What David Brooks Did Not Say

social media bandwagon

Following my last post, David (not Brooks) commented that Brooks misses a bigger point. I had picked up only on his argument that lower material pursuits by today's workers could be a contribution to explanations for the jobless recovery from the Great Recession. David comments that materiality is still around; even in all the communication devices that Jared (his exemplar for this demographic cohort) covets still require resources from a world that is already overstressed. These electronic devices require scarce minerals, some coming from Congo and fueling the violence there.

The important message is that consumption has already reached a level far in excess of what the earth can continue to provide. The Jared's of today may (I see little evidence) be placing more importance on quality than quantity, but still remain in a state of blissful ignorance about the endangered state of the Earth. Focusing on such cultural shifts without harping on the underlying issue of a global footprint that fills at least a planet and a half adds to the general unconsciousness or plain denial that drives our political economy. Brooks's omissions create the same complacency that green labels and sustainable branding exercises do.

The focus in Brooks's article on electronic gadgets also misses the point that the connections these devices create quite easily cannot substitute for the strong ties that are the most important factors in the life quality that Jared claims to be seeking. The cultural messages he is getting about relationships have hidden the sources and meaning of true satisfaction--flourishing as I call it. As long as consumers consume based on what the cultural "they" say, rather than out of authenticity, the quality of life will be limited to a thin veneer. Beginning to understand that the quantity of materiality in life does not equate to well-being is a necessary first step to recovering the authentic self. Until the Jared's also begin to understand that the foundations of flourishing are built on care, not need, and on acting, not owning, their sought after well-being will continue to be fleeting.

On a closer reading, Brooks's article is confused. I think he has failed to see that one set of inauthentic goals (Sam's) is categorically the same as those of his grandson's (Jared).

Jared lives a much more intellectually diverse life than Sam. He loves Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and his iPhone apps. . . For Sam, income and living standards were synonymous. But for Jared, wealth and living standards have diverged. . . Jared’s other priorities also produce high quality-of-life gains without huge material and productivity improvements. He practically defines himself by what university he went to.

There is no difference between defining identity by the college one attended and by the income one earns. They are both based on external cultural norms. Sam's goal at least was pretty universal; Jared's smacks of elitism. I can find no inkling of a change in basic values over the two generations. Loving Facebook doesn't sound very satisfying to me, but I am closer to Sam's generation than Jared's. The symbolic icons used to position one in the cultural ladder are clearly different today from 1930. But if identity is based on such icons, it is very difficult to act in the authentic way commensurate with a high state of well being.

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