Consumer society really does make us treat ourselves terribly. Creating goods is easier than providing a service, and so we are trained from a young age to always want and “need” more and more goods. What happens when instead of purchasing a good from someone, you require their service? Things go poorly. When you buy into the consumer economy, by purchasing one additional good, it is always something that you may already have enough of. Take books for instance, people collect books in order to get knowledge out of them, but in doing so they are impeding their ability to create, and they are blinding themselves to the contents of the books that they already have. Companies want people to buy their products so that they can make a profit, but what many people do not realize is that oftentimes they already have some almost identical version of the good that they intend to buy. In economics we are taught of the ideas of complementary and substitute goods, however, we are never taught of identical goods. This is the psychology that makes the capitalist consumer economy run.
When I decide not to purchase a good that I otherwise may have bought, this places a burden on other members of a society who necessarily must take up the economic cost of my missed purchase. They do this by buying something themselves. This creates strain on the underlying networks and relationships which I am embedded. Because of the friction between my forgiven purchase, and their forced entry into the market, there emerges a rift between me and my interlocutor. The material identity of the object or good which I am purchasing, giving up, and that they are now purchasing, is irrelevant, as is its objective value as an object. The value of the transaction and the value to the economy of the exchange comes from the transferral of ownership of the good from its creator or distributor to me and my affiliate who takes on the burden of the economic cost of the production of the good.
In this way the value of the object is virtually nothing except that of a store of value, akin to currency. The higher valued the object, the higher the store value, and time value of the money associated with it. Say for instance you purchase a piece of candy from a store and it costs $1. You eat the candy and perhaps this takes you 2 minutes. The store value of the piece of candy lasted for two minutes since you purchased it, assuming you ate it right after you purchased it. Now let us take a different example. A work of art costs $6 million dollars. A museum holds the art works for 300 years, being transferred from museum to museum, but at each transferral, the artwork is degraded bit by bit, so that eventually it is unusable and must be destroyed. This artwork has a store value of initially $6 million, and it lasted for 300 years. In the end both the candy and the artwork were destroyed, and became waste. So too will this happen with all goods that exist on this planet today.
So what is the objective, discounted value of any material good, if in the end everything that we create becomes waste? I argue that there is no value to most, if not all of the goods that we create. In order to enliven our lives with joy, happiness, and goodness, we must renounce the material world. Aside from the necessary provisions that sustain us throughout our journeys on this planet, we need little extra. But now I would like to go back to the parallel that I drew between the objective value of material goods, and the objective value of currency. What place does currency have in a world where material objects can be used in place of this fiat, liquid, material store of value. Well they are essentially the same, except for the well known fact that objects cannot be transferred with quite as much ease as currency can. However due to the ubiquity of the internet, distributed ledger systems, online platforms dedicated to the transference of goods, and warehoused centers of acceptance, processing and distribution, this is changing.
How will material goods, which are losing their embodied store of value, compete with digital, virtual infrastructure which encapsulates and overrides the pull of material pleasures. Furthermore, how will the rift that material objects bring about in our societies, whether through economic unsustainability through the production of these goods, or their obsolescence as we move into virtually networked cloud communication, and online gatherings, be resolved? How should society distribute its goods when the experiences we share are becoming more and more prescient, yet we are constantly drawn, pushed, and obligated to create for the betterment of society? Why should I be obligated to create anything any all when there is a robot, or an AI presence which can create the same thing that I can but with a much higher level of skill or precision?
These are all questions that need answering. Whether humans will lose touch of embodied reality and merge fully into the digital world remains to be seen. I will add one further note, before concluding, on the nature of place. Places on the earth are becoming more and more transversal in their span of different strata of digital and physical reality. This deepening of their geographic and relative location is troubling. The draw into the earth, the extraction that enables them to become “more” than a place, to become a part of the map, an access point for arrivals, departures, material creation, destruction, and the transactional transference of objects and value is a dangerous warning sign that we are reaching too deeply into the planet, and too far past our own planetary boundaries. A new solution needs to be found. And soon.