Thursday, October 30, 2008

Antiquity and Youth

Antique shows, flea markets and eBay have done big trade in nostalgia and collectables in recent years. Until recently, there has been a market for just about anything from toys to cookware that could bring back memories of the halcyon days of one's youth.

These things have some characteristics in common. To survive that long (and be available for sale somewhere), those items have to be of durable construction. To still be usable (and not simply very large paperweights) they have to be of simple technology. To be held in value, they have to be of recognized quality. To have staying power beyond a single generation, they have to be of timeless identity, and not products of fads.

This doesn’t describe the over-engineered, cheaply produced, pop culture dominated world in which our children are immersed today. We don’t build for durability, we build for consumption. We don’t define value systems, we define marketing messages. And we believe we improve everything by adding a battery.

Our creations today are infused with situational context: you need the right operating system, the right power source, the right hardware, and watch the right television shows if you are to get any use out of the things we create. Quality has become relative to context, not absolute to a standard. And, of course, today’s context will be tomorrow’s obsolescence. This means that the stuff we make today is “quality” more by matter of opinion or limited experience of the consumer than it is by fact. It also means that this stuff has a built-in expiration date of usefulness. It’s hard to imagine that 30 years hence our children will be ecstatic to discover a Hanna Montana DVD. It’s hard to imagine they’ll remember what either is.

There are some things – furniture, musical instruments, even houses – that are functional and timeless. They represent craftsmanship and values of those who came before us. If we are fortunate enough to have something like this in our care, we are aware that it is in our possession not so much to be consumed as to be taken care of for another generation.

This is, of course, a subtle lesson that "it isn't all about us" after all. But there is also something to be said for sustainable consumption. If we don't teach our children to value "sustainability" in ordinary things, how will they learn to apply it to their relationships with one another?