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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 38, September 5, 2009

Commodities, Comforts and Chaos

Wednesday 9 September 2009, by Arup Maharatna

Despite a high risk of being ridiculed or even frowned upon by others, I just cannot help putting across a distinct scepticism against the incessant flow of technical innovations for newer and newer consumer goods and gadgets in our contemporary times. While saying this, I do not, of course, refer to the pure, fundamental, and sometimes even epoch-making scientific inventions and technological progress. In fact, I am perfectly alert and appreciative of the profound benefits to modern civilisation of the major scientific inventions and technical innovations that have been, and can still be, made in such important domains as industry, medicine, health, energy, agronomy. What, however, I cannot help worrying about of late is the market-driven indiscriminate innovations—electrical, electronic, digital, and so on—which are mostly geared to, and sometimes propelled by, an urge for ruthless consumerism and mindless comforts. I am aware that I am not the first, nor the lone, to put forth such a perturbed outlook about the so-called hi-tech civilisation of our times. Still, people of such a view, at least apparently, are relatively few, and there is clearly much scope and need for delving deep and wide into these issues of contemporary concerns and predicaments.

One key element of the above process relates to the people’s unquestioning acceptance and allurement towards newer and newer commodities visibly capable of augmenting comforts, efficiency or satisfaction in one way or the other. The new consumer durables, commodities or services, once innovated by entrepreneurs, are publicised through smart advertisements in various media and standard marketing networks. The mushrooming of private television channels as well as daily newspapers getting increasingly fattened by marketing advertisements is fairly eloquent of the rapidity with which new consumer goods and services are being innovated. A majority of people, ever soaked with the information on these newer consumer durables/services via advertisements, rush—somewhat mechanically and hence thoughtlessly —to buy them, once they happen to acquire some extra means and/or surplus income. This reflexive behaviour, of course, stems from the people’s unsuspecting mindset and blind confidence about the prudence, utility, and usefulness of these commodities in life. But the dynamics of this pervading conviction about the defining import of newer and newer consumer goods and services is something which deserves serious introspection.

Many consumer durables can be, or often indeed are, put into productive use as inputs or instruments in various production processes and enterprises, but our present concern is with their use only for pure consumption, or satisfaction, or comforts of individuals. For instance, a mobile phone could be useful as a capital or productive good in a commercial enterprise, but we restrict our attention to the possible ramifications of its use as a consumption good only in the day-to-day life of the general public.

One major source of complexities of the basic issue is the fact that a new consumer durable good, innovated and designed to augment comfort, satisfaction, or even efficiency in some specific domains, can turn to be in conflict—often covertly —with other and often broader priorities and values of life. For example, by enabling us to keep in touch every moment with our friends and families, a tiny pocket size cell-phone certainly promises us with many advantages and liberty in various circumstances. But its ingrained potential for offering what one could call ‘over-freedom’ of having telephonic conversations with someone even outside the country while driving a vehicle, exposes us to an added risk of road traffic accident and injury. One could argue that such conscious risky use of a consumer good by adult individuals cannot justify its repeal from the market, just as the consumption of tobacco, though hazardous to human health, is not disallowed allegedly in reverence for twisting the notion of human freedom. Rather, the market is welcome to make additional business out of such potential ill-effects of cell-phones by introducing an insurance policy against this specific risk and/or by improvising some features of the cars to accommodate this provision. Alas, such market-based innovations of the correctives against the risk and vulnerability can either be far too short of what we cherish (no amount of money can be substitute for life) or give rise to further rounds of conflicts with some other basic values of life, and so on. While buying a newly launched gadget or consumer durable, people are generally not thoughtful or careful enough about its deeper ramifications for the quality of life from the standpoint of its possible/potential clash with its other or even more valuable imperatives and components of human life.

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Think, for instance, of a typical secondary school or college student of our present times. She normally carries a mobile-phone on hand with two headphones tucked in her ears, listening either to some rocking music or to some friend’s trivialities while going to the respective places of learning. This inevitably keeps students distracted from the right frame of mind and mood required of the process and environment of studies and learning. Indeed, this new (or post-modern?) behaviour of the student folk conditions their minds not only towards becoming insensitive to the immediate surroundings and people, but it also prejudices them towards behaving so mechanically as to switch attention almost instan-taneously to studies or music or games, just like the way television channels crop up on the screen immediately with the clicks of a remote. Indeed, many television serials meant for teenagers are often consciously produced to portray the students’ animated behavioural patterns and gestures impelled by the newly launched gadgets. The students, who regularly watch television, would rather unknowingly imbibe behavioural norms, styles, and values portrayed vividly in these serials on contemporary school-goers stuffed by dazzling, glittering, and efficiency-enhancing commodities or gadgets. It is highly presumable that persistent exposure (or addiction?) to these tasty television serials help—directly, indirectly, or rather subtly—to inject an unquestionable legitimacy and acceptability of such consumerist orientations in behaviour, attitude, and outlook. Can there be a doubt that such mechanical conditioning of the young minds under the overriding influences of newer and newer comfort-enhancing consumer goods would often be derogatory to the universally avowed purpose of the classroom education, namely, cultivation of students’ imaginativeness, sensitiveness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness?

All these considerations tragically remain buried by a highly contiguous perception of human progress as monotonically increasing human dependence on more and more manufactured commodities. Just because of being stuffed with a big shoulder bag, digital wrist watch, cell-phone with camera, and i-pod among others, a student today is often being judged unquestioningly and, of course mistakenly, better or more advanced in qualitative terms than her counterpart in an earlier age when these commo-dities could not even be dreamt of. In the same vein, of late there has been rapid replacement of blackboard-based lectures by power-point presentations in the hardcore places of learning; but the moot question remains as to whether this change has been an outcome more of marketing and salesmanship (of IT industries) than real net societal benefit or anything else. How many educationists or teachers cared (dared?) to ponder whether using the power-point, which is best suited for a salesperson’s presentation before the potential clients about a newly launched product, could be intrinsically odd in the academic/classroom lectures held in the places of learning? How can the notion of efficiency in industrial or material world be equally applicable in the domains of learning and teaching? A paradigm shift in the emphasis from the content and essence of education to its efficiency and productivity measured in terms of some crude measures is its inevitable corollary.

It is somewhat amazing that the academic community at large appears always readily convinced about the alleged or publicised usefulness—chiefly from the standpoint of efficiency or productivity—of many newly innovated commodities as an aid to teaching and learning activities. Nobody can deny that a calculator or computer, for example, can reduce lengthy mathematical operations to a matter of few seconds and hence can be useful in many professions and productive activities, but this may not necessarily be so for a school student learning mathematics itself. It is dangerous to lose sight of the fact that painstaking training and exercises in mathematical operations prior to the age of calculator/computer was crucial for the innovation of calculator or computer itself in the first place. It is important to keep alive the basic point that gaining comfort or convenience through hi-tech consumer goods or gadgets cannot make redundant or waste all painstaking work and thought that went into their creation. Otherwise, innovations of mindless comforts—mostly under the zeal for market and profit—could end up trapping us in a large pit of bliss and gold, but without the option of exit from it or the capacity of reproducing it. Consequently, a silent transfer of the job of settling such deep issues as the philosophy, methods, and purposes of education from the hands of educationists/educators to those of corporate giants and their retinue of technocrats, bankers, and marketing management personnel could ultimately stifle the millennium-old mainspring of human progress and thus could turn out to be one of the greatest casualties of the ongoing process of market-led, but often mindless, innovations or multiplication of commodities which chiefly feed into a choking and chaotic consumerism.

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. He can be contacted by e-mail at arupmaha@yahoo.com

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