Consumerism, Materialism and Collecting

Recently I have had many discussions about the mentality of collectors and the materialistic nature of our society. In these discussions it has been very difficult to get my point across as precisely as I would like. Sometimes I feel like an alien from another planet when trying to communicate my ideas. It’s almost as if the people I am trying to explain them to are incapable of comprehending my thoughts. Part of the problem lies with me, so I write this in hopes that I will be able to get my point across.

Let’s start out with definitions.

Consumerism
Attachment to materialistic values or possessions
Materialism
The theory or attitude that physical well-being and worldly possessions constitute the greatest good and highest value in life.

The way I see the world, consumerism and materialism are evil. Personally, I have little to no attachment to physical goods. Physical objects are just arrangements of atoms, so are people. Nothing in the world has any intrinsic value. Simply owning, or possessing, objects is completely meaningless.

Now, I’m not going all Buddhist monk on you, don’t worry. Objects do have value, just not in their existence alone. What you have to understand is that the value of an object lies within its function. A computer is an incredibly useful and powerful tool, and thus it is worth more than a paperclip. Some objects are more valuable because they are necessities to life, e.g.: food, shelter, water, etc. You might note that I’m not talking about monetary value, but intrinsic value. The intrinsic value of any object is not contained within the object itself, but within the use of that object.

Now, people in our society have gotten it into their heads that somehow possession of goods is important. This materialistic viewpoint is incredibly harmful and wrong. I buy things and I own things, but not for the sake of owning and buying more. I own things so that I have access to their functionality. Buying things and having things does not make me feel good. I feel good when I do useful things, and owning objects is simply a way to facilitate many of the things I like, or need, to do.

Let’s use books as an example. I own quite a few shelves of books, but I down own them for the sake of owning. If I could get rid of them, I would, because they take up too much space. The reason I have the books is because I want to read them and I want to share them with others to read. If I don’t have them, then it becomes very difficult for me to read them whenever I wish. Buying and owning books is not an end unto itself, but simply a means to make it more convenient for me to accomplish other real goals.

In the society I live in, I am a rare breed. Everywhere I look I see people caring very deeply about what they own. Let me tell you a semi-true story about someone we’ll call Bob. Bob was not a cool guy. Bob had nothing interesting to say, and his personality was grating. Bob was highly skilled at certain video games, but he had no other useful skills whatsoever. Bob was basically a waste of space. So what did Bob do? He bought things. Bob bought imported video games, yet didn’t play half of them. Bob bought a drum set and never played it. Bob had a problem.

Bob’s problem is one that most of our society has. He judged himself based on the goods he possessed. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated that you should judge people based on the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. I like to further that statement by saying you should judge people by the content of their character and nothing else at all. The only criteria I use for judging good people from bad are their words, actions and thoughts. Since there is no way to read thoughts, I have to assume that people’s words match their thoughts. What you own means nothing. However, if you think that what you own is important, if you are a person who judges yourself and others based on material wealth, then that is a trait of your character I view as negative. And that is how I view collectors.

I used to be a collector in my childhood. I collected baseball cards, comic books, superhero cards, Magic: The Gathering (Money: The Wasting) cards and a lot more. I enjoyed the activity of organizing and reorganizing things. I fantasized about how valuable my collections would be in the future. But worst of all, I judged myself and others based on material wealth. It was hard not to, since all the other kids did it as well. Every recess it was disputes about who owned more Nintendo games. If you had a full set of cards you were suddenly cooler than every other kid on the block. In my childhood what you owned defined how good you were.

It wasn’t until much later in life when I realized how much time I wasted. I could have spent that money on useful things. Now all I have is a box of useless cardboard with pictures of baseball players printed on it. I could have spent that time learning things or building my skills. Instead, I have a lower skill level in many areas than I could potentially have. I could have spent more time working on being a better human being instead of just becoming an owner of useless goods.

And thus, you see my dislike of collectors and the collector mentality. Yes, there are people who enjoy collecting, and that’s good for them. However, if you ever try to ask the question “Why do you enjoy collecting?” there is no good answer. Let us explore many answers someone might give to this question.

Someone might collect things because they are obsessive compulsive. They enjoy the act of organizing and reorganizing things. Organization and the constant battle against entropy are well and good, but not when done uselessly. If you want to organize things, get a job filing in a doctor’s office. Organizing baseball cards serves no useful purpose other than to satisfy a psychological disorder.

Someone might collect things for financial gain. There are some very valuable collections of rare goods out there, and their owners stand to make a tidy profit. However, if you actually were to analyze collecting as a financial investment you would find it is incredibly bad. The amount of time and effort required to properly maintain a collection is tremendous. The amount of time for a return on investment might not be well until after the collector’s death. Playing craps in a casino is a better investment than the vast majority of collections. The only way to make money in the business of collecting is to take advantage of collectors and their collector mentality. The guy who owns the store selling autographed baseballs and baseball cards has always made more money than the guy who collects them. He realizes that owning those things is not a good way to make money. The way to make money is to sell $10 baseballs for $100 to some guy who thinks it will be worth a lot, or to some guy who thinks it makes him a better person to own such a thing.

Someone might collect things for the sake of learning. That is a good thing. Oh no, did I defeat my own argument? No, I did not. The fact is that there is almost nothing to learn from the vast majority of collections. A comic book collection really has nothing to teach anyone. We already know all about comic books, they hold no secrets. You can gain all of that knowledge without access to a comic book collection. Heck, you can probably gain most of that knowledge without reading very many comics at all. Collections we can learn from are all very ancient things found in museums, libraries, etc. And that is where they belong. They belong there so that everyone may learn from them. So even if you were a noble collector, collecting for the sake of knowledge, it is not good unless you share your collection with the world. I view hoarding knowledge with equal negativity as I view materialism.

Someone might collect things for the sake of preservation. There are many physical goods out there which are not invincible. If they are not taken care of, they will be lost to the world. Whenever we lose a very old object it decreases the power of human beings. There was once something we, as a people, could do, and it required the use of a particular object. Now that the object is gone, that ability is lost. Preservation is indeed a noble cause. However, yet again, all real preservation work is done by museums, libraries, etc. If you are preserving something privately, that is essentially the same as letting it be destroyed. If there is a rare thing which people can not access, then it might as well not exist. Also, most things people collect do not require preservation. The human race does not need you to collect every issue of National Geographic. The publisher and many libraries are already doing a fine job.

The only other reason I can see that someone might get enjoyment from the act of collecting itself is materialism. They feel better about themselves the bigger collection they have. They brag to other collectors about how much bigger and more valuable their collections are. They even view other collectors as being better people if their collections are bigger or better. It’s the old analogy of a sports car being a penis extension. In our society it is often true, even if it is not conscious.

Personally, I look down on people who value meaningless collecting and have materialistic world views. If they want to judge themselves or others based on what they own, that to me is the same mentality as judging people based on how they dress or where they live. Judging people based on such criteria can be viewed as a character flaw, and a character flaw is something you can judge someone by. Therefore, I do not view collectors in a very positive light.

If you disagree, which I’m sure collectors do, then answer one question. Why do you enjoy collecting? An Apple Jacks answer is no good; “I just do” doesn’t cut it. Using the powers of logic you must deduce what exactly about the act of collecting and owning a collection causes good emotions in your brain. If you can not accomplish this task, maybe it’s time to rethink a few things. Are you really living your own life if you are acting on impulse without thought? Are you really in control of your own destiny if you do not know the reasons for your own actions? I’ve thought about these things long and hard, and as a result I stopped collecting things long ago. I am genuinely curious to see if anyone has a good answer.

Engaging in intellectual discussion is a worthwhile use of time. Take a few minutes off from admiring your shelf full of useless trinkets and please think about this very serious question.

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8 Responses to Consumerism, Materialism and Collecting

  1. Nick Borelli says:

    You have some of the worst thought ideas of anyone I’ve ever encountered.

  2. Nick Borelli says:

    [quote]

    The way I see the world, consumerism and materialism are evil.
    [/quote]
    That’s the way YOU see the world. Do you thinks what you said is TRUTH or just one persons opinion? Because if it’s just your opinion, you don’t need to preach so much.

    [quote]
    Physical objects are just arrangements of atoms, so are people. Nothing in the world has any intrinsic value

    [/quote]

    If you believe this, then what do you value?
    Your life? Others?
    [quote]
    Let’s use books as an example. I own quite a few shelves of books, but I down own them for the sake of owning. If I could get rid of them, I would, because they take up too much space.

    [/quote]
    You could get rid of them. Trust me. You could donate them to any number of places. Since you have such a space problem and yet do not like to consume, what are you doing with your money? Buy a bigger place to live!

    [quote]
    Instead, I have a lower skill level in many areas than I could potentially have.

    [/quote]
    Oh, that’s why you can’t afford a bigger place.
    Sorry.

    It’s too bad you lost those skills. You could have learned the lesson of glass houses and rocks. But you’re pretty “awsome” so you’d be ok.

    [quote]
    I could have spent more time working on being a better human being instead of just becoming an owner of useless goods.
    [/quote]
    You know that collecting can increase ones social abilities? Collecting can give one an appreciation of history and organizational skills. Maybe it’s not collecting that is the reason you feel you lack certain skills.

    [quote]
    However, if you ever try to ask the question “Why do you enjoy collecting?” there is no good answer[/quote]

    No good answer to you because you seem not to listen to other’s view points.

    [quote]
    However, if you actually were to analyze collecting as a financial investment you would find it is incredibly bad. [/quote]

    Have you done this? If so, show your work.

    [quote]
    Playing craps in a casino is a better investment than the vast majority of collections. [/quote]

    Umm…you know you just made that up, right?

    Just because YOU don’t know how to make money from collecting doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means you don’t listen to others and shift information around to fit your narrow paradigm.
    The difference between buying and selling stocks and collecting comics does not have to be very great. That’s only if you really want to collect for profit.

    [quote]
    The fact is that there is almost nothing to learn from the vast majority of collections.[/quote]

    Really? How about history of a medium. Why do museums exist? Why not just have a book or better yet a website with pictures of things from the past. Once the picture is taken one could throw out the artifact.
    I think it’s interesting that you think everyone should instantly throw out everything all the time. Either you want a paperless society of involved people with no time for fun or you want a completely disposable culture.

    [quote]
    Heck, you can probably gain most of that knowledge without reading very many comics at all.
    [/quote]

    Sure! Lots of people gain knowledge without reading!

    [quote]
    I view hoarding knowledge with equal negativity as I view materialism.
    [/quote]

    You do realize you are on a forum where people discuss the “knowledge” they gleam from their “collections”, right?

    [quote]
    However, yet again, all real preservation work is done by museums, libraries, etc.
    [/quote]

    I love your “rules”! They adhere so well to you bleak world view. You don’t have enough space. You don’t want to own things. Collections belong in the library. If you want to organize something you must get a occupation that organizes things, that is the only way. You know in communist Russia, comics would collect you, comrade!

    [quote]
    The human race does not need you to collect every issue of National Geographic. The publisher and many libraries are already doing a fine job.[/quote]

    Yeah!
    I mean centrally located places where books are kept and filed…that should be enough. Why do people want more? If the library doesn’t get a book…you don’t deserve to read it…that’s what I’ve always said.
    Seriously, did you read this before you wrote it?

    [quote]
    The only other reason I can see that someone might get enjoyment from the act of collecting itself is materialism. They feel better about themselves the bigger collection they have. They brag to other collectors about how much bigger and more valuable their collections are. They even view other collectors as being better people if their collections are bigger or better.[/quote]
    [quote]
    Personally, I look down on people who value meaningless collecting and have materialistic world views.[/quote]

    I think it’s great you find distain in others who look down on other people for what they believe. Oh wait, then you give YOUR reasons for looking down on people for what they believe. It’s really hard to take you serious.

  3. Esteban De Anda says:

    > It’s almost as if the people I am trying to
    > explain them to are incapable of comprehending
    > my thoughts.

    I think you do a fine job of communicating, but you may be confusing effective communication with getting people to agree with you. Just because people don’t agree doesn’t mean you have problems communicating. It could mean they disagree. It could mean you are wrong, but in matters of opinion there’s no wrong or right really. You also come off as slightly contemptuous of others who don’t come to the same conclusions as you do and that’s probably a turnoff to your audience. I don’t believe that you mean to sound condescending so I write it off as one of the foibles of communicating in a text only medium.

    > The way I see the world, consumerism and
    > materialism are evil.

    Evil is a strong word. I wouldn’t go so far as to call those things evil. A little misguided maybe, but not evil. I’ve never heard of a person in history whose evilness was a result of their collection of baseball cards. I’ve never heard of someone’s car collection turning them evil.

    > Nothing in the world has any intrinsic value.
    > Simply owning, or possessing, objects is
    > completely meaningless.

    Many people choose to give material objects and possessions value. It is their choice and they’re free to do it. They assign value to things sentimentally. These things then take on
    value far beyond their physical composition. A favorite blanket, family heirloom, pet dog or CD are all examples of how people instinctively assign meaning and value to everyday objects. Figuring out what life means and what things are worth is entirely up to the individual. If you have a favorite anything you can
    understand that. I think consumerism and materialism are just extreme manifestations of the natural disposition towards finding meaning or value in life.

    > What you have to understand is that the value of
    > an object lies within its function. A computer
    > is an incredibly useful and powerful tool, and
    > thus it is worth more than a paperclip.

    It depends on the situation. If I needed to hold a couple pieces of paper together, my computer would be useless but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anything. It just means it’s of no use in that situation. A paperclip’s ‘worth’ can far outweigh that of a computer depending on the situation. Things people collect perform functions as well. Collections themselves perform functions that are different as the people that collect them. We don’t have to understand why people collect to know that it’s filling some purpose for them.

    > Now, people in our society have gotten it into
    > their heads that somehow possession of goods is
    > important.

    I think people do this because these are quality of life issues. A nicer car is nicer because it’s more luxurious. Possession of items with increased function is more desireable. Nicer computers are preferable over older, slower ones.

    > This materialistic viewpoint is incredibly
    > harmful and wrong.

    I don’t think you make a good case for how these things are wrong. Someone else having a nicer house than me really doesn’t hurt me at all. If someone wants to spend all their free time and money playing games and watching volumes of anime, that doesn’t affet me. The little plastic robot ubercollectors of the world really have no effect on me either. Other people’s collections of games, videos, manga, dildos, or whatever really don’t affect me and I don’t think it makes them evil. Kind of crazy, maybe, but not evil.

    > In the society I live in, I am a rare breed.
    > Everywhere I look I see people caring very
    > deeply about what they own.

    That’s true. I know there are places like Japan and Korea where cell phones and iPods are prized more as being status symbols than for their functionality. I figure that’s due to immaturity and it’s harmless.

    > Let me tell you a semi-true story about someone
    > we’ll call Bob. Bob was not a cool guy. Bob had
    > nothing interesting to say, and his personality
    > was grating.

    You’re demonizing Bob before you let me judge him on the merits of his actions. It’s fun to read, but COME ON.

    > Bob was highly skilled at certain video games,
    > but he had no other useful skills whatsoever.

    Again, this makes me laugh but I doubt it’s true.

    > Bob was basically a waste of space. So what did
    > Bob do? He bought things. Bob bought imported
    > video games, yet didn’t play half of them. Bob
    > bought a drum set and never played it. Bob had a
    > problem.

    I don’t think Bob acknowledged that he was a waste of space and consiously sought to correct that through consumption. It’s possible that he just had hobbies that he didn’t have the time or necessary dedication to devote to. I have a lot of friends with guitars but they don’t play in bands or have recording contracts. It doesn’t mean they’re failures. It just means they’re casual hobbyists. Bob may have been a casual drum
    enthusiast or casual video game player. Doesn’t mean he was a failure at life!

    > Since there is no way to read thoughts, I have
    > to assume that people’s words match their
    > thoughts.

    People don’t always speak their minds and liars have tricked millions of people with their words. People’s actions are only useful as character identifiers within the context they commit them. If a girl dresses slutty that doesn’t mean she’s a slut. She might be dressing slutty FOR JESUS! And in that case she’s my kind of girl!

    > What you own means nothing.

    I think what you own means a lot about what you feel is important and where your values are. People’s belongings mean everything. Otherwise nobody would care if Hurricane Katrina blew their houses away and destroyed all their photo albums. To say that belongings are meaningless is to discount the lifetime of memories that those things represent.

    > In my childhood what you owned defined how good
    > you were.

    But you were a kid! Kids do stupid stuff like that! How about you stop beating yourself up for what the seven year old Scott used to do?

    > Now all I have is a box of useless cardboard
    > with pictures of baseball players printed on it.

    Now all you have is a different set of priorities. I guess it’s called growing up. There’s nothing wrong with how you were. It was all necessary to get to where you are now.

    > I could have spent that time learning things or
    > building my skills. Instead, I have a lower
    > skill level in many areas than I could
    > potentially have.

    Yeah I’m sure we could all be fuckin’ rocket scientists or the next Liberace but it didn’t turn out that way and we deal with it. That’s what being an adult is-it’s acknowledging our limits and abilities and moving on from here. Do you bother much to reflect on all the good that’s come from your childhood and how those experiences made you into who you are now? Do you ever go, ‘Man I’m glad I did all that stupid stuff because I learned a lot from it and now I’m better off for it’?

    > I could have spent more time working on being a
    > better human being instead of just becoming an
    > owner of useless goods.

    I don’t think you turned out all that bad. I think you came out a great person who’s given me a lot of good times through your podcastering. Reflecting negatively too much on the past is a dangerous path. Like that Iron Maiden song goes-Don’t waste your time always searching for those wasted years!

    I don’t have enough time now to address the rest of your post but I do plan to. I have a couple stories of my own from my time as a member of little plastic robot fandom. I don’t disagree with you entirely because in my experience as a Transformers fan I have run across many people with the obsessed collector mentality that really make my head spin. I’ll get back to that later.

    -Esteban

  4. Ken Bahia says:

    I have to say I totally agree with you , based on the simple truth that everything that can be seen in the world has no permanance – why spend a lifetime feeding materlistic desires as soon as one is fulfilled another 10 arise. By becoming desireless one would live a blissfull existence.
    this is living a truly liberated life

  5. Ryan Massey says:

    I think threre is a lot of rambling, but I do like the overall message, materialism and consumerism is shallow and empty. The things that people own, own them. It seems the drive for most people isn’t gaining knowledge or enlightenment, but indulging in their fetish for self gratification by buying things; crap that they just don’t need. A prime example is fashion. Another example could be anything beyond the basic to enhance an individuals feelings of themselves like cars or a house or a tv.

  6. tektonick says:

    As with the material things it is with certain immaterial things, media mostly. Even if I rent DVDs or books, and even if I re-sell the games I have played, the consumption of these things sometimes comes from a kind of collecting mentality. CivI was great, therefore CivIV must be even better, right?

    It is a rare book/movie/game that expands my horizon, changes or even just moves me, and the more I have seen, the harder it gets to find these gems. Talk about jaded here…

    Very few things are so deep that we can always discover something new in them. In my opinion, what can fascinate us far longer than any “consumables” are travel, learning new abilities, the company of other people, and any creative endeavor. I have derived far greater satisfaction from learning to juggle or to program a little than from any movie I have ever watched. These things usually take more effort than, say, reading a book, but at least they don’t need to be expensive (well, traveling can be an exception).

  7. Joe says:

    I was with you all the way up until your last few paragraphs where you chose to judge people because they are “materialistic”! But aside from your logic, I do tend to agree with your point of view. Most collectors are probably semi autistic and have a craving for order. Maybe their lives are chaotic and their collections are their way of managing and bringing some part of their lives under control.

    Also you asked if they are actually living their own life because they respond to impulses. Guess what? we all respond to impulses, its part of life. Just as you had the impulse to write this blog, and I had the impulse to write this comment!

    Nobody gets to decide for someone else what ‘living’ really is! if its collecting meaningless rubbish, sitting in a sofa your whole life, going on safari or feeding the whole planet…all of it is “living”!

    PS: Some people think bloggers are wasting their lives…:P

  8. mike v says:

    Excellent post. I suppose I could ask for clarification of this-or-that part of it, or disagree with something just for the sake of being very exacting… but I don’t approach the expression of ideas that way. The idea you expressed is dead on… that consumerism and materialism… when properly understood for what they are… are not simply harmless vices of everyman, but fundamental character flaws. The fact that they are so rampant in society is disturbing.

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