On the Evolution of Materialism

In the Toynbee section there is some discussion of materialism, and it got me thinking about where we are as a materialistic culture. After some thought, I believe we are far less materialistic than we were when I was a kid growing up. I was born in 1962, into a world in which men obsessed over their cars to a greater extent than we seem to now. The ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality was front and center; to own the largest television, the best refrigerator, and have the nicest lawn was vital. Even those stupid pink flamingos seemed to be more important than other, more intangible considerations.

I don’t believe we obsess over those things nearly as much today. Monstrous televisions are cheap, and electronics are also cheap enough that the concept of, say, a cellphone as status symbol doesn’t have the same sort of effect. Even the latest Iphones are so comparatively cheap that the status gained from owning one is more of a fashion statement than evidence of affluence. Automobiles are expensive, possibly in context even more expensive than they were forty years ago, but it just doesn’t seem like there is the same urgency to have the coolest car. Quality seems to be valued more than appearance; some of the most expensive mainstream brands now put out vehicles, like the Cadillac Escalade, that aren’t easily identified as unique from their cheaper counterparts.

It seems to me that we are less materialistic than we were when I was young, and perhaps more obsessed with showing off – which I think is a good thing. With a world increasingly interconnected by communications devices that sometimes make us more aware of the other side of the planet than the people sitting next to us, it is probably a good thing that we are such social animals. We will eventually learn to look up more and (hopefully) connect the dots to both sides of the world, just like the old car-obsessed men of my youth learned to stop polishing their ‘babies’ and went back to using them to go places.

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