iPad frenzy and The Story of Stuff

The past few days there have been hundreds of stories about the release of the iPad. Stories about standing in line to buy it, stories about why it’s a great product, stories about why it’s not a great product, stories about why you should buy one, stories about why you shouldn’t buy one.

It’s a media frenzy around the shiny new tablet from Apple.

I am not one to talk. I’ve written about the iPad myself. I’m part of the frenzy.

How did you feel watching this barrage of iPad stories? Did you feel that there was something wrong with you if you weren’t standing in line outside an Apple store? Did you have an undefinable urge to buy one, or envy someone who had one when you didn’t? What emotions did the iPad bring up in you?

I’ll confess first. I’d love to have one. I love techy gadgets, I’m a Mac person. I’m sure I would feel wonderful if I owned such a sleek and beautiful device. So my emotions ranged from longing to envy to just feeling bad because I didn’t buy one like all the cool kids. Sigh.

During the same few days the iPad frenzy was going on in the media and blogosphere, I was doing something else. I was reading a book called The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. There’s a storyofstuff website and a video.

The video came out before the book. It encapsulates most of the points in the book into a 20 minute visual with commentary from Annie Leonard. I hope you’ll take the time to watch it. Afterwards, I want to discuss a specific aspect of the book that may make you feel better if you are struggling with whether or not to buy an iPad.

In “Chapter 4: Consumption” in The Story of Stuff, Leonard describes a phenomenon of consumerism that is based on social comparisons. She says,

. . . our sense of wealth and material well-being is relative; that is, it has to do with how much Stuff we have compared to other people. So, if we’re hanging around a bunch of ostentatious spenders, we feel poor. If we’re hanging around with people who are lower than us on the economic ladder, we feel rich.

Leonard talks about how our sense of comparison has expanded. We aren’t just trying to keep up with the Joneses next door, now we’re comparing ourselves to millionaires and celebrities that we see on TV. She credits Juliet Schor who wrote The Overspent American for the concept called “vertical expansion of our reference group.” We’re now comparing ourselves with a much wider group of people than ever before. Leonard tells this story about wanting to buy a new pair of shoes every time she was in Manhattan.

I’d see women with gorgeous designer shoes everywhere. I’d just have to buy a new pair of shoes even though—believe me—I really do not need any more shoes. It was irresistible. . . . Then I read Schor’s book. In my experience, a powerful way to free oneself from an unhealthy dynamic is simply to name it. Now when I am in Manhattan and I get that rush of need, I can call it out: “There’s that vertical expansion of my reference group thing again: just gotta hang on until I get home,” and I can walk right past those shoe stores.

Leonard’s tale about the vertical expansion of a reference group really resonates right now. Everyone everywhere is talking about the iPad, and I’m wishing I could rush out and buy one, even while I know I don’t need it and can’t afford it. Reading The Story of Stuff made me realize that I could use her mantra: “There’s that vertical expansion of my reference group thing again: just gotta hang on,” and I’d be able to get through the frenzy and come out on the other end with no iPad.

Am I telling you not to buy a iPad? Absolutely not. It may be the perfect thing for you. But if, like me, you know you don’t really need it and can’t really afford it, I’m telling you that you don’t need to feel bad about not buying one. In fact, you can even feel good about consuming less Stuff.

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