Wired has a thought-provoking article, one that may help explain more than changes in current consumption patterns. Robert Capps looks at a number of seemingly disparate phenomenon – successful and widely popular products and practices such as netbooks, Flip digital videorecorders, MP3 format, and even the unmanned Predator military aircraft and Kaiser Permanente’s micro-clinics – as markers of a change in the way people think. Low-end products, with results that are “good enough” to be enjoyable, are well-suited to our contemporary culture, a culture that has been greatly structured by technology and socioeconomic and political stress.
As Capps puts it:
The world has sped up, become more connected and a whole lot busier. As a result, what consumers want from the products and services they buy is fundamentally changing. We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect.
I think he’s onto something. But I also think that there is more to it than economy and immediacy. Perhaps there is also a sense that “good enough” is more sustainable in the long run than some kind of costly higher-end product or practice. For example, using unmanned planes that are cheaper to build, with more flight-time than faster, more technologically- complex aircraft that require more extensive maintenance, is also more politically acceptable due to the lowered casualty rate of American pilots (though it doesn’t say anything about what happens to people on the other end of the weapon).
While some may argue that this is just promoting some kind of mimetic over-consumption (more netbooks means more computer waste), at least there is a possibility of greater equity in the consumption of goods and wider participation in “the good life.”
And when combined with another major social trend – the “do-it-yourself” movement that repurposes obsolete commodities or has people building their own consumables instead of buying them off the shelf from some transnational corporation (think Maker Faire, Instructables.com, etc.), perhaps a “good enough” lifestyle is more than adequate. It could be what makes living in a world possible – a world whose resources are becoming scarce while the demands placed on it by an ever-growing population are increasing. The DIY phenomenon is not confined to the US and the West – it’s also sweeping through China.
I know that there are problems with such an approach, and that Capps is still not addressing the issue of over-consumption, but at least he’s making us think about other possible responses to stresses on our economic and natural resources.