Sunday, June 3, 2012

Tico Tom and Early Commodity Fetishism

So my blog post is going to be a little different—descriptive, yes, but hopefully pursuing a larger theme and argument.

Yesterday, I flew through a forest at an average speed of 40 miles per hour on more than 2 miles worth of zip lines, got within feet of a 15-foot-long crocodile, and ate a ridiculous amount of burritos and hot chocolate for dinner. It was fun.

Last night, however, the fears of mothers everywhere and the rambling rants of the few Marxist professors surviving modern McCarthysim united in a hurricane force gale of clarity and presented me with a fascinating moment of Gestalt and self-reflection during a conversation with a local dude, let’s call him Tico Tom.

Tico Tom and I met when his tanned friend with spiked hair and the classic one-too-many-top-buttons-unbuttoned tight black dress shirt and necklace awkwardly attempted to ask Stephanie to dance, the sight of which harkened back to my experiences as a conceited, mullet-clad seventh grader so loudly uncomfortable in my own skin that I had to ask girls to dance at mixers through proxies, who normally ended up dancing with the girls themselves.

Anyways, Tico Tom and I shared a good time poking fun at his friend before we walked outside the school gym where the impromtu discoteca was located, in which the booming music and scantily dressed table dancers (anything for school funds!) made hearing one’s own thoughts, much less the words of others, quite impossible.

When we got outside and started talking, I learned that Tico Tom worked as a software engineer and was studying law. He was going to come to the United States in August, he said.

“What part?” I asked.

“Missouri,” he said.

I told him I was from Kansas City, so we pulled out our cell phones to exchange numbers.

Golden citizens of McWorld, we both had Iphones.

It was in this instance that time seemed to stop and the ghost of Karl Marx appeared to me in a cloud of cigarette smoke provided by a passing teenager. Ghoulish, this specter rose up and assumed its place in our little circle, staring me directly in the eyes, emanating a perceivable proletarian change in the air around him. From the exhaust pipe of a beaten-up Toyota truck, another phantom appeared. It was the ghost of 90‘s generation mothers everywhere, wearing an absurdly colored pantsuit and eyeing me with the ire of a menopausal Joan Cusack.

I looked back and forth between them, and in a unified voice they said:

“The capitalist—You’ve been playing video games for—system is crutched on a fetishim—four hours! And all you ever do—of consumer goods and products, useless technology—is watch TV and use the computer—that itself has no value, indeed—and you text at the table at dinner—it is this emptiness which—while Dad and I are trying to talk—leads capitalism inevitably to—so I am taking away all of your electronics, because you seem to be more concerned about watching MTV and playing World of Warcraft than taking care of your self—its destruction—you’re not a bad person, you just have very bad behavior.”

They vanished, time resumed its normal course, Tico Tom and I continued talking, but by the time our group had taken hopped in the red microbus taxi back to Cuidad Colon, my mind was lost in what the two seemingly unrelated phantasmas had said.

Indeed, in discussions with various qualified Costa Ricans, the same story has cropped up time and time again. With globalization, the media blitz of consumerism broadsided a country that doesn’t yet have clean sewage systems in more than a quarter of all households. At CASEM, the women’s artisan co-op that other bloggers have described, our speaker explained how the priorities of young people in farming communities have shifted from a traditional desire to follow in the footsteps of their parents and work the land to an obsession with having an Iphone and a flatscreen TV, often before they have enough food.

Tico Tom’s Iphone was not the first I’ve seen in Costa Rica. They are as common a product here as in Washington. Even my host family’s 11-year-old daughter has a cell phone. Yet the average income here is a tenth of that of Friendship Heights, and many surveys still consider Costa Rica part of the third world.

What unifies Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism and overbearing 90’s mothers is a distaste for that obsession with distracting trinket tech, a distaste that more and more I am beginning to adopt. As much as I voluntarily prostrate myself at the Altar of Steve Jobs, that my first concern upon arriving in paradise was finding the WPA key for the wireless so I could peruse the New Yorker and check my Facebook is, in retrospect, disconcerting. This isn’t to say that technology and gadgetry cannot enable good through communication and the dissemination of information (I’m writing this on my mac) but simply that our obsession with it might be having some adverse affects. Then again, even to say that is a banal platitude echoed everywhere, even often by those who might disagree with me on other, more fundamental issues, but to again echo David Foster Wallace (in what is itself becoming for me a banal platitude) there is often some gritty truth behind banal platitudes.

Based on what I’ve learned, consumerism has brought fundamental changes to Costa Rica. Well being, among young people, has become a measure of expensive stereo systems, laptops, and Iphones. Indeed, in expanding consumer preferences, people are more likely to think their lives worse, because they see more and more that they do not have, which advertising tells them they should, so the compounding vicious cycle makes them want more and more.

Fortunately, Costa Rican development has been spectacular in many areas and commodity fetishism has not stopped them from conserving biodiversity and providing universal healthcare, things that even the United States has not yet found the political will to do. Other countries, however, haven’t had the foresight that this little central American beauty has.

What I thought was going to be an isolated paradise in many places is different from AU, it seems, in language and climate alone. Globalization inevitably homogenizes. If anything, then, this trip is making me want to put down my gadgets, walk in to town, run through the forest, see nature and humanity as it really is, instead of the stuffed reality presented in our tourist gift bags, or viewed through the ever-widening window of commodity fetishism and social-network-isolation.

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