Wednesday, December 14, 2011

sophisticated consumers

Although our urge to communicate is clearly core to our being, it is probably more of an enabler for civilisation rather than a driving force towards its development. A major driving force seems to be our urge to develop the things we use or consume to be ever more sophisticated.

We developed tools for many everyday tasks tens of thousands of years ago and really, apart from a few refinements, these are as good as they need to be - a hammer, an axe, a knife, even clothing - there's not a lot of ways these can be improved. The need for refinement seems to have come from us rather than the environment. The first indication of this is decoration. This is very ancient and means that our ancestors were already diverting effort away from improving function and into making an item more desirable for other reasons. We can see that status within a community and relative status of a community compared to others was linked to the sophistication of their possessions.

Communication was the way in which ever more sophisticated designs and techniques were carried forwards through the generations. Observation and mimicry and verbal instructions (show and tell) were followed much later by written and drawn instructions. If you look at the history of an object, e.g. the sword, it appears that there has been an endless search for individual uniqueness, that all possible materials, all manufacturing methods, all design templates were explored over and over. No two cultures have the exact same solution to the sword problem and yet for the most part these difference do not give a significant advantage in terms of use.

These days we tend to accept that each time we replace something it will be with something more sophisticated; it is built into our belief in progress. Yet, for most of our human history progress is very patchy, occurring for some periods in some places but for the majority one lifetime was much like the last dozen or hundred. But there was still an accepted hierarchy of sophistication in almost all communities - certain types of thing were for certain levels of society. There are exceptions of course: highly respected and revered classes of people who shunned sophisticated objects and lived as simple a life as possible. But mainly, the link between status and sophistication has been powerfully and often violently enforced; in medieval times it was against the law for peasants to wear certain fabrics and even certain colours of clothing; we have an inbuilt prejudice against people who own things 'above their station' and if you have something that has been superseded by a more sophisticated version you are labelled an outsider.


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