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On how we live

By which I mainly mean our habitats. This is on my mind for a number of reasons; one being that it has been on my mind for more than a while. The thing that has brought it to a head recently is the fact of the central heating being broken. Now, when I type that the central heating is broken I could assume that you know what that means… you can imagine, if you cared to and I am not sure you do, that there is no heat. And you would be right, to an extent; there certainly is less heat in this house than I am used to or indeed would prefer. On the other hand, you may not know what it means to say that the heating in this house is broken, that is to say in a technical sense. And I would expect that if you cared at all about my heating not working, caring about why it is not working would be stretching the bounds of the common human feeling for another man.

Someone may imagine, in a passing sense, that it is the boiler that is kaput. Others may be more technically imaginative and wonder if it is the pump, or a stuck valve. Most will not be interested and I do not blame them. Reserve the concern for when you are cold in your home. Maybe that won’t be until you are an older person, living in a larger house than may be strictly necessary, and you cannot afford to heat the whole space. Or maybe it won’t. I wish everyone as warm as they need to be for the rest of their lives. Like food, warmth and shelter are fairly basic human needs, in theory, easy enough to meet. Until your house is too big, or your money is insufficient, or some small electrical part in the system of tanks, and boilers, and pumps, and diverter switches goes and you are a bit chilly.

It should be so simple. Warmth can be eternally generated by the use of sticks to make fire. Why have we over-complicated it with radiators and gravity pumps and pipes and thermostats and so on and so on? Why have we made ourselves helpless in the machinery of our lives? How many of us, when something goes can fix it ourselves. And how many of us, willing to at least try to fix it ourselves are ultimately defeated by some piece of sealed gadgetry that cannot be mended, only slung out and replaced, thus driving the wheels of commerce once more?

I am quite frustrated that I cannot simply meet my own basic needs. This led me to wonder about the whole living in a house thing; the two-up, two-down house that needs to be centrally heated in the first place. Why do we live in houses and why do we have stairs? I mean, what is the purpose of stairs? Dead space that elevate your living area by the power of two (or more). Of course we have stairs because you get more bang for your buck. You can live on less land by building upwards. You and I have stairs to walk up and down and clean because of commerce. And when we get old and live in our family homes those stairs can become obstacles. It is a fact that few animals build themselves dwellings with stairs. Someone pointed out that stairs are good because when you sleep you are vulnerable. Stairs give you a chance to hear someone breaking in downstairs. So I added that to my theory: we have stairs because we live in capitalist culture and because we are scared of our fellow man. It made me like stairs even less than I already do.

Why do we even live in houses like we do, on streets? Why would we string out our living along polluted, noisy and dangerous roads? Thoroughfares that exist for the wheels of commerce trundle along? Is this the most peaceful, harmonious environment for humans to live in? People in boxes, with stairs, lacking the means to make their own heat and grow their own food, closely packed together without connections to each other and strung out along smelly highways? It is, to paraphrase what Thoreau wrote in Walden, simply that rather than us having the house, the house has us.

To simplify our lives then must be the answer, but we have so over-complicated everything that it is doubtful if it is possible for the majority except over the generations. Take wealth. We were raised to believe that the way to live is to own your own home, not to best serve your needs in your living, but to have wealth to pass on when you are dead. Those days are gone. Our parents are spending the wealth accumulated in bricks and mortar on their enjoyment now and their care later because we don’t or can’t always care for our own in communities any more. Your house, the one that takes so much work and money now, will turn against you in the end and betray your basic needs. I don’t know about you, but I have come to the conclusion that, actually, I don’t need a lot of indoor space, but what I do need is access to outdoor space. I don’t need stairs and if I live in a smaller space, I don’t need central heating. People think that perhaps I mean to be a regressive sort, living in a muddy field with woodsmoke in my hair and no broadband. Or perhaps a militant eco warrior with an agenda for you, me, mankind! I don’t really – there is no need to have a war about it. I have not read some life changing tract or had conversations with like-minded souls. I have simply come to the conclusion, through observation adn experience that we can live differently to how we do. And I hope that within the difference there is greater connection with self and others. Even now, we have the technology to generate what we need in terms of energy but we are in the grip of our houses and their demands and consequently the energy corporations. Do you not feel robbed? If we become more modest in our living arrangements we can quietly harness wind, earth and sun and rain to meet our needs. If that means becoming more aware about what our real energy consumption needs are, is that a bad thing? Why not just use what is, rather than try to extract what is not. This is my modest dream for the future. At the moment the house has me, but if I can learn the skills I need, one day I hope to live harmoniously with a shelter I have not just created, but that I understand. A shelter that can adapt itself to how I live, instead of the current situation which is, sadly, the reverse.

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Consuming the self

More and more these days the regular acts of a consumer seem to be: find it yourself, read your own meter, enter your details online *YOU LEFT OUT SOME DETAILS!*, key the number into your telephone keyboard, say the digits after the beep, do it yourself, press the hash key, pack the goods yourself, pay via an automated service and withdraw via one too.

What I am trying to say is that, increasingly, our modes of consumption, are unmediated by a human being. We commune only with the product or service and some kind of computerised device. I could nearly, if I wanted, run my whole consumer life without speaking to another human being, ever.

In fact, I might try it, for a week and see what becomes of me. It would mean self-service at the supermarket, pay-at-the-pump petrol. It would mean online shopping and online bill payments. No act of consumption would be sullied by an interaction with a third party… Now, I know that this is sold to us as a more convenient way of managing our own affairs, but the truth is, it is far cheaper for the merchant. Get the mug punter to most of the work themselves and voilà – it improves our profit margins. Don’t think it will be left at that either; apparently some ticket agencies are now charging customers, who have bought tickets online, an additional cost to print off their own tickets at home… By that brass-necked reckoning, it’s not going to be long before we are charged an entrance fee to the supermarket. Has anyone noticed how their vaunted free delivery became more and more expensive over the years, with ‘premium ‘ time slots?

Anyway, that’s not really what gets on my nerves, not really. I don’t hark back fondly to the day’s of ‘Are You Being Served’. What annoys me is that when a business model is predicated on a consumer being left to their own devices for the bulk of the transaction because something seems to go badly wrong in the psyche: both in mine (the consumer) and in theirs (the staff). I can only liken it to when I worked in a shop and we had a quiet day – if a customer came in late in the day we had become totally inured to doing nothing at all and the instant feeling was one of irritation or outrage. Sort of, ‘here is a customer actually expecting my help… the nerve!’

I had to buy shoes for the children today. I went to a shop where the stock room is the shop. You find your own size. This makes a whole heap of mess because customers tend to rip out the paper stuffing from the boxes and not put the lids back on properly and make the stacks of boxes all look very raggedy indeed. The staff’s main job then seems to be going along behind the customer (probably on about an hour or two’s time lag) and restacking the boxes in the stock room/shop floor. Usually they are to be found up 10 feet high ladders shuffling the boxes. You would need a loudhaler to attract their attention, or a distress flare. Anyway, my daughter found a pair of boots that suited in a size 1 box. Unfortunately, there were two right feet in the box and one was a size 2 as well. There were no more size 1s in size 1 boxes and no more size 1s that had escaped into other boxes. So we tried a different style – right size – but only one in the box. The staff did not care and stacked the useless boxes neatly back with their contents of one boot, odd boots, unmatching sizes and two left feet for the next unsuspecting size 1 customer to have a complete headfuck over. I know the staff don’t care about the shoes or the customer because their job is stacking boxes and climbing ladders, not serving customers. I don’t blame them, it’s the culture of the model. it’s just that the whole self-service thing taken to extremes dehumanises us all. It reminds me of that band called ‘Pop will Eat Itself’ – so will consumers, in the end.

Some of us will nibble off our toes behind a mountain of size one boots (left feet only). Some of us will poke out our eyeballs when the machine shouts ‘UNEXPECTED ITEM IN THE BAGGING AREA’. At least one person is going to saw off their hand when the machine says ‘Sorry, we didn’t understand that’ after they have been on hold for half an hour and I was nearly forced to cut out my tongue earlier when I had broken the automated system and got through to some kind of Stepford Call Centre worker who could only Speak From The Script.

It’s creeping up on us (if you are a modern global consumer) and you’d better watch out. Excessive consumption should come with a health warning, along the lines of, ‘Depersonalised consumption carries the risk of cannibalising one’s soul’. Here’s a more academic article on a related theme. Personally, I feel better for getting all that off my chest. But I am still trapped.