Sunday, February 20, 2011

Objects and materials: On availability

Marco came over to my home on Friday night after we went to a wonderful birthday party for Mariko. Marco is one of the smartest, most intelligent and thoughtful people I know; he is my friend. We were talking about my experience at Professor Michael Griffin's talk, and we were trying to think about why it is we are fine with throwing things away, and what compels us to do so. We came up with a list of issues, and I will write about them one at a time. Today, I want to write about availability, and I will focus on plastic, and compare and contrast it with rarer materials, like glass and diamond, but I do believe any of these arguments can be easily extrapolated to think about other materials, and other issues. Availability I mean as the way in which objects and materials surround us, ubiquitously or rarely, especially in ways in which we physically interact with them.

I am sitting in the Fish Bowl right now, and the keyboard I am typing with is made of plastic. The frame of the screen is plastic, as is the case for the CPU of the computer. There is a plastic bottle of alcoholic hand sanitiser near the Helpdesk, and the recycling bins are made of plastic. My cell phone is made of plastic, as are the interiors of passenger aircraft. Plastic has physical properties that make it incredibly "friendly" for things like computers or bottles. Furthermore since it is made from petrochemicals, I wouldn't doubt that plastic production is subsidised, although this is purely speculation. This allows plastic to be monetarily cheap (although it is far from environmentally cheap). Consequently, plastic is highly available. We have structured our world around plastic, and in fact the world we live in would not be remotely possible without plastic. During my day, I will probably come in more physical contact with plastic than I will with something like glass, even though I absolutely love glass. It seems though that the raw materials to make glass are as abundant as petrochemicals (have so far been). So, if we really wanted to make glass more available, it probably wouldn't be that difficult. Glass has its own advantages compared to plastic, and of course, is aesthetically much more pleasing. But since it is rare to go to a fraternity party and have them serve you beer in a pint glass, the decreased availability makes us feel as if it is more valuable, in whatever way you may define value.

At the same time, maybe plastic's incredible flexibility of use and consequent ubiquity has allowed us to view it as a limitless resource, just like forests and trees may have seemed before man started plowing through them. Ubiquity and high availability seem to drive down the value of this material, rather than allowing us to appreciate it for its properties. (I know plastic has its bad sides, too. Of course, I would never warm something up in the microwave in a plastic container.) I think this is an interesting contradiction of sorts - plastic is so amazing that so many things can be made of it, and for some reason, this inherent value of it allows us to devalue it.

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