Monday, October 31, 2005

A Village of Voyeurs

I heard an interesting analysis this morning. The topic to which the comment was attached is really irrelevant. The point is excellent.

We've become a society of voyeurs, choosing rather to watch life out the window than to get out and live it for ourselves.

On the lighter side, that's the only reasonable explanation for the boom of "reality television."

There's a much more disturbing point, however. We've successfully alienated ourselves from nearly every part of our own existence. In days gone by, when the internet and the modern obsession with anytime/anywhere communication were nonexistent, we actually lived, making our own way. Now, we can immerse ourselves in a fantasy world in which our problems are either forgotten completely (and therefore never directly addressed), or are attributed to the actions of another.

I tend to think this is the end result of a culture's obsession with extravagance. During the first half of the century (even more so after the Second World War), citizens of this nation were driven to achieve more and accomplish more than their parents. As that generation aged and procreated, the trend was towards granting their children all the fruits of their labors. That generation grew up in good homes, with the best of everything, and they didn't have to struggle to get to that point like their parents had.

When that generation grew to maturity (the "yuppies," for those who keep up with such terms), their children enjoyed even more affluence than their parents, again without the struggles that that generation's grandparents endured.

Now, up to this point, my analysis has mirrored much of what has been written about "Generation X," but here I'll veer away from the conclusion normally presented here, that Gen-X has no concept of morals, financial responsibility, etc. Those may be real problems, but they have little, if anything to do with my point.

The Baby Boomers drove station wagons and American luxury sedans, sometimes stepping down to the econo-boxes when it was time for their kids to go to college. The Yuppies selected from Mercedes, Volvo, Saab, and the occasional Audi, citing things like "engineering" and "fit and finish" as the driving criteria for that selection. Gen-X was arguably the biggest reason for Lexus and Infiniti to come about, as their concern for "old-world" refinement was usually located right next to their affinity for Victorian mores. An expensive, high-performance sedan from Japan was acceptable to them, despite the fact that they were paying an average of $10K more for a re-badged Toyota. Image was, in their world, everything (I could go into a rant about a $70K four-wheel drive vehicle here, but I digress). Enter the children of Gen-X. Many are reaching young adulthood, and as their Gen-X parents grasp for some long-overdue satisfaction out of life, they're looking for ways to fulfill expectations of exceeding their parents' achievements. This leads them into the realm of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston-Martin, and Bentley. Now, with these ever-increasing expectations of affluence come the stark reality that a smaller and smaller percentage of people really "make it" to the top. As the bar is raised, fewer are capable of jumping over it, and more are inspired to try to stretch their limited resources to reach it.

I know I've concentrated on vehicles, because it's a handy barometer, but consider how most of the 40+ crowd grew up dreaming of a summer cottage on the coast, and those younger than that willingly spend about three months' mortgage on that cottage on a seven-day Club Med vacation. The quest for affluence has truly permeated every aspect of society--not just our autos.

Back to the main topic now--
So, as fewer and fewer people really make it into the "in" crowd, we're more inspired to live out our fantasies of opulence through other means. For some that takes the form of a few drool-sessions at the Porsche website per week. For others, it's an uninhibited trip to Vegas or Mardi Gras. For others still, it's watching others on television vie for riches and affluence, and noticing that they're no better than the average citizen.

Most of all, it's about us becoming much more concerned with what others have and with how others live, when Americans once were quite preoccupied with making their own lives into what they wanted.

Perhaps this is at the root of some of the political discourse of late. Perhaps this trend serves to explain the corruption that seems be present in nearly every level of business and most areas of government.

Perhaps it's just my own personal pet peeve, and it's not really doing anything at all significant in society.

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