Sunday, September 19, 2010

Freedom from Equality

Recently, someone pointed out to me that one of the underlying philosophical difference between the Left (Democrats since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement) and the Right (Republicans since the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement) is equality vs. freedom.

Note: I'm going to ignore the fact that these parties hardly encompass (look:
here and here) the ideas I want to express.

The idea is that the Right reveres freedom above all else (as they point out our founder fathers did) and the Left  highlights equality as most important (as became especially clear during the Civil Rights Movement). Case in point: following the Civil Rights Movement, restaurant owners in the South (and everywhere else) did not have the freedom to refuse service to people for arbitrary reasons (like the pigmentation of their skin).

This example may be favorable to the Left's position, but it's the elephant in the room of American history, so I'd deem it fair.

This debate has raged now at least since the 1950s (much longer actually) over things like income taxes, welfare, capital gains taxes, education, unions, environmental policy, progressive vs. regressive tax structures, and mandatory health insurance. So, pretty much everything economic.

I'd like to side with neither completely. In fact, I'd like to say that we need both. We need both as much freedom as we can get our hands on and a completely level playing field (everyone starts out completely equal and lives their lives from there).

Let me make several observations. We could opt for equality without freedom (benevolent dictator anyone?), but we could not opt for freedom without equality. Here's why:

The legal right to do something does not equate to the freedom to do that thing. Freedom is bigger than legal permissibility. It is the aligning of not just legal, but also financial, emotional, psychological, and mental abilities (etc., etc., and etc.). Take the "ability" of African Americans to vote after the 15th Amendment. The legal ability didn't mean much after southern bigots took over the electoral process after Reconstruction. It took until 1965 and the Voting Rights Act for much change to happen and even then it was gradual. These, of course, were both laws dealing with legal ability, but don't miss my point: there were other factors (besides legal) at play that determined the "freedom" to vote.

Many (or most) of the non-legal barriers to freedom (I hope I don't need to enumerate exactly what these are) would be solved by increased equality. So really, we can't have "freedom" in the true sense of the word if we don't have equality.

We must acknowledge that for our society to achieve personal freedom, we must achieve personal equality. Espousing a policy of "freedom" does not give us freedom from worrying about equality. Rather, Freedom is derived from equality.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Rat Race

I'm studying for the LSAT.

As you can tell from this photo, everything in my apartment building is mirrored. This actually signifies nothing other than that I took this picture with Photo Booth. Which also signifies nothing except that I was too lazy to go get my camera. Which signifies that I'm getting soft (or that I'm not actually in my apartment, but in the upstairs lobby of my apartment building where there is wireless internet and therefore it would have actually been an ordeal to go get my camera--the important, but unstated, point here is that we don't have internet in our apartment). I digress.

I'm studying for the LSAT. So my day looks something like this:

6:30-awaken and begin Yoga routine (this last part has only happened once to date)
7:00-cook breakfast/eat
7:50-flee the building and race for the nearest metro station
8:00ish-board metro
8:17ish-arrive downtown metro and walk to National Geographic headquarters
8:26-arrive NGS HQ and commence working
17:00-cease working
17:11-board downtown metro
17:36ish-arrive at apartment
17:45-cook dinner and eat
18:45-commence LSAT study
23:00-cease LSAT study
23:30-crawl into bed sobbing

This schedule is a rough outline and doesn't encompass every little deviation, but it's fairly accurate.

The LSAT defines my life right now (well that and also work). I find this interesting since the LSAT could also define my future. I got good grades in college, and I've got fairly good "softs" (things law schools look at that are not your GPA or your LSAT score), so my admission to a good law school comes down to the LSAT. A good score = a good school (and if the score is good enough it get me lots of $cholarship money as well). A good school = a good job. A good job =... well you get the picture.

But enough moaning and groaning. What amazes me is that anyone would want to live this sort of life permanently. I'm only dealing with the LSAT until mid-October, and then I'm never uttering the word again (well it's not really a word...). Furthermore, I am determined to categorically reject the notion that a nine-to-five (or eight thirty-to-five) is necessary for survival.

Here's my plan:

Live simply (read: primitively--e.g. Amish) and therefore need hardly any money and therefore need to devote hardly any time to doing someone else's bidding. Nuff said.

I was thinking the other day about what I could do, that I would enjoy and be passionate about, that someone would be foolish enough to pay me to do. I didn't come up with a long list.

Part of the problem is that getting paid for something takes all the fun out of it (at least for me). So the solution is to minimize the amount of time I spend making money (a few hours doing some small-town lawyering here and there), while also minimizing my need for money.

Luckily, living simply is good for the planet AND my soul. Also luckily, I don't have a penchant for Dolce and Gabbana (read: luxury consumer goods), or none of this would work.

Kick the habit, reject the wheel, live simply.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Your car wears out on purpose

Toward the end of the 1920s new car sales were slowing. In fact, used car sales exceeded new car sales. Cars were made so well (and their styles didn't change much), so people just kept their cars that were still working fine. Cars never really wore out, but instead stayed in "circulation" being passing from diver to driver.

Along came the assembly line and the increased ability of building cars in a more uniform way. To make a long story short, automakers (most-notably Ford and GM) decided they would design their vehicles to "wear-out." This idea is called "planned obsolescence" or "designed deterioration."

Planned obsolescence takes two forms. The first is that products physically wear out and break down. In this way, companies can "force" consumers to buy new products (because the old model broke) so that we keep giving them our money.

Re-visiting the movie Objectified, one of the designers talked about a leather briefcase he had inherited from his father that improved with use. And while he was reminiscing, he gave us a glimpse into the fact that this is rare:
Sometimes I get that task, which is, 'design something that gets better with use.' Right, there's very few things if you think about it, they mostly degrade, but, um, some things like this briefcase gets [sic] better with use. 
It's sad that the idea of creating a product that gets better with use is novel. It's pretty clear that companies design products that purposely degrade.

I first encountered this concept in my sophomore U.S. History class at the Framingham State College. We talked for quite some time about how Henry Ford stopped designing cars well and began to design cars that would quit working in a decade or two.

But Planned Obsolescence has another, more overt form (if you've been reading the links you've probably already picked up on it). See, car companies introduce a "new" car every year (do you have a 2010 Prius or the 2011 model?). They don't do this because they've made some technological break-through (in fact substantive changes come far less often), rather, they do it because they've found consumers are more likely to buy a new car if a "new" model comes out.

Think about computers. I do basically the same thing on this computer that I did on my computer five years ago. But, because new operating systems come along and require better computers, most of us find ourselves upgrading to the newer "better" models.

This is a system designed to keep us buying "new" products even though we often don't need whatever is being called "new."

Another interviewee from Objectified had this to say:
If I had a billion dollars to fund a marketing campaign, I would launch a campaign on behalf of things you already own: 'Why not enjoy them today?'
Though companies benefit financially from planned obsolescence, our planet does not. All of the things we junk, have to go somewhere (usually landfills) and we just keep on creating more.

I'd like us to be more materialistic. Not in wild acquisition of consumer goods, but rather in cherishing the things we own and preserving them so that we get a lifetime of use out of the things we buy. Let us shift away from acquisition and towards preservation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

People who design sinks never wash their hands

Yesterday, I watched this movie about design. The movie observed the ways things are designed to interact with us. In actuality, it was a celebration of consumer materialism and the cleverness of designers who are continuously designing things for us to buy.

My first emotion while watching the movie was anger (though not about what you might suspect). Specifically, I was angry about the way most bathroom sinks in public spaces (and everywhere in England) are designed. During my childhood, I became obsessed with hand-washing (no doubt a symptom of our bacillophobic society). This obsession led me to observe that in order to get my hands absolutely clean in a public restroom, I had to be very careful. Many sinks are designed in such a way that if I want to get water on my hands (kind of the point), I have to touch the back of the sink bowl. The problem is that the spout does not reach far enough into the sink bowl to be easily accessible.

I took this picture today at the local McDonald's (don't worry, I wasn't eating there--I just walked in, took this picture, and left):

Am I missing something, or is this design totally absurd (comical maybe, like some really funny practical joke)? While I can't think of a reason someone would design a sink this way (unless they never washed their hands--hmmm, this reminds me of a guy I knew who worked in the aerospace industry, but refused to ride on airplanes... though... that's actually scary), I can think a few reasons why it shouldn't be designed this way--namely, I don't want to have to smear my hands on the sink bowl just to get water on them.

After a few minutes of fuming about sinks, I realized that there are much bigger issues at stake here.

One interviewee said:
Designers spend most of their time designing products and services for the 10% of the world's population that already own too much when 90% don't have even basic products and services just to lead a subsistent life.
The significance of that statement needs no interpretation--we're addicted to stuff beyond any logical need.

I liked where she was going, but when she started talking about sustainability, I was disappointed. She said that since designing in a sustainable way is such a "mammoth task,... it's no wonder designers and manufactures are finding it so difficult." The only reason that designing in a sustainable way is a "mammoth task" is because companies would rather expand profit margins than save the planet. One might point out that making money has to be the ultimate goal of a corporate entity because without profit a company cannot exist. But, I propose that any company that destroys our world as a byproduct of it's business should not exist.

But the problems with profit margins don't stop at cutting corners to make a buck. Products often serve the purpose of merely being bought. One interviewee said this:
Often the way that a product comes into being isn't because a bunch of expert designers sat down and said 'what are the 10 most important problems that we could solve?' There is a company that's writing a check and what the company wants is new SKUs they want more stuff and they want more people to buy it and that's the name of the game.
I don't know why companies don't have designers sit down and solve our problems, but if they did, maybe they wouldn't have to spend all that money on advertising (read: brainwashing) to convince us we  should buy products that don't really solve any of our problems.

Some of the designers that were interviewed showed signs of "being too immersed in their field" (read: insanity). One particular designer (who I will remember for the distinct care he took while forming his sentences) seemed to value good design quite highly:
People need to, like, demand that [a designed product] performs for them and that is special in their lives, these objects that they buy. You can't make your GPS thing work in your car? There should be like a riot because they're so poorly designed. 
He's saying that if a product is not designed well, we should riot (sinks anyone?). But you know what? I think we ought to riot about the fact that 20,000 children die of hunger each day (that's the low estimate), rather than that my GPS could have been more logically designed. But that's just me.