“Wouldn’t It Be Nice If…” Consumerism Evolved into “User-ism”: Taking a Page Out of the Star Trek Playbook

Post written by Monica Gaylor.

“The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things.”  –Elise Boulding

So, my understanding is that Netflix has greatly expanded its collection of stream-able offerings.  A price increase comes with this expansion – and I’m all for it!  It’s still the best deal in town.  My monthly bill will go up to the equivalent of buying one DVD a month – and that’s not Blue Ray, or attending one movie a month – no popcorn included.  I believe Netflix is at the forefront of a new wave of consumerism that I would call “user-ism.”   I would much prefer to go to the computer and call up whatever it is I want to watch or read – after all, I was self-indoctrinated into the Star Trek culture at a very young age.  (More on that in a moment.)

I long ago gave up the need to own movies and TV shows – there is just too many of them and I couldn’t keep up.  I actually skipped from VHS right to Netflix.  I owned most everything I wanted to on VHS and … I was busy – so the whole DVD thing just passed me by.  But now, I dream of paying a monthly user fee and watching anything my heart desires (with no commercials.)  And this dream gets closer and closer.

When I was recently surfing the new “stream-able” shows added, I ran across the Star Trek list.  All but one of the series, I think, is now stream-able.  Imagine my happiness! (I’m sure I have mentioned that I am a sci-fi geek?)  I take comfort in knowing that a Star Trek show is just a click away.  For years into the future – I can slowly work my way through each series in turn and in order.  Most of them I haven’t seen since they originally aired.  And then, I saw them out of order and missed many shows completely.  As most people, I do not conduct my life around a TV show.  I relish the thought of the TV show conducting itself around my life.  (Evil laugh goes here.)  Confidentially – I feel a little (very tiny) sense of power – like I’m finally “sticking it to the man” (a.k.a. – the people who control everything.)

So, how does Star Trek play into this post?  I am currently watching one of the afore mentioned series.  In a particular episode I recently watched, a crew member was packing to leave the ship.  This crewmember had two bags of stuff.  I have seen people go on vacation with more bags. Essentially their “stuff” boiled down to a few tangible, sentimental items and some clothing.  All the furniture, computers, pads, and the “stuff” are permanent fixtures.  They move around the “stuff” – the “stuff” does not move around them!  Imagine the freedom that comes with a society that does not have to “own.”

I realize that they live on a ship.  So, they live where they work.  No transport required.  Let’s think about the ship layout for a moment.  Each crew member only requires a small “quarters” area because all other needs are met somewhere on the ship for a more efficient and economical “use” of resources.  There is a gym, a rec-room, a mess hall / food-replicator, a quartermaster (supply, laundry, and clothing needs), a sick bay, a holo-deck (for recreation), etc.  These areas are open 24 / 7 and are clean, safe, maintained, stocked, and free.  In addition to furniture, these people don’t have to own their own exercise equipment, dishes, pots and pans, office equipment and supplies, books, movies, entertainment items, etc. because it comes with the ship / society / computer / library, etc.  In all of the Star Treks’ of the future, and most other sci-fi movies and shows, people have somehow gone from consumerism to “user-ism.”  Heck, these people don’t even have to own a band-aid because if the need arises, they go to sick-bay and get any treatment required.  Imagine that…

It seems like we could save a lot of resources, time, money, and improve the quality and quantity of life if there were a universal paradigm shift regarding personal ownership and communal or public ownership.

Lets think of one example:  Laundry.  I live in a co-op complex that has machines for our use.  They charge us very little, basically – running the machines at a loss.  I am single.  I hate to do laundry.  So, I own a lot of clothes.  I only have to do laundry every 3 weeks or so when I run out of underwear and / or socks.  In some ways, this is more economical and efficient for the co-op and me.  I sort my clothes by color as I was taught to do by my mother.  I usually have 3 loads of laundry – lights, darks, and reds.  Since it’s been 3 weeks the washers are all full (not half or a third full) and I feel that I really get my $1.00’s worth of washing and it only takes me an hour and a half to do three loads, washed and dried (quality of life).  If the washers were not full, monetarily speaking, it would be wasteful in many ways:  the complex’s energy usage, water usage, wear and tear on machines would be higher and so would my time and money expenditure.

By doing my laundry only every 3 weeks, I am incorporating economy-of-scale.  It saves me time and money and it saves the complex money and wear and tear.  However, I pay the (high) price of having to own more clothing and having to own more space to store this clothing.  I have made it work for me in the world in which I live but it is not my idea of convenient or in the case of too much clothing – minimal.  It does, however, give me more personal “free” time, which is the most valuable thing of all.

In another example:  Food – I am particularly inefficient.  I try, but that still doesn’t make it economical or efficient.  I attempt to utilize economy-of-scale by making things and freezing them.  Some things freeze very well and are very efficient and economical.  Refried beans, taco meat, and pasta sauce are good examples.  I put them in tiny, one-serving bags and freeze them flat.  It is a waste of plastic and not good for the environment, but the freezer is only so big.  On the other hand, there are many things that only get used fresh.  I like and require fresh fruits and veggies in my diet.  As a single person, this can provide a great deal of waste.  I cannot use a half-gallon of milk before it expires, but buying any other size ends up being more expensive.  Also, I cannot eat an entire head of lettuce, an onion, loaf of bread, etc. before they go bad.  Even in weeks where I do not eat out, I cannot eat all of what I have purchased.  And in weeks where I do eat out – there is even more food waste.

Imagine…(make your mind limber, let go of your preconceptions)… if you could live in some kind of condo or apartment complex that actually served all of your needs economically, conveniently, and efficiently by serving large portions of the population only what they can “use” in the moment.  By making use of technology for dissemination of entertainment and information services, economies-of-scale in personal laundry, recycling, waste services, food prep, etc. Instead of economies-of-scale for some services efficiency-of-small-scale could be incorporated for better dissemination of police, schools, medical, mail services, etc.

Living quarters could be very small and easy to care for if all the other needs were met very close by.  Perhaps a whole floor could be some kind of mess hall / grocery store / restaurant area where you could get only what you need for that meal.  Or, maybe dinner and breakfast for the next day could be picked up and stored in a very small refrigerator if you prefer to eat alone in your quarters occasionally.  If the building is big enough the roof could contain a pool, Jacuzzi, gym, rec-room, running track, etc.  If you could employ true economies-of-scale, there could be two: one for families and one for adults-only.

On different floors dispersed among living quarters there could be gardens and hydroponics’ bays for internal food growth and employment / recreation.  Possibly – each complex could be self-contained and self-sufficient.  Additionally, each complex could have its own hospital / medical center, schools, police precinct, stores for other necessities, bars, movie theaters, social gathering venues, meditation gardens, public transportation hubs,*  laundry and waste systems that are mechanically directed from the living quarters to the proper laundry / waste center, etc.  As you have probably guessed, I would love the laundry system where I could throw my dirties down a shoot and they come back all clean and pretty for me to wear a day later.  No huge stores of personal clothing to own – just convenience and quality of life.

(*Note:  I have already written at length about public transportation in an era where more people need to be more mobile than ever with dwindling resources, and so I will not cover it again.  You can refer to: Wouldn’t It Be Nice If… Transportation Were… if you wish to read about it.)

A sufficiently large complex, or set of complexes linked together, could be an incredible employment opportunity for every strata of society, especially if many positions are manned 24 / 7.  Efficiency-of-scale (quantity) can be reduced if peak-time overloads are reduced as well, again by going to a more stacked or scattered 24 / 7 time scale.  More even distribution throughout the 24-hour cycle could result in more efficient use of space and limited resources.  For example, 3 school sessions could be held in one school area, instead of building 3 separate schools.  Or – wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to take a day off work to see the doctor, the vet, the banker, the department of identification, any government office, etc. I believe this would be called (I don’t’ know the term) increasing-worker-productivity-and-decreasing-absenteeism-through-convenience.

I know, I am building my own little fantasy-utopia here, but – that’s what Wouldn’t It Be Nice If… is for.  I realize, of course, that some difficult transitions and ways of thinking would have to be traversed before we could even imagine a world without consumerism, 8:00 to 5:00 schedules, rush-hour traffic, doctors available 24 / 7, eating places open at 3:00 a.m., tiny living quarters, etc.  But, I do know that the one constant in the universe is that things change.  At some point, the caveman’s paradigms had to shift from hunting and gathering to that of cultivation and herding.  Hopefully, the change from consumerism to user-ism won’t take as many ions.  Below is an awesome quote from Peter Walsh’s book, Lighten Up:

“It doesn’t help that our government adds its own stamp of approval on consumption when it uses consumer spending as a vital sign of our nation’s well being.  Consumerism is seen as the benchmark of our nation’s economic health.  We constantly hear about the state of our economy based on consumer figures – how much people are spending, how the retailers are faring, and what those future projections are.  This is not health but the chasing of a promise that has somehow been tied to the concept of national happiness.  The implication is that if we’re not spending, not consuming, then we’re just not healthy.  It’s even been suggested that if we’re not spending, we’re not good citizens.”

I would like to offer one more example / argument of consumerism vs. user-ism. Wouldn’t it be nice if… today, or next month, or even next year we could get rid of purchasing books and e-books and go to a “user” based “pad-book” model like Netflix but for books and magazines. (I want to live in Star Trek and I want to live there now!)

Don’t get me wrong; I am a heavy user of the free-public library system.  And I am quite happy with it.  But, the whole Netflix-model of – “let me have it now, without actually having to own it, drive anywhere to get it and then take it back” – has changed my perceptions about a lot of things.  Although I love the thought of e-books and having all of them on a cool, little pad-like thing, I do not wish to repurchase any of the 100 or so books that I now own.  The books that I still own are either work-related or reference books, or both.  I only open them when I need to refresh my memory on some work-related item or reference something.  With the internet explosion this happens less and less.  But on occasion, I do need to look up something in one of them.  It is usually something that must be accurate, not internet-accurate (?).

It would be so nice to have every book ever written, at my fingertips, for the price of a monthly “user” fee.  In some instances, it would be nice to be able to reference something that is accurate and has been fact-checked by professionals.   And in other cases, it would just be nice to read a currently popular book without having to wait in the library queue.  I once waited for an extremely popular book for nine months.  My library only lets you check out books for three weeks.  It is quite easy to check them out again, but only if no one has signed up for it. As many of you know, I read every single day of my life.  It is my ritual to read myself to sleep.  But these days I fall asleep rather quickly and taking 4 – 6 weeks to read a book is not uncommon.  I am talking about the books I read for pleasure, not for work.

I think a “user-based” book system would be very handy for a lot of people like myself.  I probably average reading one book, cover to cover, a month, I reference a book or two a month, and maybe leaf-through a book or two a month.

For me, the selling point on “user” models is the convenience factor.  It is so nice not to have to go anywhere to pick it up, take it back, own it, insure it, dust it, buy a big house to store / use it in, etc.  I personally am ready for a more user-based, efficient, and resource-friendly society.

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