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Consumerism

November 28th, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

I took an interesting path through college. I actually started with an academic scholarship in theoretical physics and was flattered that I was recruited by the head of the department who let me look in on some research they were doing with an electron microscope during my campus visit. I was in an small program with 5 or 6 other students and a full professor, where my classmates in Physics 1 were in a lecture hall with 700 other people. But I quickly found out that the kid that wore the purple turtleneck and brown corduroys every single day (in Santa Barbara, where I often didn’t wear shoes to class) was astoundingly brilliant and I was unlikely to challenge for top marks in this small class. I looked around at the professors in the department and the grad students, and somewhat like my reaction to the kid who wore a purple turtleneck every day (in Santa Barbara!), I decided that I did not want to grow up to be anything like them. I eventually switched to History, which I loved.

I figured that I learned three important things in my (academic) career at UCSB. One of those was an idea I got from an American History professor who made the point that in the 20th century, American culture went through a profound transformation as industrialization and assembly line manufacturing took its toll on the psyche of the laborer. The net result was that workers became further removed from the product of their labor and thus could not derive their self-worth from the fruits of their labor. You could no longer look at a shoe and say to yourself, “I made that” or look at a chair and say, “I did a great job on that chair.” You repeated the same task over and over again and never really saw the finished goods. Instead, what came to replace this sense of self-worth derived from the results of your work was a sense of worth based on what you could buy. Consumerism replaced the protestant work ethic as a guiding principle of American culture.

I still think about that lecture, and even remember where I was sitting that day. I think that professor was right on the money (no pun intended). We can look today and see entire magazines devoted to the worship of consumer electronics. Of course, this effect is pervasive in the high-tech culture of the present day.

“So what?”, you say. Well, I wonder if there is a reaction brewing against consumerism in that there is a growing consciousness that what you own should not be the most important defining characteristic of your worth as an individual. I wonder if knowledge workers, who rarely see any kind of physical manifestation of their work at all if ever, are building a new ethos around information. Specifically, I wonder if the free software and open source movements are a consequence of people coming to see that if the product of their work is information and knowledge, then their self-worth is defined by how many people consume the information that they produce, not by how much information they “own.” Typically, these movements are described in terms of how they affect information consumers (or software users). But maybe there is a real need being filled by the open source movement to help the producers in an information society feel that their work is valuable because people use the information that they provide.

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