Monday, May 25, 2009

Keeping Up with the Joneses: 2009 Edition

I got a new cell phone on Saturday.

I didn’t need one. There was nothing wrong with my less-than-two-year-old one, save for a few cosmetic scratches on the front and the annoying tendency of the side flaps to avoid sliding back into their proper position. Still, it worked just fine, and since it was capable of making and receiving phone calls, I was happy with it. No need to upgrade.

But after my mom’s phone fizzled out last week and it became clear that I was eligible for a trade-in, the urging of the Sprint employee and the insistence of my father had me examining the display cases.

“What features do you want?” asked the helpful fellow.

“Something that won’t break when I drop it. And that will fit in my pocket when I ride a horse. And, oh, I like to take pictures, but I don’t transfer them to my computer or anything.”

He showed me fancy expandable QWERTY keypads. I don’t text. He showed me large, technologically advanced screens. I don’t watch TV. He showed me fancy Internet features. I don’t connect to the web.

Finally, I settled on a model slightly above the basic line—an upgrade of my old Katana. It came in three colors, but the pink was reminiscent of a certain stomach medication and the silver was unavailable, so I went for the black. “Boring, boring, boring,” said my father, who hasn’t seemed to realize that I’m no longer 10 years old.

On the drive home, I amused myself with picking out a new ringtone (a modernized rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon), then quickly grew tired of my new toy and stuffed it in my pocket, taking the old phone’s place. Meanwhile, my parents struggled to figure out the new features of their high-tech choices, repeatedly asking for my assistance and exclaiming in frustration. Simplicity triumphs again.

But in this era of supposedly increased concern for the environment and renewable resources, why are we so willing to constantly “trade up” for newer, bigger, better options when doing so is completely unnecessary? Far from making our lives easier, it’s simply more complicated and frustrating, as my parents found out. It’s not really a matter of impressing people, either, is it? Is it that consumer culture teaches us that our happiness is tied into constant transience, the pursuit of the newest, coolest, bestest thing? Does our value rest solely in our stuff? Is this Keeping Up with the Joneses: 2009 Edition?

And, of course, it’s wasteful. We’ll be keeping one of the spare phones, but the others will be donated to a charity—perhaps a battered women’s shelter—if we can find one, that is. The store wouldn’t buy them back, as it has no use for them, and didn’t offer to recycle them, either. So much for being green.

To make the situation even more absurd, I’ve had to opportunity to compare it with a completely different cultural outlook. As our roof was badly damaged in this month’s storm (now classified as a “land-based hurricane” rather than a tornado), a crew has been hard at work resetting shingles this week. An Amish crew, that is, who hitch a ride in a driver’s van from their homes several towns over. Although the Amish aren’t an uncommon sight in some areas around here, my interactions with them have been extremely limited. I’m sorely tempted to engage them in conversation about their beliefs, but too shy and embarrassed (not to mention rude and whorish, by their standards, I imagine) to carry out my plan. Besides, where does one begin? How would I respond if a “foreigner” (for although we live geographically close, culturally, we are continents apart) approached me and asked me to explain my fundamental values in 500 words or less? Instead, I checked out a Wikipedia article and pretended that that was all I needed or wanted to know.

I’ve observed them hard at work on the roof, though—all the way from boys of 15 or 16 to a man well into his sixties. They never remove their wide-brimmed straw hats, and they’re much more comfortable speaking amongst each other in Pennsylvania Dutch (at least according to the Wiki article—I can’t recognize the language). They brought a tin can to fill with water from the spigot, and they all share. It’s all so alien to me.

At one point, a man in his forties approached me as I was unsaddling my horse. Earlier they had all been having a good laugh at my expense as the mare spooked over their ladders and refused to come near. The man asked me questions about her, and I gladly answered, happy that we had found a common point of interest and expertise. Even on this subject, however, the discrepancies were notable. He was fascinated by her build, her gait, and the fact that I rode her every day—for pleasure, no less. To him, horses are a necessary mode of transportation, a machine that may be thought of fondly. To me, they’re pets and sources of amusement.

Funny how that is.


ihateyoupetersmythe said...

We had Amish people come re-model our basement. One of them crossed a wire and the alarm system went haywire and could not be shut off. So for two hours, they laughed as we all became deaf because of this insane alarm system. I finally figured out I could turn off the back up battery and the whole system would die. They were very nice though. I wish I wasn't so shallow, but I plan on getting a cool phone even though I don't text, play games on it, listen to music on it, or surf the web on it. It being my 2-year old phone that works great.

citizen of the world said...

When it was time for me to switch plans I got a phone with too may features that I don't use and it annoys the heck out of me. I want to be able to call people and text only very occassionally. Other than that, what I want is small (to fit in my pocket). But I won't chaneg it until I ust have to. The phone industry is even worse than computers for constantly pushing people to "upgrade."

Mozart said...

I don't think it's shallow--not if you're going to use it and aren't buying it to impress so-and-so or because it's just the thing to do.

I don't know how to use any of the features of my phone except the camera. The screen and buttons are too small for much more--I'd kill myself trying. There was the time I accidentally got on the Internet and racked up a $75 charge in five minutes...

BrightenedBoy said...

Ha ha, I'm the exact same way with the cell phone thing except I don't even take pictures.