The wind whips its frenzy around the house, the ghosts are trying to get in, and the rain sounds like it is throwing gravel at the windows. The gods are not just angry, they are apoplectic. This is a good night to write horror stories. But I’m not. I’m thinking about something worse. Something real.
Local Shop was quiet on Monday. The first quiet day since the start of November. Last Saturday was incredibly busy and I was not the only cleaner to ask ‘What the hell can they still need to buy?’ The Consumers were out in force. Consuming. Trolley loads of the same stuff they filled trolleys with only days before. Why are these people not all fifty stone (700 lbs for the rebel colonists across the Atlantic) in weight? Do they have banks of freezers ready for the coming apocalypse? Bad idea, the freezers won’t work when the power goes off. Consumerism has become what humanity is all about.
In a sensible world, you make something, someone wants it, they trade for something you want and that’s a deal. If they don’t have something you want then they give you tokens – money – you can then trade for something you want. If nobody wants what you make, you stop making it and make something else.
It’s happened in my lifetime. I grew up when hardly anyone had a home freezer or central heating or a TV. I remember the posh girl at school who was first to have a colour TV. I was already B.Sc. when video tapes appeared and most people rented the players because they were damn expensive to buy. They were immense – great slabs of technology. Try finding one now.
The whole war of Betamax, VHS and Laserdisc came and went in a few years. They were undreamed of in my youth and yet there is already a generation that does not know about them.
I was part way through a PhD when I had my first computer. A Sinclair ZX81 with the massive 16K memory expansion. It didn’t word-process. I wrote my PhD thesis longhand, using real cut and paste.
My first post-doc job, I was provided with shared use of a BBC Master. It had a proper keyboard! I typed the report for that job at home on an Amstrad PCW using Locoscript. That computer used CP/M, not MS-DOS, and could address a massive 64K of memory. I inserted chips by hand to boost the memory but all that did was give me a ‘virtual disk’ which let me play games.
There were no hard drives until my third post-doc job. An incredible 30 Mb became available. We’re up to 1990 now, by the way, and not far from the terabyte hard disks that could have run the world back then.
The old stuff all died out. Floppy disks – there were 5.25-inch ones, then 3.5-inch ones, 3-inch ones for the PCW and nothing else (you idiot, Sugar) and now you rarely see a computer with a floppy-disk drive at all.
The videotape is dead. You can record on DVD now and Sky lets you record to a hard disk so you don’t even need that. Heck, you can stream films to your house without recording anything at all. In the 1980s and possibly into the 90s, ‘live streaming’ could only have meant ‘taking a pee’.
And yet… the drones keep buying. Anything and everything. It’s out of date before they get the box open so they queue for the upgrade, never realising they have not used even ten percent of the capabilities of what they bought five upgrades back.
I have a mobile phone that looks like a Blackberry but isn’t. It was cheap. It can do amazing things but I just use it for phone calls and texts. Sometimes I scan for open networks for a laugh, usually when waiting for my order in the curry house, but the idea of using a tiny screen to look at the internet does not appeal.
There are all these ‘tablet’ computers now, just a screen and nothing else. I have looked at them, I have considered their wondrous gadget-appeal, but cannot for the life of me work out what they are for. They are expensive toys. I can see no means to get the information off one of those things and into a proper computer for formatting and editing. If I could, I’d carry one around like a notepad for when the story ideas strike. As it is, on a limited gadget-budget, I cannot justify one of them.
Besides, I’ve only just caved in and bought a new keyboard. One with letters still on all the keys. It’s the Microsoft bendy one, the one that looks like someone left it on a radiator and forgot about it. Takes a bit of getting used to so expect a higher than normal typo rate for a few days. The effects of this bottle of Teacher’s will pale into insignificance by comparison – although it probably won’t help. Next I need a new mouse. I have to click and hold the buttons to get a response now.
The bendy keyboard was actually the cheapest in the shop! It was the only one with a cable coming out of it. All the rest are wireless. The claim they will work at insane ranges – tens of metres from the computer. What the hell? How big are these peoples’ monitors? Are they using a spotting scope to see what they’re typing? How often does their remote keyboard and mouse need new batteries?
Wireless keyboards usually sit in the same place on people’s desks as wired ones. All they achieve is… no wire. And they keep battery producers in business. I have no gripe with them, if you like them, buy one. I just don’t see the point.
Somewhere along the line, the game changed. It was recent too.
Somewhere it changed from ‘making what people want’ to ‘making people want what you make’. Consumerism changed from the transaction of work for goods you need or want via the mechanism of money, to the consumption of what is made whether you need it or not.
For the sake of the economy.
The ‘why’ of it is easy. Every transaction is taxed. When you work to earn money, the transaction between your work and your employer’s money is taxed. When you use that money to buy something, it’s taxed again. When someone makes something, the raw materials they buy are taxed, their business premises is taxed and their profits are taxed. We normal people make money by working for it.
The government make money whenever something changes hands. They don’t need to do a thing other than encourage us to ‘consume’ and thereby pay them for the privelige of owning more shite we don’t need. At the extreme end of the scale, the government will use the taxes they have to pay people to sit at home and buy huge televisions and games consoles and then tax them on those purchases. Round and round the money goes.
Again, for the sake of the economy. The Economy must Grow! Why? Why are we are zipping about like (as my father puts it) blue-arsed flies just to cover the bills that are mostly tax anyway? If we didn’t have so many people paid to collect tax, we could pay less tax. We could work less. We could trade what we need and want without busting a gut to keep some false god called ‘economy’ alive. So we make less this year than last year – so what? It just means the stuff we made last year lasted longer than the stuff we made the year before. ‘The Economy’ does not need to grow. It is an artificial entity with no place in nature.
All this money moving around and none of it is real anyway. It’s just numbers on a screen. The cynic in me wonders if the money has to keep moving so we don’t get a good look at it, and realise it’s all just smoke and mirrors. These days, smoke is banned so for the moment it’s vape and mirrors – until that’s banned too.
It’s not about people any more. At all. None of the modern obsessions with smoking or drinking or waist size or what you say or what you think have anything to do with people. It’s all about money. Just look at the comments on any article covering any of those things. ‘Dealing with this costs…’ Sod the people, they are there to serve the money.
I still recall that Star Trek documentary that claimed there was no explanation for where the Borg came from. Dammit, just look around! We are nearly Borg now! Everyone the same, everyone connected, no privacy, people putting their personal data online and then being surprised the whole world can see it and some not minding because ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’.
It is recent. Credit cards are recent. Even taking money from machines in the wall is recent. It was 1979 when I had my first cash card from the bank. The first ones let you take out £10. No choice. The card worked once a day, ten times, and then you had to get a new one. Less than £10 in your account, you would get nothing. Now I can take out £350 even if I don’t have that much.
I have a credit card, rarely used, that lets me take up to £6000 credit even though there is no way I could pay that back. It is for emergencies only. That is enough credit to let me abscond to another country with a pocket full of cash and disappear. Is that a good idea? No. Why does it work? Because the drones have been assimilated. They will stay put and accept the debt.
There was always the ‘never-never’. Buying things on credit on the seller’s terms. They were never good terms. They still aren’t and never will be but they will always have customers. There will always be those who want something now, when they can’t afford it. Nobody is blameless here. I once bought a Praktika B200 camera on those terms. It took a few days to realise that if the camera was lost or broken, I’d still be paying the instalments. The sting in the tail came in the last year when I bought another, identical camera on eBay for peanuts. Well, I liked that camera.
Did I need it? No. I had a Zenit EM which was a great camera, if a tad primitive. I just felt like moving up a notch. Did I want it? Yes, it was much lighter and more versatile. So I traded my work for money and the money for the camera. My choice. If I had that choice again I would have saved for it rather than buying on-tick. But then, I learned the hard way – it wasn’t just the camera, it was all the later stuff.
This post is rambling, I know. It’s taken two nights and still I am not able to clearly articulate the problem in my mind. I remember times before television was widespread, when everyone went to the shops with cash and when they had no more cash they stopped shopping. I remember the introduction of credit cards, cash cards and computers. I remember when video tape was introduced and when it vanished. That might have been the trigger, An entire technical industry came and went – not even in my lifetime. It took no more than thirty years to rise and fall. Those VHS video cameras I drooled at in the past while cringing at their prices – I have five now. All from eBay at an average of eight pounds each and all in full working order. Isn’t that shocking? I bought a collection of Zenit-B cameras for less than a tenner. I recall when these were the bee’s knees. The lens quality is the same, they just don’t have the convenience of seeing the result right now.
‘Right now’ is maybe a big part of the ‘how’. How did we turn from people into money slaves? How did we get here? How did we become ‘consumers’? In a sense we always were – we traded our stuff for other people’s stuff as work or produce – but how did it become humanity’s defining characteristic?
Everyone wants everything right now. I want another bottle of whisky and I want it now. That is impossible because I live in Scotland and you can only buy booze here between 10 am and 10 pm. Okay, I’ll slow down and spin this one out, There is brandy and red wine if necessary. It isn’t 3 am yet, so for a full 8 hours sleep I have to be in bed by 4 am to get up at 12 and go to work at 2 pm. Calculating? After 30-odd years in science, what would you expect? It’s second nature.
It’s perfectly natural to want everything right now. It is also natural to recognise that it is not possible.
But… what if someone makes it possible? What if you can take a photo and see it without waiting for developing and printing? What if you can buy that camera with the money you will make next year? It’s hard to resist, isn’t it?
Not for me, but then I already had my fingers burned in this game. For those coming new to the game, it’s different. They work on credit entirely. My generation did partially and some (yes, including me) screwed it up. The one before frowned on the ‘never-never’ users and most bought only what they could afford. Three generations from sensibility to madness, from freedom to slavery.
I wish I could articulate the point here. I have a feeling it’s important. I also have a feeling that nobody under fifty will even care.
Sometimes thoughts are not in words. This is one of those times.
I think, basically, you should look at the latest ‘must-have’; and think ‘what is it for?’
Usually, you’ll find, it’s for taking money off you.