And the Pursuit of Happiness review

What a name for a blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness.

The blog’s beautiful, but it’s not really a blog. It’s a place that, once a month, displays a new piece of written and visual art—created by author and illustrator of children’s books Maira Kalman. It was one of the most popular items on New York Times‘ website recently, which is how I found it.

Here’s another thing the blog isn’t: it isn’t focused on people pursuing happiness. Its name is more a reference to its decidedly American focus, and also its storyline that there is happiness here, despite the myriad and potentially devastating problems inherent in our system.

I like Kalman a lot. She acknowledges the problems, but lets the columnists deal with them. She’s resolved her little corner of the Times is gonna be about the good people are doing and trying to do. It’s not reckless promotion but, rather, she realizes that sometimes journalism means telling, simply, the happiness people have and bring to others. Kalman’s a good journalist.

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Consumerism as conspiracy (and I believe it!)


The interior of the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street. In the Victorian style, it's cluttered with stuff. (Creative Commons-licensed photo from the Flickr account of practicalowl)

Here’s an article written by a professor in my academic department, Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin. I haven’t yet had her in class; she’s on sabbatical this semester.

In this she’s written the most complete, historically accurate magazine-format depiction of planned obsolescence I’ve ever read. And I’ve read several great ones.

Planned obsolescence is, in my own words, designing something to wear out, give out, or otherwise become unusable or out of style after a certain amount of time. Which prompts the consumer to buy another.

It hasn’t always been around; in fact, it has only governed business practices in the last 80-90 years, and, arguably, the vast majority of it has popped up in the last 40 years.

In my opinion, it’s dishonest. In most cases, we (well, industrial engineers) know how to make stuff last, say, ten or a hundred times as long as it “normally” lasts in our experience. Why don’t we? People like to make money.

Obviously it’s destroying our planet, and to a certain extent, our souls, if you believe in that kind of thing. I like good product design as much (and probably a lot more) than the next guy, but what happens to our humanity if we’re never satisfied with what we have?

One man asked that and came up with the “100 Thing Challenge,” where he sold, donated, or put into storage all his possessions except a carefully-chosen 100 things—for one year. He got coverage by Time magazine online and now has a book deal with Harper Perennial.

My sister today said something like “I’m against the production of new stuff.” She thinks the world has everything it needs, and if we just passed it all around—Freecycle, that sort of thing—we’d all be better off.

I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way.