To Buy or Not to Buy: Wanting and Wastefulness

December 21, 2015

I am facing a dilemma, and it’s kind of a dumb one. Here it is:

I have a perfectly adequate smartphone. It’s an iPhone 5s, and it does absolutely all the things I needed it to do and most of the things I want it to. There is no way I can make the case that I need a new phone. It’s not true. My phone is still in good condition. The battery life has not diminished in any appreciable way. It’s fine.

It’s fine.

But I want a new phone. Like, a lot. Waaaaay too much. In the past couple of weeks I’ve watched for deals and scheming the best way to maximize discounts for everything from the new Nexus 5x and 6p, Moto X Pure to the iPhone 6s. Maybe I want to experiment a bit with the OnePlus 2?  I’ve tried to decide whether I’d be okay with an iPhone 6-a one model year upgrade-or whether it makes more sense to have the newest since it’ll (theoretically) last longer.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that’ll matter since I’ll probably be doing this again before any of those devices needs replacing.

So, So Shiny

Every one of these devices is among the best smartphones ever made because as a product category they just keep getting better. There’s also less to separate them from each other than ever before because competition has brought about pretty even parity between platforms. I’ve used both Android and iOS phones, and I like them both. I suspect part of the reason I’m even having this debate with myself is that I’ve had an iPhone awhile now, and I’m kinda curious what using a new Android phone would be like.

Where many people just want the dumb thing to work, I love playing around with different operating systems and features. I love new technology. I love learning what it can do and thinking about where it’s headed next. The only thing that keeps me from being an early adopter for everything from smartphones to virtual reality headgear to 3D printers is a guilty conscience that tells me I’m being irresponsible.

This is because I have a hard time with waste. I don’t like generating it, and I try to minimize it. That includes minimizing waste in terms of money, time, and material goods. Getting a new phone is most likely to qualify as a waste of money since I don’t need one, but it’s arguably a waste of material goods as well. My old phone won’t get chucked in a landfill, and someone else will likely find it quite useful, but if you follow that thread long enough there’s a phone ending up in the junk heap. That’s inevitable to some extent, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d be exacerbating wastefulness by indulging my predilection for shiny gadgets.

That predilection, of course, is the flip side of my disdain for being wasteful. They’re locked in an eternal tension. All of us who are fortunate enough to have all of our basic needs met and then some experience some form of this debate internally. It may not be about smartphones or other gadgets, but maybe it’s about whether to spend money on a dinner out or buy a new car or to splurge on some clothing. And we all love to put our own sense of value on how others grapple with this tension. Me buying a new phone might strike you as a silly use of money while I can’t understand why more people don’t take the bus to work even as it rolls by their homes.

Waste a Lot, Still Want Not

It’s an easy reaction to say, simply, that if someone can afford their indulgence then who are we to say they shouldn’t have it? It’s none of our business, after all, right? I land at that conclusion in part, but I think it’s good to feel this tension, to question what we want and why we want it. For me, wastefulness is the greatest of our modern sins. We use things briefly and discard them so easily. It’s built into the fabric of our economy.

Yesterday while out doing some grocery and Christmas shopping, I was struck by a couple of overflowing garbage bins that appeared to be filled with a disproportionate amount of Starbucks cups. I’d wager nearly every person who bought one of those drinks has a pretty decent travel mug at home, but very few of us think to bring them along. I know I don’t. What’s the point? It’s so convenient to have the cup for the ten or twenty minutes you need it and then chuck it without a second thought.

I don’t think we’re bad people because we use disposable coffee cups. And I don’t think Starbucks cups are, by themselves, going to be our collective undoing. But I do see it as symptomatic of how convenience can trip up our otherwise good intentions. I worry more about how easy it is to be wasteful more than whether people are wasteful by nature. It’s built into how we operate in a way that’s wholly different from our past. Some likely see this as a great modern convenience, but I think we’re only beginning to see its consequences.

Don’t mistake this as some sort of argument that we should all go back to plowing our own fields, though if that’s what you want to do, I think that’s great. I still think technology will help us see our way out of any number of problems we face. But when everything is cheap, nothing has value. This has come a long way from whether or not me buying a new smartphone is a terrible idea, but the bottom line is this. New gadget or not, I don’t want to reach a point where I can’t see the difference between a Starbucks cup and a smartphone.

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