phenomenon. The term buyer’s remorse refers to the come-down that follows the thrill of buying something new. For many, the cold hard light of day takes the gloss off their new gadget, their new shoes or their new car. For some, this can be so overwhelming that they return the item. For a minority, the thrill of buying new things is so great, and the disappointment of owning new things so strong, that they make a habit of buying things they know they will return,” Denniss writes in To cure affluenza, we have to be satisfied with the stuff we already own.
“Even with the phrase user-centered design, we’re oriented around the consumer. It’s very disheartening to think that the product at the end of the day is just about the moment in which it’s sold to a consumer rather than the life of that thing beyond.” — Daniela K. Rosner, an assistant professor of design and engineering at the University of Washington
According to Denniss, it is crucial to make a clear distinction between the love of buying things (consumerism) and the love of owning things (materialism), especially if we want to understand the impact of consumption on the natural environment.
“While consumerism and materialism are often used interchangeably, taken literally they are polar opposites. If you really loved your car, the thought of replacing it with a new one would be painful. Similarly, if you really loved your kitchen, your shoes, your belt or your couch, then your materialism would prevent you rushing out and buying a new one.
But we have been trained to love the thrill of buying new stuff. We love things not for their material function, but for the symbolic act of acquiring and possessing them — the thrill of anticipating a new thing, of being handed it by a smiling shop assistant, of pulling up at the golf club in an expensive new car. For many, if not most, consumers, it is the symbolism of a new handbag or new car, its expensive logo proudly displayed, that delivers happiness, rather than twenty years of using a material object.”
But the choice of such symbols comes at a price. “Put simply,” Denniss writes, ‘if we want to reduce the impact on the natural environment of all of the stuff we buy, then we have to hang on to our stuff for a lot longer. We have to maintain it, repair it when it breaks, and find a new home for it when we don’t need it any longer. If we want to cure affluenza, we have to get more satisfaction from the things we already own, more satisfaction from services, more satisfaction from leisure time, and less satisfaction from the process of buying new things.
[…] But if people continue to embrace the benefits of ‘convenience’ and pursue the symbolic appeal of novelty then, as billions more people emulate the consumption patterns of today’s middle-class culture, the impact on the natural environment will be devastating.
It is physically impossible for the production of stuff to grow exponentially for another thousand years. It’s probably impossible for it to grow exponentially for another hundred. And if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change, the trajectory of human consumption will need to change radically in the coming decade. It’s not complicated. Everyone knows that we need to change direction; the debate is about the timing.”
Take bottled water. Consumption has been growing steadily for the past decade and the bottled water industry is preparing for continued growth. According to the international bottled water association, “Bottled water’s versatility makes it suitable for consumption at any time of day and in just about any setting or situation.” It also states, “Consumers’ interest in beverages that deliver benefit above and beyond simple refreshment also contributes to the quintessential hydrating beverage’s ascension in the beverage rankings.”
But “[w]hether consumers […] choose to double their spending on bottled water in the coming decade or decide to carry their own water will not be determined by the relative cost of bottled water and the cost of a thermos,” Denniss continues. “It will be determined by culture.” Just as culture determines whether people see brown spots on a banana as a signal to eat it straightaway or a signal to throw it away, or whether buying goods that need to be disposed of each year is seen as a source of status or a source of shame.
“The best cure for environmental problems is to prevent them being caused in the first place. And the best way to prevent human consumption patterns from doing enormous environmental harm is to cure our culture of the disease of affluenza.”
Designers can play an important role, when it comes to curing affluenza. Unfortunately, most products aren’t designed to be fixed, Katharine Schwab writes in Designers Are Forgetting One Major Element Of The Design Process.
But according to her, a new movement is under way, pushing back against this culture of disposability. “Whether their focus is on repair as a mechanism for sustainable living, as a power struggle with corporate interests, or just as the best way to deal with a broken object, these groups have a clear message for designers: Don’t just design with the end user in mind, but with the end of the product’s life in mind, too.”
“We always say that design is to solve problems, but we often ignore the fact that it also creates problems. So I think designers should be responsible for things they design.” — Kasey Hou, a product designer who built a repairable, flat-pack toaster for her thesis project at the University of Edinburgh
“Repair has indisputably been declining as an industry and as a practice, and that’s frequently due to the way that products are designed. So it stands to consider why building repairability into a product matters in the first place,” Schwab argues. “As landfills fill up, conversations in the design world have turned to how to sustainably design products. But that often focuses on using biodegradable materials. While that conversation is important, repair as a part of the design process is another way to significantly mitigate the waste that designers’ work ultimately ends up producing. If you fix something, that means you save that object from the landfill, but it also means you don’t need a new one.”
Our sickly-sweet obsession with comfort
“It’s not just the cruise ships and popcorn. Comfort is the organising principle of modern life. So great is our need for comfort — to be comfortable — that the most popular products are based around things fulfilling this need and have internalised within their very engineering the fulfilment of our need for comfort,” writes Brigid Delaney in Our sickly-sweet obsession with comfort will end up killing us.
“What is Netflix and on-demand TV, chocolate-covered popcorn, business class and premium economy, cruise ships, athleisure wear, our social media echo chambers, our online shopping and UberEats — other than things that sate our desire to be comfortable?”
“The New York Times columnist David Brooks has written about the millennial generation weaned on praise and constant booster shots of self esteem — every participant gets a prize! But our desire for comfort to be physically and psychically comfortable — to live within an inarticulatable but deeply felt and precise bandwidth of ease that includes everything from how a food feels in your mouth, to how socks rub on your feet, to how a phone sits in your hand, to how a drink or a movie or a computer game calms you — can be traced back to baby boomers. The children of those who lived without comfort through rationing, wars and depression came of age in a time of unprecedented prosperity. Their birthright was the quarter-acre block, mass production of household appliances and time-saving devices, television, fast food, breakfast cereals and affordable airline travel.
We are taught as consumers that if we are not comfortable, if the temperature is too hot or cold, or if the music is too loud or if the meal is not right, we can complain and things will be adjusted for us.
One complaint from a woman who used her air conditioner was typical and went along the lines of: ‘I’m not switching my air conditioner off on a hot day, I don’t want to be uncomfortable.’ Of course you don’t.
But increasingly we are living in uncomfortable times. The sugary comfort food is killing us. The comfortable temperatures are killing the planet. Tehching Hsieh — an outsider, a sailor who jumped ship, with little English — sought discomfort and turned it into art. This discomfort now seems prescient. A warning of a time to come, where discomfort is no longer about choice, but about survival.”
The science of the wandering mind
“At first glance, boredom and brilliance are completely at odds with each other. Boredom, if defined just as the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest, overwhelmingly has negative connotations and should be avoided at all costs, whereas brilliance is something we aspire to — a quality of striking success and unusual mental ability. Genius, intellect, talent, air versus languidness, dullness, doldrums. It’s not immediately apparent, but these two opposing states are in fact intimately connected,” writes Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of Note to Self, in What Boredom Does to You.
According to Sandi Mann, a psychology lecturer and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, emotions have an evolutionary benefit. Through a number of experiments, she was able to prove that people who are bored think more creatively than those who aren’t. “When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,” Mann explained. “So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
“Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming. Researchers have only recently begun to understand the phenomenon of mind-wandering, the activity our brains engage in when we’re doing something boring, or doing nothing at all,” Zomorodi writes.
“When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down. We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are. It feels like we are wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective.
This gets to the heart of why mind-wandering or daydreaming is different from other forms of cognition. Rather than experiencing, organizing, and understanding things based on how they come to us from the outside world, we do it from within our own cognitive system. That allows for reflection and the ability for greater understanding after the heat of the moment.”
According to Jonathan Smallwood, who has studied mind-wandering since the beginning of his career in neuroscience, 20 years ago, daydreaming has aspects that will allow us to think originally about our lives. “But in certain circumstances, continuing to think about something might not be the right thing to do. Many states of chronic unhappiness are probably linked to daydreaming simply because there are unsolvable problems,” he expalined to Zomorodi.
“The flip side of dysphoric daydreaming, the positive-constructive kind, is when our thoughts veer toward the imaginative. We get excited about the possibilities that our brain can conjure up seemingly out of nowhere, like magic. This mode of mind-wandering reflects our internal drive to explore ideas and feelings, make plans, and problem-solve.
Steve Jobs, who changed the world with his popular vision of technology, famously said, ‘I’m a big believer in boredom. … All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.’ In a Wired piece by Steven Levy, the cofounder of Apple — nostalgic for the long, boring summers of his youth that stoked his curiosity because ‘out of curiosity comes everything’ — expressed concern about the erosion of boredom from the kind of devices he helped create.
When it came to brilliance, Steve Jobs was the master. So let’s take him up on his advice to embrace boredom. Let your knowledge of the science and history behind boredom inspire you to bring it back into your life. You might feel uncomfortable, annoyed, or even angry at first, but who knows what you can accomplish once you get through the first phases of boredom and start triggering some of its amazing side effects?”
And also this …
“The Mental Work factory is a participatory art installation by the provocateur and ‘experimental philosopher’ Jonathon Keats, made in collaboration with neuroscientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland,” writes Eliza Strickland in Artist Creates a ‘Factory of the Future’ With Machines Controlled by Brain Waves.
As an experimental philosopher, Keats takes the questions he’s wrestling with and plunks them down in the real world. His “inspiration for the Mental Work project is rooted in the Industrial Revolution, when machines of iron and steel replaced human sweat and sinews. Now, Keats argues, we’re in the middle of a Cognitive Revolution, and artificial intelligence may replace our human brainpower.
The upheaval caused by the Industrial Revolution showed that ‘a lot of people can get hurt and be displaced even as society is being improved by a new technology,’ Keats says. ‘We need to have foresight: We need to think about what relationship we want to have with these new technologies before they have the power to determine what our society becomes.’ Keats hopes the people who labor in the Mental Work factory will come out with ideas about what kind of technological future they want, and will work to bring it about.”
“The London studio — led by architects Alex de Rijke, Philip Marsh and Sadie Morgan — wins the biggest prize in UK architecture for transforming a century-old, ruined pier into a new attraction for the seaside town.”
According to RIBA president and jury chair Ben Derbyshire, the project is a “masterpiece of regeneration and inspiration”. “Hastings Pier showcases the remarkable skills, tenacity and problem-solving flair of its talented architects, dRMM,” he said. “The architects and local community have transformed a neglected wreck into a stunning, flexible new pier to delight and inspire visitors and local people.”
“To say that Tom Westerich makes pens somehow doesn’t seem quite adequate. Rather, his creations are made strictly according to the vintage methods of pen making and using only historic materials like celluloid and hard rubber instead of acrylic and other forms of injection-molded plastics. ‘This of course requires a constant research for old techniques as well as experimentation by trial and error as so many essential pen-making skills have been mislaid with the rise of the ballpoint in the 1950s,’ he adds,” Hole & Corner writes.
“Understanding what it means to be a craftsman is one thing; the crucial next step in a young makers’ education is to make them mindful that their craft is also business. Polly Macpherson is associate professor (senior lecturer) in 3D Design at Plymouth University’s School of Architecture, Design and Environment — one of the prime educational facilities in the country seeking to bridge the divide between craft and technology. Her emphasis is on ‘how things are made, how things can be made better … and how this can be taught.’ Key to this is a reconnection with what it means to be a designer-maker.
‘From day one, our course introduces making skills,’ says Macpherson. ‘It’s easier to do the head stuff — students are used to that nowadays. So they need to unlearn certain things. Learning by doing is key to the maker movement, so in the first four weeks, they have inductions into the workshop, which goes straight into making and tooling, to show them its relevance,’” Mark Hooper writes in The New Craft Makers’ Manifesto.
“And so mindfulness, for me, is the very simple process of actively noticing new things. When you actively notice new things, that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging, and it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.” — Ellen Langer, a social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the psychology department at Harvard University, in Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness, a conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett