Lately, I’ve been reflecting on what we think has value – objects, people, ideas. And the only truth I can come up with, is that in every instance, the value of something is subjective.
Allow me to explain.
In most cases, the value we perceive, is the same value other people have given to something, so we’ll crave it. Say, for example, that you want to buy the iPhone X. Why? Do you actually need a new phone that’s $1,000? Probably not. But it’s brand new and shiny and when people see you bought that, they’ll apply the “cool” and “rich” filters to the lenses they see you through. So we value that phone because owning one gives us a bump in the status chart.
The way we value people is no different. With the exception (hopefully) of family and close friends, often what we value in the people we surround ourselves with, is what they can do for us. Is being associated with them helpful to our image? Is it worth $100 for you to take them out for drinks if that interaction won’t probably lead to any benefits? I understand if it seems a bit of an overly cynical filter to apply to the realm of human interactions. However, who are you kidding? The more followers you have, the more you consider yourself worthy of praise, love, attention – therefore, the more value other people will confer to you.
The value we give ideas is yet again based on the value others project on them: we are smarter, more knowledgeable, more empathetic, based on what ideas or beliefs we support. Maybe we share a cryptic article on AI, or bitcoin, or the economic reform – now people can praise how we stay current and are not afraid to take a stand. And that is just such bullshit. Many an actual activist can tell you that while they do believe in what they fight for, they often prefer to keep their involvement quiet. Being part of the marching mass is way safer than being singled out. And I can’t blame them. If you have a public political affiliation, your psychological profile is written before you even open your mouth.
So we surround ourselves with objects, people and ideas that project a neat, packaged image of ourselves to the world. If that wasn’t scary enough, we, in turn, start to value ourselves based on what we buy and consume. We define who we are by the brands we surround ourselves with – because they already have specific connotations that are easier to communicate than our life stories and personality traits.
I mean in no way to condemn marketing, advertising, or social media for bringing us to this place. In many ways, human behavior was exactly the same even before ads and mass produced goods, but the lenses of judgement were traditionally skewed towards your lineage, family fortune, and career choices.
And we don’t need to go so far back. Just in the 80s and 90s my friends and I had no discretionary money, nor did we have any power over our parents to make them buy stuff that wasn’t necessary, so we used to define ourselves by the music we listened to. Metallica fans were badasses, Nirvana followers were introspective and mysterious, Greenday listeners had something honestly wrong with them. (I was, and still am, one of the latter).
So many years later, we still seek definition through anything other than our true thoughts and feelings. We still buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like (Tyler Durden docet), in the hopes that our intrinsic value as human beings will be easily embraced by our peers.
Value will always be subjective. I value experiences over possessions. You value owning the latest iPhone over a vacation. Neither one of us is right nor wrong.
However, we should accept that consumption habits evolve, and brands change what they stand for. So maybe it’s time to grow up and express our personality and self worth in a more genuine, explicit way.