consumerism

Those Glory Days of Mood Rings and Pet Rocks

You can tell a lot about an era by the gadgets it spawns.

In the mid-’70s, two must-have items were the mood ring and the pet rock (both of which I owned, courtesy of my fad-sustaining mom).

Although both of these product niches flared out in fairly short order, I think they reflected some common values of the time – at least in America.

Both embodied the “Me Decade” mantra that Novelist Tom Wolfe coined to describe the passive individualism that took root in the 1970s (contrasting the communal lifestyle associated with the ‘60s). The mood ring, in particular, empowered each of us through its ability to measure – and share – a wearer’s unique state of mind at any given time.

Another intriguing characteristic of both gadgets is how they supported – even celebrated – a sedentary lifestyle. You didn’t actually have to ‘do’ anything to enjoy their benefits. Body temperature regulated the color that purportedly evaluated your mood, and the pet rock was, well, a ROCK.

(Of course, this elevation of inactivity would be dethroned in the early ‘80s by the Jane Fonda-inspired workout video craze).

In retrospect, probably the most amusing part of our ‘70s baubles is the fact that they were total farces – and we all knew it. Neither product actually delivered what it was supposed to, but we all played along with the gag as if for the sake of a clueless bystander (a role, oddly, also played by us).

I kind of understand the appeal of the mood ring. It was fun, gimmicky, gaudy-stylish. And from what I remember, comparing moods with others could be a hoot (stop snickering, I had a men’s version).

But the pet rock? It was an inanimate object devoid of any meaningful characteristic of owning a real pet. It was nothing more than a corny joke.

That didn’t matter – at least not to my mom, who thought it was hilarious. I think I played along for a while, until I got bored and decided to paint a monster face on the stupid stone.

We demand so much more from our gadgets these days.

Unlike kitschy jewelry or faux pets, our smartphone devices can’t be one-trick ponies. They need to connect us, direct us, inform us, entertain us, awaken us, and on and on.

So what will they ultimately tell future generations about what we valued during this era?

Certainly that we craved technology. Couldn’t get enough of it.

We liked to explore and were easily distracted by bright, shiny objects/apps.

We had short attention spans.

And probably most telling of all: that we were all too willing to increasingly devote our lives to a tiny device that promised so much (yet, like the ring and rock, didn’t necessarily deliver the satisfaction we hoped it would).

I wonder what gadgets will define us in 10, 20, 50, 100+ years? 

The Choices That Bind

Fridge

Excessive choice has once again trapped me under its devious spell.

This time, paralysis took hold as I was browsing refrigerators at a local appliance superstore (check out my other recent paralyzing experience: “Panic in the Toothpaste Aisle”).

I embarked on my current retail engagement in response to the near-demise of my current fridge (the not-so-subtle clues of its impending death include a failing motor and a small puddle of water slowly emerging beneath its body).

Given the strong possibility that this minor incontinence will eventually lead to a full-blown river in the middle of my kitchen, I decided to begin the replacement process.

And not surprisingly, the market is chock full of choices. Beyond the familiar freezer-on-top and side-by-side model options, stylish alternatives include French refrigerator doors, a freezer door (or drawer) at the bottom, and sophisticated door-mounted water and ice dispensers – not to mention various options in both color and finish.

Of course, most of these choices are offered by numerous brands that include Whirlpool (which apparently now owns Maytag, KitchenAid, Amana and Jenn-Air), General Electric, Kenmore, LG, Samsung, Electrolux, Viking, etc., etc.

Stop, I want to get off.

I know it seems counterintuitive, but I continue to believe that the availability of so many choices actually leads to LESS personal satisfaction. Instead, it creates confusion, compounds stress, and dramatically increases the likelihood of some degree of buyer’s remorse.

Reinforcing those beliefs is Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. During his 2005 TED presentation, he explained how and why the abundance of choice in modern society is actually making us quite miserable:

And here’s a Newsweek article on the topic as well.

While you ponder this concept further, I need to go change the towels beneath my fridge.