2.21.2008

on raising consciousness and wanting a new cell phone

Like most of you reading this, I've made - and continue to make - changes in my daily habits that I hope will have a positive effect on the environment. As I do this, I notice that these changes prove useful in three distinct ways.

One, there is the effect on the environment itself. We contribute less to landfill, we use less water, we emit less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We try to leave a smaller footprint on the earth.

Two, we provide an example to others. Months ago, I saw someone coming out of the supermarket with a cart full of fabric shopping bags. We bought some, and now we use them all the time. Perhaps someone else will see me or Allan with our fabric bags, and decide to do the same. Perhaps one day people still using plastic bags will look and feel conspicuous, and change their habits.

The third effect of these changes is raising our own awareness.

Now that I bring my own mug for coffee on the way to work, anytime I don't have a mug with me and buy coffee with a paper cup, I'm aware of it, and I try to keep those instances to a minimum. We refill the water bottles that we keep in the car, but any time I need to buy bottled water, I feel bad, and I try to do it as little as possible. Same goes for plastic bags, unnecessary packaging, wasteful water use. We recycle so much household trash now, that we seem to challenge ourselves to reduce the non-recylcable trash down as far as we possibly can.

We often forget that the first step to making sustainable change in our lives must be increasing our own awareness. You have to know - really know - what you do, in order to do something different. If you try to make changes without that first step of awareness, your chances of succeeding plummet.

Anyone who has tried to change their eating habits should know this. If you want to eat better in the long run, you need a finely tuned awareness not just of what you eat, but when you eat, and why. That's why a good nutritionist will advise you to keep a food diary, recording your food choices and how you felt as you were making them. If you aren't aware of your eating patterns in the first place, any change you make will likely be short-lived.

One thing I've always been very aware of is my level of consumption and materialism. On the continuum between the ascetic monk and the shopaholic, I might be closer to the non-materialist end of the spectrum. But compared to many people I know who live consciously very simple lives, I am a creature of vast material comforts.

Within the context of my own life, here are some guiding principles. I don't buy things I don't use. I don't shop for recreation or entertainment. I try always to distinguish between want and need. While I do buy things that I don't need to survive, I know that I really don't need them, and I don't try to fill up my life (or my space) with want. And I would rather spend money on experiences than on things: travel, dining, theatre. The two things we buy most - books and music - could also be viewed as experience more than things.

Now, none of this feels like a conscious decision. I didn't make a resolution to live this way. It's just who I am. But I have made a conscious decision to stay this way, and not get sucked into a more material life than I need. I'm very aware that I don't fit in to the majority consumer culture, and I want to keep it that way.

And this brings me to the place where these concepts intersect: awareness of habits as a precursor to change, and why we buy what we buy.

I want a new cell phone.

Here I am, a generally non-materialistic person, who does not shop for the sake of shopping, who uses everything - furniture, shoes, clothes, computers - until it falls apart, who doesn't care about being cutting-edge, who doesn't own gadgets that she doesn't use, who doesn't care about fashion trends.

And I want a new cell phone.

I don't use my cell phone very often; it's not my main phone, and I don't talk on the phone a lot anyway. But I do like having a mobile phone for my own convenience and safety. That is, I made a conscious choice to own a cell; I didn't buy one because everyone is "supposed to" have one these days. I'm just happier to have a mobile phone than not have one.

My phone is in working order. It does what I need it to do. Yet here I am, wanting a new phone. A better-looking phone. A sleeker phone. A hipper phone.

I tried to deny it, but the desire kept returning. New phone. New, better-looking phone. Ooo, look at the new phones. I want one of those.

For a while, this desire baffled me. I don't care about buying a new computer until my current computer actually breaks down. We would never buy a new TV or DVD player until the old one no longer works. So why was I coveting those sleek new phones in all the ads?

Then it came to me.

It's the public nature of the cell phone.

No one sees my computer or TV except me and my partner. But people see my cell phone, and it screams "three years old". At Campaign meetings or at work, when people whip out their phones, they're all holding these dark, angular, new models. My rounded silver phone reveals that I am hopelessly out of date. Every time I use it, I cringe a little, knowing that it reflects badly on my hipness.

None of the "types" portrayed in those incessant mobile phones ads resemble me. I'm not trying to get ahead in business. I'm not super chic, and don't aspire to be. My days of spontaneous road trips with my buds are well behind me. I'm middle-aged, I'm heavy, what little hipness I ever possessed has all but vanished. But I don't want to lose it altogether! I don't want to look stodgy, boring... [gasp] matronly. But now my phone announces to the world that I am an archaic specimen. A fossil. I am unworthy.

Ah-ha. Even me. Even non-materialistic, non-trend-following, not-susceptible-to-peer-pressure me.

Consumer culture demands that we buy, buy, buy. We are surrounded by advertising, every bit of it designed to get us to buy more stuff. Since we, the targets of these ads, presumably have everything we need, the ads must urge us to buy what we don't need, but what we want. And if we don't want it yet, the ads exist to create that desire.

And since many of us already own what we want - yet still we must buy, buy, buy - marketers must induce us to discard what we already own.

This is accomplished in two ways: planned obsolescence - the manufacturing of crappy products that quickly become junk - and perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence means my perfectly good, working cell phone is suddenly unacceptable to me, because it's last year's model.

Carrying a new-model cell phone shows we're hip, we're cool, we're up on the new trends. So carrying an old cell phone must mean we're old, boring, ugly, undesireable.

If you haven't already seen "The Story Of Stuff", I highly recommend setting aside 20 minutes and watching it from start to finish. It's an excellent graphic depiction of consumer culture - its causes and its effects.

There are many reasons not to buy a new cell phone. The deplorable conditions of the cassiterite mines, which sound like something out of the 18th Century. My local landfill. My wallet. My RRSP. My perfectly good working cell phone.

And there is only one reason to buy a new cell phone: someone has planted an idea in my head that I'm not good enough.

30 comments:

James said...

I'm very much a gadget geek, but I'm avoiding most of the cell-phone upgrade cycle. I'm on my third: I got the second because we were travelling in Europe and wanted a world-band GSM phone; I got the third because we figured having web access while travelling would be useful (it has been). But none of the old phones are in landfill (yet) -- they're still knocking around the house, with the old Walkmen and other disused gadgets.

We definitely need better recycling for electronics.

By the way, are you familiar with Chris Jordan's collection of consumption-themed photo-montages, called Running the Numbers? Each photo is a huge (on the order of 5'x8') composite depicting the number of X (cell phones, breast implants, paper bags, etc) consumed over a period of Y (a day, a year, since 2006, etc) in the US or world -- for example, "410,000 paper cups, equal to the number of disposal hot-beverage paper cups used in the US every fifteen minutes".

James said...

I meant to include this in the last comment: One of the images is Cell Phones: "Depicts 426,000 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the US every day."

L-girl said...

I'm very much a gadget geek, but I'm avoiding most of the cell-phone upgrade cycle.

It's a very rapid cycle! I would still be on my first phone if my old US service could have been transferred to Rogers.

We definitely need better recycling for electronics.

That's definitely part of the problem.

By the way, are you familiar with Chris Jordan's collection of consumption-themed photo-montages, called Running the Numbers?

I do know them - good idea posting that here.

L-girl said...

"Depicts 426,000 cell phones, equal to the number of cell phones retired in the US every day."

Holy shit. That's good for me to remember as I wrestle with this silly desire.

deang said...

Very good post. As social a person as you seem to be, Laura, you probably feel the perceived social pressure more than, say, I would, since I mostly keep to myself and ignore people around me. I resisted getting a cell phone until 2006, and then only for the safety reasons you mentioned, particularly when I'm accompanying my young nieces somewhere. But another reason has caused me to resist using it even for that: something (I think it's the electromagnetic radiation) causes my ears to ring and hand and arm to tingle intensely when I use any cell phone. If I use one too long, the arm holding it will feel almost as bad as if I'd had a mild blow to the funny bone, and my ears ring loudly for a long time afterward. I've read the studies researching links to cancer and sexual dysfunction, some of which are ominous, some of which aren't, and I've talked to people who felt similar sensations when near cell phone towers, but I've yet to find anyone who experiences this just from using one. Anyway, something else to think about.

redsock said...

re dean's comment:

does anyone recall an article from several years ago in which a brain surgeon was quoted as saying he would never allow his kids to use cellphones?

i think it was his #1 rule in the house until they were adults. i found that interesting.

Jere said...

This relates to what you're saying, in the social way, not the marketing way.

I noticed fairly recently that guys' socks are really short. Like, in summer, when everyone has shorts on, I noticed these shorties, to the point where every single person is wearing them now. Anyway, all my socks, I got years ago, and they're the classic kind that go almost up to your knees, though I've worn them in "scrunched down style" for many years. It's almost like the sock industry is just skipping a step: Same length, without the scrunch. But the scrunch is very noticeable. I wonder if everyone's laughing at me in summer. What really surprises me is the fact that this means so many dudes have bought new socks lately. We're guys, aren't we supposed to wear this stuff until it disintegrates? I haven't bought socks since--well, I've had them all so long, I was still a teenager, so my mom bought them! I've NEVER bought socks, as far as I can tell! I think any recent socks I got were from grandmas at Christmases.

So I've been thinking, should I buy new socks? Just to look like everybody else? I haven't yet. But we'll see what happens as summer '08 approaches. My girlfriend also saw my one pair of sweatpants recently, and laughed at the stretchy cuffs at the ankles. I was like, "What?" She informed me that sweatpants are like bell-bottoms now. I looked around, and sure enough, everybody's sweatpants look like Manny Ramirez' pants. Girls and guys. I had no idea.

About your dilemma--have you seen those novelty phones that are "Cell phones" but have the huge, old-style receiver and the old curly cord? I think you should get one of those. Fuck everybody. Or walk around in a phone booth with two holes for your feet.

By the way, I still don't have a cell phone. I'm going for an award at this point.

Amy said...

Gee, men are wearing short socks and sweat pants with bell bottoms? Could have fooled me! I am so out of the loop that I don't even know where the loop is. Just ask my two daughters, who are so aware of styles and fads that sometimes I think we don't share any DNA. And Laura, my phone is several years old and much clunkier than the current style. So you are not alone at the uncool table in the cafeteria.

The advertising is overwhelming, but mostly I tune it out. (You may recall that I also never seem to notice all the promotional stuff during ball games). But it's ok---my kids are more than making up for it.

On a different note, you are so right about how peer pressure can make people more aware of the need to be more "green" in our use of resources. I do find that those messages do get through, and your words have made me more aware of our need to start doing more to limit our use of plastics and other non-recyclable materials.

impudent strumpet said...

A few years back, you could drop of old phones at Bell World (they didn't have to be Bell phones) and they'd recycle them or donate them or something. Don't know if that's still the case.

My girlfriend also saw my one pair of sweatpants recently, and laughed at the stretchy cuffs at the ankles. I was like, "What?" She informed me that sweatpants are like bell-bottoms now.

Hold onto the cuffed pants for one more year, they might be coming back. At least I've recently seen a few teenagers walking around in (very baggy) cuffed sweatpants that looked surprisingly new for cuffed sweatpants. I could be wrong though, I'm on my third cellphone in 8 years and yet have never managed to have a phone that was even remotely stylish even for a moment, so I'm not the best person for making good fashion choices.

gito said...

L, my suggestion would be to wait a little longer and get the iPhone!!! I don't know if you have seen it or not, but its so sleek and futuristic and the good thing is that, software developers are always coming out with add-ons for it, so it always up to day.

PeterC said...

G'day Laura,

Just thought I'd say great post!

I have owned cell phones in the past, it was actually the cheapest solution to living in the back of beyond at the time. This was back when cell phone transmission was measured in Watts. :) So needless to say it was a 1980s vintage phone. I needed the power to get the to cell tower.

Having disclosed that, I no longer own a cell phone. I've had thoughts about replacing my land line with one for two reasons. First, I can turn it off. Second, I'm never at home to get the important calls that I have to be at home for. (ie Changed Doctor's appointments, the cable guy, the delivery guy, whatever)I've resisted these reasons because I don't want my cell to own me.

I do have a question for you and a few of your commentators. Who planted the idea that cell phones provide safety? I remember when this idea first came out in and around 85 as cell phones became "reasonibly" priced and no longer a business only thing.

I'm not judging anyone, by the way, I hope I'm only carrying on the concept of those "implanted ideas" you talked about. I know I have a desperate desire for a better computer(I HATE waiting for computers to do things) but I've not figured out if it is my idea or someone elses...

Again, I think this was a great post.

L-girl said...

Very good post. As social a person as you seem to be, Laura, you probably feel the perceived social pressure more than, say, I would, since I mostly keep to myself and ignore people around me.

Thank you, Dean. I'd like to turn this into an essay for a non-wmtc venue, so I appreciate the feedback.

It's funny how I don't think of myself as being susceptible to social pressure, but obviously I am not immune.

I resisted getting a cell phone until 2006,

I resisted for a long time too. I found it so convenient when we were looking for a place to live, that's when I gave in. Also, one of our dogs once became critically ill while we were away, and I was unreachable. Since then, I've had a fear of being out of touch with my dogsitter.

About the rest of your comment...

does anyone recall an article from several years ago in which a brain surgeon was quoted as saying he would never allow his kids to use cellphones?

Yes, absolutely. He doesn't use one or let his kids use them. That was pretty telling.

The tingling in Dean's arm could be a nerve responding to pressure from a certain position. I can't put my elbow on a table without experiencing tingling up the forearm into my fingers. But the ringing in the ears...? Hmm.

L-girl said...

Jere, if you've never bought socks, then somebody must be buying socks for you. I mean, you're not two years old. You've needed socks at some point in your life.

About your dilemma--have you seen those novelty phones that are "Cell phones" but have the huge, old-style receiver and the old curly cord? I think you should get one of those.

Yes, that will decrease my feelings of social discomfort.

By the way, I still don't have a cell phone. I'm going for an award at this point.

I notice among non-cell users, it's become a point of pride. A reverse geek-gadget-ness.

I personally wouldn't feel safe anymore. Especially now that I live in suburbia, where I've driving around, as opposed to walking on a sidewalk full of people. Public telephones barely exist out here. (Or do they anywhere?)

L-girl said...

The advertising is overwhelming, but mostly I tune it out. (You may recall that I also never seem to notice all the promotional stuff during ball games).

I do recall that. It makes me incredibly envious. I wish I could do that. I mute commercials on TV, but I can't tune out the ads from my brain.

On a different note, you are so right about how peer pressure can make people more aware of the need to be more "green" in our use of resources. I do find that those messages do get through

I'm glad. At last, a positive use for the evil genius of peer pressure!

L-girl said...

I could be wrong though, I'm on my third cellphone in 8 years and yet have never managed to have a phone that was even remotely stylish even for a moment, so I'm not the best person for making good fashion choices.

Really?? From your blog, I imagine you as having the absolute latest up-to-the-minute cell. Not that you would make the decision based on fashion, but that you'd want and have the latest thing.

I feel better now. :)

L-girl said...

L, my suggestion would be to wait a little longer and get the iPhone!!!

Thanks, Gito. But no way. I just want a phone. If I could find a phone without a camera, without internet access and without text messaging, that's what I'd like best. The iPhones look beautiful though, I agree.

L-girl said...

Peter C, thanks for the positive feedback on the post, I appreciate it.

I know lots of people who have replaced their land line with cells. Depending on your lifestyle, it could make sense and could save significant money.

I do have a question for you and a few of your commentators. Who planted the idea that cell phones provide safety?

If I am driving, and I have car trouble, how will I call for help without a phone? If I don't feel well and need help, and there's no pay phone around...? When I'm away, how will my dogsitter be able to reach me? These all used to be issues, and now are not.

It's not that that a phone "provides safety". It's that I'm safer having a phone than not having one. I don't think that's a planted idea at all.

I also enjoy the convenience. If I need to reach someone to relay a quick message, I don't have to wait til I'm home or find a pay phone (which, as I've said, barely exist anymore).

Jere said...

I just still don't see why I need a cell phone. I'm always reachable by e-mail. When I go out, I go out for the purpose of being out and doing whatever it is I'm doing. I'm so afraid that if I get a phone, I'll turn into all these people that are out, but constantly checking the thing, getting calls and just answering them and talking really loudly all of a sudden, and leaving the person I WAS talking to standing there with their thumb up their ass. People say, "you can just turn it off!" And to that I say, walking around with a turned-off cell phone is the same as walking around without a cell phone. Only my way, I have one less thing in my pocket, I keep my sperm and brain healthy, and I save [whatever cell phones cost per month] per month.

The only time I regret not having one is when I'm in the car and there's a radio contest. "Be the fifth caller.." No fair!

L-girl said...

I just still don't see why I need a cell phone.

Then you don't.

I'm aware that I don't really need one, since I lived without a cell before they existed. I just feel more comfortable and happier with one than without one, so that's a good enough reason for me.

I'd rather have the convenience than a medal for resisting technology.

BUT you can definitely own and carry a cell without becoming one of those people. Nothing to it.

Jere said...

I hope you didn't think my "award" line meant I was one of those people who has pride about it or am resisting technology--I like some forms technology and hate others. I just meant they're gonna give me the award since I'm truly one of the "finalists" at this point. (But I am proud to not be one of the rude assholes of the world, cell or not.)

"Then you don't."

Then can you please tell everyone I know to stop telling me I do?:)

Oh, and about the socks, you must've missed my line about grandmas. I seriously think all the socks I own came from girlfriends' grandmas or whatever. Because I've never gone to a store and shopped for regular white socks. But I've gone a few holiday seasons without that particular gift, and I've got lots of holey socks, so something's gotta give.

L-girl said...

I hope you didn't think my "award" line meant I was one of those people who has pride about it or am resisting technology

I did think that. But now I understand what you meant. :)

(But I am proud to not be one of the rude assholes of the world, cell or not.)

As well you should be. As am I. But owning and carrying a cell phone does not turn you into a rude asshole. I swear.

Then can you please tell everyone I know to stop telling me I do?

Yes. Right away.

Oh, and about the socks, you must've missed my line about grandmas.

No, I saw it. I've heard from lots of guys how they never buy socks or underwear. Like this is something to be proud of - that first their mommies bought it for them, and now their girlfriends or wives do. I know you are not like that, but I needed to point it out anyway.

Now to contact everyone you know...

Mara Clarke said...

I am also about to get a new phone. I have to - Baby A finds mine no matter where in the house it is and it is practically destroyed. And my partner is a huge techno geek, and works in a very high tech environment and almost has to have the latest and greatest to be respected. That said, we never throw out phones. Next time you are in NYC, any Verizon store will take an old phone and dontate it to women's shelters and victims of domestic violence. There are also always people on freecycle looking for phones. (Freecycle is also fantastic for recycling virtually any kind of electronics). We also keep 2 phones on hand here with pay-as-you-go SIM cards for our endless cycle of houseguests (should they wish to be reachable by phone while here as most US phones do not work internationally).

In the end, you do what feels right for you. As your excellent post about organic/local/etc food said, you need to do what you can and not beat yourself up for not doing everything.

L-girl said...

Thank you, Mara. :)

I was going to mention the phones for DV survivors and shelters. Verizon donates free service for these phones, that can reach 911 and one other emergency number.

I hadn't thought of Freecylce, although I Freecyle tons of stuff, as well as get buy and sell stuff on Craigslist. Good idea! James, maybe Freecycle is the way to go whenever you get around to getting rid of the old toys.

James said...

And to that I say, walking around with a turned-off cell phone is the same as walking around without a cell phone.

Not quite. If you're walking around with a turned-off cell phone and need to contact someone, you can turn it on and call. If you're walking around without a cell phone, you can't.

Case in point: a couple of years ago I was doing a long cycling tour of eastern Toronto -- I'd planned about 70km. However, this was too early in the cycling season and I wasn't up to it, and suffered a huge energy crash about 50km in. I had my cell on me, so I could call a friend to come rescue me. Had I not had the cell phone, getting home would have been a much bigger problem.

Which isn't to say anyone else needs one. It's up to you whether you want one or not. I like being easily accessible to Lori, I don't get many unwanted calls, and when I'm off doing a 100km cycling tour through remote parks in North York, I like the fact that, should I wipe out and break a leg or something, I can call for help -- but those are reasons for me to have a cell phone; for anyone else, it may or may not be useful.

L-girl said...

And to that I say, walking around with a turned-off cell phone is the same as walking around without a cell phone.

I didn't see that earlier.

Jere, if you don't want a phone, then obviously you shouldn't get one. But how is walking around with a phone turned off the same thing as walking around without a phone?

I don't get that at all. Explain?

Jere said...

Incoming calls-wise. (Yes, a huge difference would be with the phone, you could make a call at any time.) I just mean when people say, Just turn it off when you go out if you don't want to be bothered--since I never want to be bothered when I'm out, I'd never turn it on. Which is the same thing as not having one. (And when I say "not turned on" I mean "when someone calls you have no idea they're calling." Until you check messages, I guess.)

L-girl said...

I never turn my phone on unless (a) I want to make a call or, very rarely (b) I've asked someone to call my cell, because I know I'm going to be out, but I need to get a quick bit of info so it's more convenient to just get the call while I'm out.

I never give out my cell number, and never get unwanted calls. 99% of my cell phone calls are outgoing, and the 1% is planned.

I am totally not trying to tell you you should get a cell phone, and anyone who tells you so should just shut up. But having a cell phone and keeping it turned off is not the same as not having one.

L-girl said...

PS Allan doesn't have one either. Sometimes when he does errands, I ask him to take mine, so he can call home w/ questions. It's very handy that way, but he won't carry one of his own.

Jere said...

I really just meant that when you're out, in terms of someone being able to contact you, there's no difference between having a turned-off phone in your pocket and having a rock in there.

We don't have a landline, either. I did just get Skype, though, and there are other ways to call phones from a computer, as well as video and audio chatting. So I don't really miss the phone. Eventually I'll probably get one, though.

L-girl said...

Wow, no land line and no cell!

We don't have a land line, but we have a home phone using VoIP, which I love. I don't care for Skype, although the price is nice.

I really just meant that when you're out, in terms of someone being able to contact you, there's no difference between having a turned-off phone in your pocket and having a rock in there.

True. The last thing I want is anybody to be able to contact me. :)