Tag Archives: consumerism

Can You Hear Me Now?

By Colby Lenz and Dean Spade

This article originally appeared on the http://www.communitychange.org/our-projects/movementvisionlab/blog/can-you-hear-me-now-the-trouble-with-cell-phones/view website.

Many of us share a set of concerns or complaints about cell phones. You hear them all the time. Nobody makes plan anymore ahead of time. People talk on cell phones everywhere instead of looking around and being present. The constant noise of cell phone use is annoying and often rude and inappropriate. Cell phones (including those with email) encourage people to work more, losing any sense of work-life balance.

These are solid, important complaints and we have more concerns about cell phones that we want to add to the list. We hope to re-frame the conversation about this suddenly ubiquitous technology in a broader and more urgent context. Here are six problems to consider:

  1. Cell phones are just a new consumer luxury item masquerading as a need. A little over a decade ago we all lived life without them. We survived flat tires, street protests, non-profit jobs, family illness and our social lives without Blackberries and Razrs. Cell phones represent a new level of privatization of phone service. Along with other ways we have punished the poor, pay phones are now on the decline, making access to phones more difficult for people without cash or credit. We have moved from sharing phones (party-lines), to household lines, to individual lines. This means more money for big business. What does it mean that so many people committed to a more socialized politics are giving so much money to the telecommunications industry? What else might we do with that money if we let go of these private status symbols and shared phones like we used to?
  2. If everyone else held a piece of plastic filled with cancer-causing chips next to their head all day long would you? Our friends who use cell phones tell us their ears hurt. Studies worldwide suggest cell phones are linked to brain cancer, research that the phone industry works its magic to quiet or stop. We know very well that we cannot trust big business with our health and the health of our loved ones. What’s convenient now might be very painful later. We want you to live and be well.
  3. Cell phones don’t grow on trees. They are made of plastic, are “disposable” (meaning made to break and be lost) and millions of them are thrown into landfills every week. Coltan, a key material that makes them work, is mined in the Congo under horrendous conditions, resulting in an estimated 3.2 million deaths since 1998, deforestation of the region and birth defects from water contamination. Like all other consumer goods, the people who use and enjoy this luxury are mostly clueless about the extreme exploitation and violence required to create them.
  4. Bees are the key to our food and our survival. Recent studies found that commercial bee populations suddenly declined 60-70% in the US and scientists theorize cell phone signals as a very possible cause. Scientists have proven that power lines can affect bee behavior and destroy hives and the sudden increase in hive death from cell phone signals may seriously endanger plant life and food sources for bees. While mass-produced crops like wheat and corn are pollinated by wind, some 90 cultivated flowering crops rely mostly on honeybees. According to a Cornell University study, honeybees pollinate every third bite of food ingested by Americans.
  5. Cell phones are recording devices used to criminalize people. Buying and using cell phones supports surveillance culture and promotes state violence. Not only can every one of your conversations (whether your phone is next to your ear or off in your bag) be heard and recorded by the telecommunications industry and the state, it can also be used as evidence against you and anyone you speak to. And even if you personally are not targeted, your cell phone dollars support policing, surveillance and imprisonment of criminalized classes of poor people and people of color.
  6. Scarcity and insecurity starts at home. The emotional economy of cell phones also concerns us. Capitalism makes us feel insecure and competitive for seemingly scarce resources. The same drive to consumerism and buying cell phones is the same emotional context of fear that drives war. This national-personal insecurity matrix is visible when people buy cell phones because they’re afraid of getting in an accident or being a crime victim and needing to reach the police. It is visible when people feel they have to have a cell phone for their job, to feel professionally important. It is visible when people fear that if they don’t have one, then their friends will stop calling them and they will be disconnected from social life. It feeds capitalist imperatives: every desire must be met immediately and we must always be working and striving and climbing (socially, professionally, etc.) without rest. The mindset of the cell phone is part of our brutal economy.

But why single out cell phones for these concerns? Many other products harm the environment and mobilize our minds, bodies and social connections in the interest capital. So many products have negative health impacts and so many can be used as tools of state terror. Cell phones are not unique these ways. But what concerns us is the uncritical embrace of cell phones, especially by people on the left and self-proclaimed anti-capitalist activists. While we have an ongoing critique of cars and real estate and sweatshop-produced clothing and many other things, this gigantic, new and extremely pervasive shift in consumption goes almost un-critiqued in terms of these ramifications.

This is a call for an analysis of the operation of this technology and the telecommunications market, using all the critical skills that radical activists have developed. This is an invitation to join us and get rid of your cell phone — or don’t get one in the first place. Help us resist the allures of this technology and support each other in remembering other ways to communicate, organize and connect with one another. Like all of our other endeavors to create a better world, this is not about perfection. We are all caught in this economy, engaging in consumer practices that are harmful, but we can still identify and act on the concentrations. It is more than possible to live without a cell phone – some of us find life way better without them.

Critical Desire

by dean spade

I went to D.C. for a job interview last week.Riding in the airport van in the rain from Dulles surrounded by the familiar climate and landscape brought back the feeling of Albemarle County, Virginia, where I grew up.Out the window through the rain I saw an SUV and was instantly transported back in time to 8th grade when my best friend Phoebe’s dad got a new jeep with Eddie Bauer leather interior and picked us up from school in it.I was flooded with the feeling of safety I had whenever I was doing something mundane like grocery shopping with Phoebe’s family.They were my escape from my chaotic, dirty, small, sad stressful house where that whole year my mom lay dying of cancer.Our fragile little family held together sloppily by a single mom on welfare and burdened by shame and struggle was its final decline.Being the youngest I was the one sitting at home all the time trying to fill my mom’s shoes as the caretaker, trying to get her to eat, trying not to run away when she coughed and vomited and struggled to stand up and walk naked, skin hanging from bones, to the bathroom.At Phoebe’s house there were two parents, meals at a table, rules, no cursing, no drunkenness, clean sheets, the feeling of being taken care of, restrained and guided.

It is not surprising, in some ways, that an SUV can evoke all that.It is marketed, like so many things, to promise safety while reminding us of our insecurity and fear.These forces underscore capitalism—structured insecurity—the requirement that there always be a pool of unemployed laborers keeps us all in line, fearing poverty even when we’re the least vulnerable to it and craving ever more security—personal, national, economic—even when that quest for security (in the form of accumulation) ever-broadens the domestic and global wealth gap that makes everyone less safe and secure.

How do we manage desire in this emotional/political context?I think most people have some critique of their desire, some limits at which they become concerned about its impact.Whether it is concern about the environmental impact of big cars, or the labor practices supported by buying sweatshop made clothing, or the local business- and culture-killing effects of frequenting starbucks, I hear a lot of people across class making decisions about what to consume that recognize the impact of their desire and consumption on others and the principle of interconnectedness that such a recognition requires.

I am interested in how that impulse could expand, building on the analysis people have when they “vote with their dollars” by boycotting something or supporting something else, to encompass a broader understanding of the connection of our personal economic choices to the well being of others and the world we want to live in.In other words, how can we build a broader politics of redistribution that expands the critical perspectives many of us already have about consuming some goods?

I see an example of a community ethic of critical desire emerging in some aspect of the “green business” conversation.That dialogue has invited people to shift norms of desire by understanding the impact of their desire and consumption on others and understanding the desires they have inherited from culture as products of damaging political conditions (like SUV’s in an oil war).So, when people in the local foods movement write and talk about the value of building desire for fresh local fruits and vegetables in season, they are also encouraging us to question our desire for peaches in January and acknowledge the conditions that produced massive agricultural reforms that changed how food gets to our tables and the impact on local farms and on the environment of food traveling thousands of miles to our plates.

I am interested in how we could build a shared conversation that engages desire critically about money and consumption more broadly.I want to be involved in conversations with people who are joining me in acknowledging the maldistribution of wealth that permeates our world and thinking creatively about how we can be agents of redistribution in our personal lives.In other words, I want to start talking to people I know about how we can all give more money away.What is hard about this conversation is that there is an enormous taboo about talking about money in our culture, and there is an enormous feeling of scarcity and financial insecurity that everyone seems to experience in capitalism.These problems are compounded by guilt—people often feel judged about what they consume and are afraid of opening the topic about what is in their bank accounts and what kinds of electronics they are buying, even with their intimate friends, for fear of being judged.This fear is not unreasonable because often the way we all deal with our insecurity about how we’re living our lives is to judge others, so judgment is definitely a danger.To me that whole picture of fear, judgment, secrecy, and insecurity is extremely convenient for maintaining the status quo of maldistribution and preventing meaningful conversations about developing an ethical relationship to desire and consumerism in community with others.

Maybe I am naïve, but I see signs of hope for this conversation everywhere.I think many people are already engaging in some kind of critical thinking about some of their consumer desires, whether it is based on environmental concern, labor practices, or small business support. I want us to take that conversation to the next level.I want to see people talking to each other about the politics of where their money goes—what it means to “save,” what it means to buy real estate, what it means to own ipods and cell phones, what it means to give money to homeless people, what it means to give money to non-profits, what it means to share money with friends. I want us to talk about the politics of inheritance and retirement and have some thoughts about these things instead of just working on auto-pilot (aka reproducing capitalism, the ever-growing wealth gap, poverty for most of the world).I want us to think about how we could shift our desires for security in interesting ways—maybe SUV’s look safe but what is really safe is reducing our oil dependency.Maybe retirement accounts feel safe but what is really safe is saving Social Security from being privatized by Republicans.Maybe owning property feels safe but what is really safe is working toward a world in which homelessness is inconceivable.

I just heard this radio program about how during the recent wildfires in San Diego, people with extremely expensive insurance had the benefit of private firefighters coming and defending their houses, while neighbors without it had their houses burn.The fires caused a lot more damage than they might have if we didn’t live in a country that is defunding emergency services and sending our National Guard to Iraq.The message that came through to many who lost their houses is, “the government can’t protect you, you have to buy more expensive private insurance that comes with private firefighters.”As we continue in that direction, we see the costs of safety go up and the penalties of poverty increase. I am hoping for a different conversation where we might take our fierce desires for safety and security and invest them in collective well-being that is a much more sustainable kind of protection.

Part of what I like so much about some of the environmentalism conversations is that they are not (sometimes) competitive or judgmental. People share their ideas and practices without demanding that one another do the exact same thing.Maybe you compost and your friend drives a veggie diesel car, and you tell each other about your practices and get inspired by each other, but there is not the sense of harsh judgment that might keep you from talking at all.I want the same thing in conversations about wealth redistribution.People’s lives are different, our needs and experiences are different, and we each need to navigate these difficult questions in our own ways.We might find that communities or groups of friends share absolute limits about some things—a rejection of a certain consumer good that all agree is appallingly wasteful or luxurious, or we might find that there are no shared absolutes.Ideally, what would be shared is a practice of inquiry about desire that helps us move toward more mutually beneficial ways of addressing our shared insecurities and fear.Maybe groups of friends make an agreement about caring for each other during illness or emergency rather than hoarding resources privately in fear of facing those circumstances alone.Maybe people agree on a major common fear and figure out how they can pool resources to support community organizing work aimed at alleviating that particular vulnerability.I think the answer to capitalist alienation, insecurity and fear is not private consumption, which only adds fuel to the fire, but connection and commitment to recognizing how our fates are tied.