9. The Inflation of the Human Ego

The mind then, is far more easily swayed with colourful words, pictures, and other forms of stimulation, and not so easily attracted to dealing with the mundane, and taking the time to understand. The problem with consumerism is that it isn’t looking to make an unbiased sale, because it would be boring (to the buyer) and unprofitable (to the capitalist). Greater sales are generated if the company can manipulate how the product/service/whatever is perceived. The focus then, turns on making the perception as nice as possible, and this is the idea behind “clever” advertising; it’s “clever” to make advertisements for corporations which make an impact by implanting a will in us to associate with it. Thus the focus of the company turns on making the experience unreal, and reality is ignored/scorned. When coupled with our tendency to turn a blind eye to things imposed on us which we perceive as favorable (for ourselves, in the short term especially), we accept the unreality without thinking about it. For example, all malls are centrally air-conditioned. We simply step in to the malls and are encouraged to feel “relieved” of reality. Entry into the malls is free — this means we don’t really value air conditioning and take it for granted in a mall. But the point is that, again, we start making the easier choice and ignoring reality. When was the last time you entered a mall, and just stopped and thought — “wait, I just entered here after a security check, and I could walk out without spending a single rupee. Then why is someone paying so much for keeping me cool?” Because they know you’ll spend on something, and that will generate a profit for them. Because we’re trashing the Earth’s environment and making it hotter for ourselves, and because we have technology on our side, we choose to ignore trying to even think about lowering the Earth’s temperatures, because we’ve been trained to simply escape reality. Air conditioning, from an engineering point of view involves a heat source and a sink; it basically absorbs heat from inside the mall and rejects the heat to the outside atmosphere. Just imagine — money enables an entity to cool a space solely to generate profit from it, while using incredible amounts of energy in addition to heating up the surrounding air. On principle (as defined by our actions, remember) we have agreed to cool a finite space at the expense of consumption of electricity (usually powered by fossil fuels) and by heating the surroundings, if only marginally. It is now left up to entrepreneurs to invent solutions to use that heat productively and not dissipate it, or come up with some other solution to make this setup more “efficient” rather than risking lower profits for everyone involved in running the mall (by eliminating AC). Yet another example of how taking a step back is immediately unthinkable, because our expectations have been recalibrated for the current level of reality.

In fact, consumerism celebrates separation from reality, because our perceptions, if real, will appeal to the rational sides of our mind, and the ability to see things for what they are. Constantly, we are introduced to creams that “help” us get fairer, perfumes that help us smell “better” (human sweat is too real and it stinks!), clothes that make us look “better” (your current clothes are boring! Look like the person in this picture right now!), laptops and phones that lend us the “power to do more” (your current device isn’t good enough, you need to spend MORE time on it!), and innumerable other examples.

It gets worse. Not only do we buy based on these advertisements, we actually believe that reality isn’t meant for humans, and that we should get away from it as soon as possible. The article I mentioned earlier is an affirmation of this. People today wear perfumes to smell “nice”, because just a bath wouldn’t have been enough, or too slow/tedious. And of course it doesn’t stop there; as long as someone sees potential to make money, there are more products to “help” you with your “problem” (which they themselves defined on your behalf). This means we can now buy stuff like sweat blockers, which are created especially to block your sweat pores! Not only is this short-sighted (you’re trying to contain the sweat inside your body, treating it as a symptom to be resolved), I find it violates a bodily function — the body sweats to excrete 1% or so of body waste, and to cool us down. Again, the ethics of such a product aren’t really considered on a personal level: all company testing and safety certifications aside, would you want to block your pores? Well, the companies making the product certainly seem to think so… Again, we do what is easy (accept an opinion from the company about their own product) over what takes just a little more effort (thinking about whether we really need the product, or paying attention to how it works).

This separation of reality is present everywhere, as companies look to impose a certain image rather than help the viewer understand the meaning behind it. As one climbed up the money chain (just the fact that one has a certain amount of money) consumption of more is implied: upgrade from a car with just an AC to one with a top-class music system, screens to keep us consuming, or at the very top, seat massagers because the company feels you’ve worked hard enough to earn it. Never mind that such accessories run off engine power and increase fuel consumption; that’s a price we’ve already agreed to pay. With the development of engines it is increasingly seen as the company’s responsibility to develop more efficient ones, never mind how many auxiliary electronics are needed to augment our own perception towards the mundane behind every car: getting from point A to B on a hot day, stuck in traffic with others. Thus the modern car isn’t a mode of transport as much as a cocoon for escaping reality: everyone uses the AC to escape the heat (I distinctly remember times when it was reserved to be used only for particularly hot days), music/radio to escape the blaring horns outside (I want to get my message across by honking my horn, but I don’t want to be bothered to hear it myself!), and screens to ignore the most basic reality occupying most of our senses — vision. You don’t even need to look at “dirty things” or problems like poverty, hunger, or even death: the beggar can simply be ignored, as their impact on your reality is limited to knocking softly on the closed window pane, and the dead dog on the road is glanced at and forgotten, since it isn’t a part of your reality. Global warming is something that is read about and discussed, not understood; record temperatures are simply numbers on paper, as we simply choose to ignore the heat by using an air conditioner (if one doesn’t own an AC, it’s certainly aspired for).

Take a look at the picture below, for example.

The advertised building is certified to be “Platinum” rated as a “Green Building”, and thus “environment friendly”: the scope of friendliness is defined in this certification. Almost no one would actually bother to read up on the certification, see whether it has actual merit, let alone consider bigger ideas of helping reduce global warming. All the consumer cares about is that it is cooler (better for me, my comfort) than conventional homes, never mind that it is also advertised to come with ACs pre-equipped (“it’s a home that consumes less, with an AC!”). Thus we are tempted to believe that we are actually helping the environment by choosing to go with this building, while simultaneously upholding the “need” we’ve built for an air-conditioner. Forget being environmentally friendly, you’d actually be using excess energy compared to a home that isn’t certified, but which doesn’t use air-conditioning. This sort of hypocrisy exists in almost any advertisement one comes across.

Walking on the street on a hot day is unheard of by people who have options, simply by the virtue of having them. I walk for over an hour every day to and from work, half of which is spent in direct sunlight (though I’ve recently resorted to using an umbrella for perpetual shade). I have the option to sign up for company cabs, facilitated by the fact that they’re cheap: with a monthly fare of Rs 600, I’d be spending approx. Rs 27.27 for a two-way trip. This is extremely affordable, but what is its value? Choosing whether or not to take the cab requires me to introspect and consider what is deemed as harder: walk. On a long term basis, walking for over an hour every day would be very healthy, and I don’t need to bother for other forms of exercise for now. However, it is a distressing fact of consumerism that it makes us value money more than health, ranging from occasionally to a daily basis. Even if they (the cabs) weren’t air-conditioned, my trips to and fro would be much easier, “saving” an enormous amount of “effort”, according to people around me (so apparently health, now, is separate from reality; it doesn’t have to be part of my everyday life). By choosing to walk, my thoughts become action, and my words become imbibed with meaning; I mean it when I say it’s hot, because I’ve spent more time being a part of that stated reality rather than a bystander who was told by some third party (news or temperature sensor readings while sitting in an AC’ed room) that it is.

The separation from reality became all the more apparent, and the increasing choice of “easy” over “difficult” all the more prevalent, with the introduction of social media. Social media, to me, maintains that delicate balance of making you feel like it means something, whereas what actually happened was that you changed a few bytes of data in a world of trillions. Social media gives everyone an audience, limited though it be by that person’s friends list. We like, share, retweet, reblog, or whatever it is that we do, without a thought given to whether we are acting out what we say. I find posts that bluntly cry for attention, asking for “likes” as a form of support — I do not know whether the person responsible for it was deluded, but more shocking is how many “likes” it had actually received. This is extremely worrying, for it seems logical to assume that those other people interacting with said post actually believe that one of their clicks made a difference. I’ve found a few members of the older generation who remain skeptical about technology and social media, and I realized most of them possess this skepticism because they can’t accept how something so unreal exists — it probably sounds like this fantastical place where everyone is happy (in the pictures) and everything is awesome. I think it’s because they were more used to actually doing rather than talking, commenting, liking, sharing, whatever.

The thing about the internet is that it’s only half real; it’s a virtual platform to occasionally do real things, like order food, pay bills and so on. But the amount of space it gives the thoughts is immense; just by owning a device with an Internet connection, you could avail of plenty of free services that you could use to put down ideas and broadcast them to an audience. This, when combined with the ability to instantly share news on social networks, in some way satisfies the mind; you have easily voiced your opinion. But that has absolutely nothing to do with action; thus, I refrain from sharing more than a post or two each month because I begin to feel like a hypocrite. Technology made it extremely easy for me to gain the information contained in that news post, and share it to my account; but it did not help me even a little in doing something to make a difference — that is left up to my own conviction, inspiration, and belief. Here is where money enters the equation: you can easily donate to a trust that claims to help some cause. But did that really make it real? Like you order food for delivery and receive it, did you check if that institute has done a good job in the past? Did you visit the place to understand what impact your money made, and whether that impact is sufficient enough to address the root cause of the problem? I doubt it; I know I didn’t, the few times I did it. In this sense, the value of money outside the consumerist human world is irrelevant — if I pushed a 50-rupee note to a dog’s face, it would probably smell it and try to chew it. It becomes easy to watch numbers on a bank balance go down as opposed to hitting the streets and trying to make a difference yourself.

Companies will make any sort of product aimed at elevating (I will refrain from using the word “improving”) your comfort levels to the point where you can’t go back on them because your mind is used to it.

I read an article in a newspaper about a few days back about how air purifier sales were going up, and almost as if that was the cause, this popped up on Amazon’s homepage a few days later.

Any person with grounded expectations would refuse to buy this, yet it’s a reality that our cities are becoming more polluted by the day. What do the rich do? “Screw everyone else, I have money so I’ll buy a product to handle it — simple.”

Having money does not mean taking more responsibility inspite of the increased power it affords.