The world is rife with memes and few seem to be aware of where these ideas are coming from, specifically why they are what they are. Once upon a time, productivity coupled with science, engineering, and industry increased the quality of life for those that were engaged in it(*). Not grasping the context, productivity, for most people are engaged in the productive side of things, not so much in the research and development, came to be seen as a good thing in itself. I believe that it is from this development that being non-productive came to be seen as being bad: “If you are not being productive”, you are not pulling your fair share.

Consider two people, who are each sowing and harvesting their own grain and being members of society, they each split their harvest with each other, if they’re communists, or perhaps they sell it to each other, if they’re capitalists. Regardless, they are both being “productive members” of society. Now one of them decides to plant a tree. The tree provides apples and so instead of sowing and harvesting, one person can simply pick the apples off the ground. The other person now complains that picking up apples from the ground is hardly productive. Yet, they both manage to feed themselves or share equal amounts of food in whatever way their political system requires, communist or capitalist. Clearly, the meme of “productivity” did not take innovation into account.

The innovative person can now direct his productivity elsewhere. He can take up “unproductive” pursuits that do not involve growing food, or the modern equivalent: pushing papers around in a building zoned for business. He could take to building houses of cards. Perhaps, the old-fashioned person will have an interesting time figuring out whether building houses of cards is productive or not.

The post-productive person has realized that more productivity is not going to do him any more good. He has also realized that it is not going to do anyone else any good either IF AND ONLY IF they will actually realize that their methods are ineffective. Obviously, a post-productive person is not going to commit to inefficient labor if a better way exist.

As the innovative person continues his innovations, he will build a home. The old-fashioned guy will build a house too. Now, realizing that there is little reason to, say replace functional door knobs with more fashionable door knobs, the innovative person will stop his efforts there. The old-fashioned guy must channel his excess productivity into something though, so he will replace the functional door knobs with other function door knobs. Then he will replace them again. And so he will work work work and revel in the idea that his standard of living is increasing. But at the end of the day, there are only so many door knobs to operate each day for either person.
This is the difference between materialism and post-materialism. The materialistic person has not yet reached the point where he has or can realize that more stuff does not result in increased utility. Perhaps he grew up poor or perhaps he is easily influenced by advertising. Who knows? But, the post-materialistic person has realized this and thus does not strive for more stuff.

Very many people still live in a world formed by productivity and materialism. Their work is inefficiently arranged with some workers counteracting the effects of other workers (this is called competition (war) and it is strangely believed to be a good thing), one group polluting and the other group cleaning up the pollution leaving much less “net-work” than the top-line effort should suggest.
This net=work is inefficiently squandered on debt payments, services they rarely use, and upgrading their kitchen counter tops with increasingly more exotic materials.

Indeed from a post-materialistic and post-productive perspective, “productivity” and “materialism” (consumerism) is downright insane.
The problem is that both materialism and productivity are subject to the law of diminishing returns.

If I go back 30 years (the limit of my continuous memory), computers, the few there were, were less userfriendly and not as fast (by far), but anyone that owned one knew how to program one, whereas today the average computer user seems to be a moron as suggested by sentences like “WTF OMG Dat is teh bomb!!!111! your funny lolz”. TV programming had reached its pinnacle. These days we just see remakes and recycling concepts that have been proven to work, nothing novel at all. Housing and consumer products had already reached its peak and one may even say that it went downhill from there. Things today are bigger and shinier but not as well built.

The question, therefore, is whether it is really worthwhile to be productive in materialistic sense? Insofar that I am concerned, I have produced all the “material” I need for the rest of my life. I can thus channel my “productivity” to “unproductive” factors such as this blog—nobody is paying me, so it must be unproductive, unlike say professional baseball, which as measured by income is very productive. I can also spend much effort training for the perfect cut, something that makes no sense today—after all, sword fighting does not happen more. Or trying to make a sail boat go 4.9 knots instead of 4.8 knots which requires a scientific effort on par with a masters degree.

I’d rather do that than increase my productivity so I may build more toasters under the condition that they are less well built in order to wear out faster so that I may actually sell the ones I am producing. This is exactly what I see happening in the “productive consumer world” and this is what I do not wish to take part it. It just makes no sense whatsoever.

And this is not even considering the ecology of the problem. Any increase in materialism and productivity means an increase in resource demand which obviously means a decrease in resources available elsewhere e.g. for planetary life/support.

Originally posted 2009-11-23 10:36:59.