“What would you like for your birthday?”
It is an innocent enough question, but it stumped me. At the not so tender age of 51, it’s a question I had been asked many times before.
But in recent years I haven’t been able to think of anything new or exciting to put on the list. It is getting to the stage when I have got everything I need or want.
Okay, okay, so there are some things I don’t own. I haven’t got a yacht. A mansion in the south of France. A private jet. A hollowed-out volcano with its own monorail. A dog.
But I can’t say that I exactly want or need any of those. If I am being honest.
It used to be so easy. As a kid I would press my little nose to the shop window of life and make long lists of things I was going to have when I grew up. A white Lotus Esprit that turned into a submarine. A penthouse apartment in London. My very own starship. Joanna Lumley.
While I didn’t exactly get everything on my list, life has been pretty good. I’ve got a loving family – me, the Mem and the best boy in the world. A house that’s big enough without being too grand. Two and a half cars. Televisions, computers, phones. The usual 21st century stuff.
I used to collect books and records/CDs, but that has become less exciting. The hunt for a rare title is a lot less exciting when you can order almost anything from the internet.
There is a technology point here too. When I was younger, technology was something that you had to keep upgrading. You bought a better computer because it could do things that your old computer couldn’t do. CDs were better than LPs. DVDs were better than video.
But now technology seems to have hit a plateau. I don’t feel the urgent need to upgrade my television fr’instance. The newer models may have 3D and something called 4K, but frankly my existing high definition television is good enough.
My computer does everything I want running on windows 7. I am not feeling a burning need for a faster better computer. I’m not exactly sure why I need or want windows 10. I certainly can’t get excited by it. Ooh, a new operating system! For me, an operating system is the boring bit that I need to get to the programmes that I want to run – a word processor to write that best-selling novel (in my dreams), an internet browser to find funny pictures of cats, that sort of thing.
A computer operating system is the technological equivalent of a hallway or corridor. You need one to get where you want to go, but it’s not a destination in itself. Windows 10? It’s a new hall carpet – forgive me for not wanting to throw a party when it arrives.
My car may be seven years old and showing some signs of age. But it still goes and stops. With one exception, every button and gadget does what it is supposed to do. The only thing that doesn’t work is the washer for the rear windscreen and somehow I manage to live without that. So yes a new car would be a nice treat. It would probably have a satnav built into the dash instead of being suckered to the windscreen. The paint would be a bit shinier. And … um … that’s about it.
I managed to contain my burning urge to buy an Apple watch. It seems that quite a few other people felt the same way. Now Apple is being very coy about how many Apple watches it has sold. The early adopters are not falling over themselves to recommend it to their friends. Oops. The Apple watch might yet recover, but so far it’s not looking great.
Then there is the holy trinity of technology – my phone, my ipad and my PC. These are quite odd gadgets because we haven’t yet scratched the surface of what they can do for us. We are continually finding new things that computers can do without having to upgrade the hardware. Once I have bought one ipad I am not sure why I would want to buy another one. The new ipad may be thinner and lighter, but this is already a product which is pretty thin and light.
If I have already got everything that I need, what do I want for my birthday?
That’s when we need to talk about upgrades. We replace something that we have already got with something better. Not because we need to, but because we want to. A bigger house, a faster car, a louder hifi, a camera with more buttons on it.
And that is when I pause. Something is not quite right with this.
We live in a world of massive wealth inequality. Thousands of people are trying to travel to the UK. Just today the news is that a man tried to walk the length of the Channel Tunnel to get to this country.
With our Daily Mail eyes, we see him as a threat to our way of life. He is coming to this country to take one of our jobs, to claim benefits, to take some of our wealth.
Or look at it another way. Here is some poor sod who is prepared to risk his life because his world is so much poorer and more dangerous than ours.
I am reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari at the moment. It is a fascinating book, by the way, and well recommended. He argues that mankind tricked ourselves into giving up the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to become farmers. His argument is that farming is less healthy for us than running after antelope, but once we had started planting crops we couldn’t stop. We found new ways to grow more food, which in turn led to the development of towns and cities, then civilization and war, and fast forward to where we are now.
He argues that the organism which has done best out of this is the wheat plant. We have cultivated more and more wheat as our civilization has grown. We have cleared vast fields to help it grow, killed off its competitors, tilled the soil, built walls to keep animals away, picked up stones, built irrigation ditches to provide it with water. An alien looking at earth might conclude that wheat is the dominant species on earth and we exist to serve it.
The one thing that Yuval struggles with (so far in the book, at least) is an explanation for why mankind became farmers. Why did we have several agricultural revolutions spanning thousands of years?
The answer, I think, takes us back to my opening question. What would I like for my birthday?
Humans use tools to make up for the things that our bodies lack. We don’t have thick hide or scaly armour, so we developed clothes. Our fingers don’t have a lion’s claws, so we invented flint knives. We are not as strong as a rhinoceros, so we learned to hunt in packs.
We don’t put up with our problems. We find a way to overcome them. We improve.
This urge to improve prompts us to acquire more possessions. Then to replace those possessions with better ones. It is what we are. We are tool-using animals who want to improve our environment. We want a better life than our parents, who in turn wanted a better life than their parents.
It is this drive which has made us what we are. It has built civilizations and developed technologies. It has put a man on the moon and countless cats on the internet. Why risk your life in the hunt when we could stay in the warm hut and eat this bread that I baked this morning?
But we can’t continue like this. We cannot keep on using the Earth’s resources to make more ipads. We can’t destroy our planet so that a lucky few can have ridiculous amounts of luxury while the majority live in poverty. We have only got one planet, and yet we are cheerfully ruining it.
We are farting in our space suit.
The problem is that this is what we are hard-wired to do. We are tool-using improvers. We want our lives to be better, which means paradoxically that we are making them worse. Our approach is inherently short term and selfish. I only see the ipad in my hand. I don’t see the minerals ripped out of the ground to make it, or the low-paid Chinese worker who screwed it all together.
This means that we skew the argument. Some people deny climate change, not because of any counter evidence (there isn’t any), but because they don’t want it to be so. They don’t want their way of life to be threatened.
We see poor people at our borders and we worry about how to keep them out, instead of thinking about how we can fix the underlying problems of wealth inequality.
What do I want for my birthday? It has taken me a while to work it out, but I think I have got there.
What I really want is … to not want. I want to break the cycle of more and better possessions. I want to make the best of what we have got.
I want to fix something.
Instead of throwing things away and buying new, I want to repair something. I don’t know what I want to fix. It will come to me. Maybe, it’s me that needs to be fixed. Or all of us.
Now that would be a birthday present.