You’ll have to imagine it because I don’t remember the artist’s name and I imagine this piece has been dismantled years ago, but I once saw a shirt made of brass keys, linked together on a base of chain male. In the artist’s blurb it explained that this particular piece arose from a comment made to her by a Katrina disaster relief worker. The comment–again this is now an oral history since there’s no record of the gallery display–was that our material comforts insulate us from the lives and realities of people who struggle in poverty.
That sentiment struck me deeply, which was its job. And, as good art does, it takes apart our world and shows it to us in a way that we may not have seen before–this time we can see our world with a freshness that builds empathy, foster connections and elevates our way of engaging the world around us. Art shows us something true as through a frame.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger tells us that all technology “enframes” our world. Not technology in the sense of your tablet or smart phone, but technology in the sense that most of us take for granted: a spoon, a hammer or even rocks struck together to create fire. Or art, perhaps. These things are technology and these things enframe our world.
To illustrate what Heidegger means, reflect for a moment on the term “advanced technology.” It is loaded with the norms that regulate western culture. Primarily, that technology is beneficial and that advances in technology are more beneficial than the preceding equivalent. My titanium-head hammer costs about four times as much as a hammer with a steel head. And I’ve never met a construction worker who would choose a hammer, titanium head or not, over a pneumatic nail gun. Similarly, whenever a new iphone is released people cheer in an auditorium, talk to their friends and line up around the block to buy one.
Such is the enframing power of technology: picture for a moment your life with no asphalt. Picture your life with no plastic, with no internal combustion. It’s hard to imagine the way that might change your outlook, your ways of thinking, behaving, of generally engaging the world, other people, and other life. Imagine being asked to “revert” your life to pre-industrial levels of technology—for our purposes I’ll even grant your comfort of modern medical care (if it could exist without plastics). Would you do it? Why not? That is enframing: The power of technology to influence the way we draw conclusions and interpret cause and effect, the way we develop ethics, norms and even laws, the way we treat each other, how we think, feel, and all of the numberless moments of intuition and learning that we go through from infancy to our deathbed.
I went through all of that just to get back to the question of comfort and poverty. Think of what distinguishes your life from a life of poverty. Think of what poverty means and how it manifests itself. Are uncontacted tribes in the Amazon basin impoverished? Do they feel impoverished? It’s hard to imagine that they might. That is enframing.
It’s easier to imagine at least some of the consequences if an infant were somehow adopted from an uncontacted tribe, raised in an affluent American suburb and then replaced as an adult into the tribe. That individual might see her tribe as impoverished in many ways. This is the insulative power of things. The power expressed in that key-shirt artwork.
I just recently learned of another, not entirely unrelated way that technology can influence us as individuals and by extension influence culture at large.
Marianne Bertrand of University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and Adair Morse of Berkely’s Haas School of Business finally quantified what you might call the keep-up-with-the-Joneses effect (abstract here, report from WaPo here, related story here). They discovered a positive causal correlation between increases in spending in the upper quintile households and those they refer to as non-rich homes. That is, American households follow the spending habits of those in higher income categories, leading to increases in consumer spending, especially in higher visibility purchases, purchase that could be perceived as signs of wealth.
The trouble with this is that it’s fundamentally unsustainable. First, because, as Morse and Bertrand show, the trend in extra spending is happening in households with increasing quantities of extra money to spend, but then the tendency to spend and consume is “trickling down” to households with less discretionary income. The problem there is that the propensity to keep pace with the higher income households is eating other slices of the non-rich household pie, resulting in increased debt and bankruptcy. Clearly, that’s not a favorable trend for the families directly involved, nor is it for the economy at large.
But another negative implication, one that to our culturally habituated minds will be less obvious, is that we simply can’t increase consumption indefinitely. We live on a finite spheroid with increasing population and a decreasing resource per person ratio. The arithmetic of the situation will at some point become untenable.
This is all not to mention what has been pointed out before but hasn’t gained much traction in western consumer-capitalist culture just yet: Spending more just won’t make you more happy. There’s obviously a point where money can buy the basics of food and shelter. But there’s a point of diminishing returns. Past that point, the extra spending isn’t going to add personal fulfillment.
So here’s a thought experiment: what would it take to set a different course for cultural life? Surely the spending pattern recorded in Morse and Bertrand’s study is not unique to the US because it seems perfectly commensurate with the aesthetic of capitalism: Money will/can/should buy more and better.
Success in capitalism is the amassment of capital (any capital is a technology whether money or the goods it can be traded for). Let’s consider what success might have been in the pre-industrial West. What it might still be if you’re a member of an uncontacted tribe? I bet it would have something to do first with not dying. After that, keeping your offspring alive. Then probably telling stories, creating and passing on culture that helps the people relate to each other and to their place. I bet those things go a long way to making life meaningful.
Almost always when I’ve read or heard from people unfamiliar with favela life, they imagine the most negative aspects of life in poverty. It’s easy to jump straight to conclusions of limited hygiene or spatial, economic, and social insecurity. It is a fact those things are real and they’re corrosive to the human psyche, to our sense of well-being.
Once I asked a man in Rio working on a masonry demolition in a favela storefront if I could trade my lunch leftovers for the chance to help him work (I love work). He was too old to be doing that kind of work; he was tough but bent and I could see the ragged desperation behind his eyes. He glanced around and told me he couldn’t allow me to help but that he’d still like my lunch leftovers. And in that split second I wondered about where he would go after work? What was his family like? I wanted to know him. And I was struck with the complexity of a man his age doing that kind of work—at once deeply dignified and heartbreaking.
Quite often what people are surprised by once they’ve visited a favela is the sense of community, the sense of mutual understanding, solidarity, quite often a shared joi de vivre. There’s a sense of wholeness against all evident odds. Even with every reason to be miserable by the standards of consumer-capitalist life, people find happiness in music, in dance, in hard work, in each other, in community.
So what would it take to use that lesson from a favela community? What would it take for those of use whose worldview is enframed by the accouterments of consumer-capitalism—by the chasing of meaning in goods and services—to change course, to reconsider what could make us happy? The trouble of course is that first we have to understand the enframing itself. First we must understand that life outside of cell phones and strip malls can be just as much fun, can be just as fulfilling.
One of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had was in Vila Verde, Rocinha, in a steep beco, I passed a little girl sweeping the landing in front of her door. There was no one else around. It was just before noon, I imagine that her mother was just inside the door cooking lunch, but there was no one nagging her to work—and she worked with a body language that showed serenity and even a hint of pride. There may have been a million other things that made that moment resonate for me—the rustling of broadleaf plants, the quiet of the Two Brothers Mountain—that gave it such weight. But the fact is I’ve had numberless similar experiences that suggest to me the same thing that moment suggested: that happiness, meaning, and fulfillment do not come from the next advancement, the next thing.
The key-shirt art made its impression on me because I had seen its truth manifest in so many ways previously and since: that material goods do insulate us, that they can inhibit community and empathy and fulfillment.
Yet in writing this I make myself a hypocrite. I am not poor by a world standard. I could choose what to eat for my next meal, and the one after that. I overate on my lunch break today. But I recently said something to a friend of mine whose son is preparing for missionary service in Paraguay. She told me she understood Paraguay had more poverty than her son was accustomed to seeing and she was concerned for him (the insulative effect of material comfort). I told her something that may seem strange to most middle- and upper-income Americans, but I meant it in all sincerity: that living in what would be considered poverty had ruined American lifestyle expectations for me. I explained that living in poor communities with poor friends, seeing wealth from the outside, had forced me to reconsider the mythology of consumerist mass culture. More of everything isn’t necessarily better. If I don’t have it I may actually not need it.
I don’t want to trivialize poverty by romanticizing it in any way. People are people and people have needs. When I remember that old man’s eyes—his hands thick and heavily calloused, his legs wiry and bare—and it puts to mind that poverty has no place in civilization. Yet, in that same flash of memory I am challenged: what would it take to remove the insulation of material wealth? I’m reminded that wealth can be its own sort of poverty: That insulative nature of things can take as much as it gives.