False Needs, or: I Do Need my Laptop!
According to Marcuse, one of the ways in which industrial capitalist societies exert dominance over us is by trapping us in the cycle of consumption. Our real needs, what is necessary to survive, are all supplied for us. If we can’t provide it for ourselves, the government provides us with food, shelter, and clothing. For the most part, though, we can provide for ourselves, as mass production makes everything cheaper, and puts our immediate requirements within our grasp. How then can the economy keep growing? False needs are created, which we internalize as being real needs, and we buy and buy and buy.
I need an iPod, not because I will physically die without it, but because I do tedious work and music helps me stay sane. I can afford to buy an iPod because my food and rent don’t take up my whole paycheque. Although I have last year’s iPod, this year’s model has more and different applications, applications that will make my life easier and add to my satisfaction. Last year’s model is obsolete, anyway, so I need to upgrade.
I can see, very easily, how consumer electronic products are false needs. I won’t die without my laptop, and my desire for an up-to-date laptop keeps me indebted, which requires that I continue working for pay, at alienated labour which offers me no real fulfillment. On the other hand, though, if we only lived on the bare minimum that kept us alive, I can’t see that being particularly fulfilling either. If we lived in simple homes, ate simple food, and only worked to provide for ourselves, we would have a lot more free time in which to engage in creativity and sociality (Marx’s idea of liberation), but we don’t live in that society. In this society, for the life I am currently living, my laptop (or, at least, a computer) is needed. It really is. Try doing research in a modern library, with modern academic journals, and then try to write an essay for a class with modern requirements (typewritten, double spaces, Times New Roman, 12 pt font) without a computer. It isn’t possible, which means that getting a modern education without computers is impossible. It seems to me that society creates false needs and then adapts to these items to actually make them indispensable. Is it really a false need, then?
I understand that I am using Aristotelian thinking (the system we have is what we must learn to live within) rather than Plato’s dialectic (there are other systems, better systems that we must think about and debate), and I know that Marcuse would say that I have just really bought into the false need of consumer electronics, but anything else seems to me to be idealistic, and I am too cynical to be an idealist.