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  • Wednesday, September 27, 2006


    Un-Wired: Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing

    Of late, I've had a rather troubled relationship with Wired magazine. There was a time I enjoyed the pop-tech orientation and its almost aggressive pro-technology editorial voice appealed to my inner science fiction fanboy. Then came the dot-com bubble bust and the mag, previously fat with advertising pages and content, slimmed down considerably.

    Now when I pick up an issue on the newsstand, there's an even chance that I will be extremely pissed off by something I read in it. More often, I'm merely annoyed beyond reasonable levels. I still find some interesting and worthwhile content but I'm questioning whether the aggravation is worth the cost.

    The current annoyance to me is titled "Good, Green Livin'" on p 62 of the October, 2006 issue. Purporting to show that the "green" decision is not always obvious, it compares things like the ecological impact of a ceramic mug, paper coffee cups, and polystyrene cups. The text reads "Which coffee cup sips the fewest resources? Before you get all high and mighty about your brand-new coffee mug, consider: You could use 294 paper cups or 1,800 polystyrene cups before their energy and pollution debt exceeded that of your mug. Verdict: If you already have a ceramic mug, use it."

    There is something about this that reminds me of the saying about "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing."* There is a hint of hypercapitalism about this blurb and the rest on the page, the sense that anything and everything can be reduced to energy and resources and cost. It plays to a capitalist perspective, a calculating and weighing of value in purely material terms. In this view, if it doesn't have economic significance, it has no significance.

    So here are a few questions I ask. What does throwing away 1,800 cups do to you? What does it signify about your relationship to the world? Like doing exercise repetitions, you're building and strengthening an attitude of disposability, not just about cups, but about all sorts of other things. Can you quantify the value of this attitude? Can you choose to only sometimes apply this attitude?

    This is the core of our consumer culture: use it and throw it away. This is the pattern we repeat and ingrain in ourselves over and over. That's what annoys me: I consider this sort of cost/benefit analysis very shallow and short-sighted. What would our civilization look like if we were to think about our descendants a thousand years from now? How would we use our resources? Hell, our society doesn't even think twenty years into the future with our social and economic planning. And this stupid little Wired blurb can barely look 294 paper cups into the future. That is a pathetic attitude. It's pitiful.

    Sometimes doing the "right" thing has a poor ROI (Return on Investment) in economic terms. Then again, we are individuals, able to follow our own moral compass. We don't have to satisfy stockholders by our actions. Yet.

    *"The cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." -Oscar Wilde

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