Back in September, my old warhorse of a desktop computer died. It was not a pretty passing---there was a great deal of wheezing and struggling and attempts to resuscitate the patient---but finally the truth had to be faced. My computer had gone on to the great electronics store in the sky.
Thus, I was faced with a dilemma: should I buy a new one? I had enough money for one, since my birthday was just over and I hadn't bought anything, plus I'd known the computer was on its last legs and had started saving for a new one over a year before. But then, rather like bad software, I froze. The Diderot Dilemma stopped me in my tracks.
Over 200 years ago, Denis Diderot, one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, received a beautiful scarlet dressing gown (a very fancy bathrobe) from a friend. He was delighted by the gift, and tossed out his old gown. In a short time, however, he began to compare how his nice dressing gown clashed with the shabbiness of his furnishings. His chairs and tapestries and rugs just couldn't compare. So he began throwing them out as well and buying things that complimented his garment. Finally, he realized that he had spent a fortune on things that he didn't really want, just to "keep up" with one item that he hadn't really needed in the first place---there had been nothing wrong with his old gown except being old. He wrote an essay entitled "Regrets On Parting With My Old Dressing Gown," a vivid work that has been used by sociologists like Juliet Schor (author of THE OVERSPENT AMERICAN) to explain why Americans are so prone to go into debt for things that are frivolous and do not, in the long run, bring great pleasure.
There are obviously differences between my situation and Diderot's. A computer is much more useful than a dressing gown, especially to an academic. I spend a good portion of each day working on computers as I prepare for my classes, keep up with friends, write blogs, etc. It would be nice to have a desktop computer functional in my home, so that I don't have to go to campus late at night or on the weekends.
Fortunately, I do have a laptop computer. I bought one back in the days when we were interviewing people for jobs, assuming I would need it to process information while we were at conferences. It didn't turn out to be necessary for that task, but I liked having the security of another computer and the ability to take it with me when I traveled. I've opened it on my kitchen table and I can work off of it relatively easily.
But....I miss the desktop. I miss sitting in the comfortable chair. I get tired of having to disassemble the computer and put away the cords so that my cat won't chew them. My wrists get cramped working on the flat keyboard. About once a day, I tell myself to just go to Best Buy and just get it over with.
But then the ghost of Mr. Diderot coughs and taps me on the shoulder. I start thinking, "Well, if I buy the new CPU, I'll have to have a new keyboard. My old keyboard doesn't have the letters on it anymore! I definitely need to replace that. And, you know, I'd really like to have a cordless mouse like my mom has, that is so convenient. And if I do that...well, gee, I should get the big flat screen monitor too, I hate that chunky old thing I have, and I will definitely have to replace the printer because it's almost a decade old and won't work on the new machine. Hmmm, then I'll need new software and a better security system, and isn't Windows coming out with a new edition at the first of the year? I'd have to update. Oh, and isn't it time for high speed Internet service? And my speakers were always junk, I should really move up on those if I'm going to finally have a big screen and sound. Not to mention DVD players, burners, etc."
Do you see my dilemma? My CPU has become a dressing gown.
I've been a dutiful saver. I planned ahead that I would need to replace that CPU. But then when I think 'well, I do have a working computer at home,' I feel almost immoral for ever considering upgrading! I think the next time Rev. Ron talks about materialism, he might be giving me the eye. I could get by without those things---is it wrong to want them? Is it selfish? I work hard, shouldn't I be able to reward myself without feeling guilty?
My friends, of course, think I'm nuts. My two best off-campus pals have probably had three state of the art computers each in the time that I've limped along with one. It isn't that I can't afford it---I do save, I don't live extravagantly in other ways, and Wofford has been generous to me (though like everyone else I'd like it to be even more generous next year!). But I have a hard time making big decisions about things that only I will use. I have to be absolutely certain that something will make me happy before the checkbook comes out. The last huge thing I bought was my car. I'm sure some people would tell me it was a bad choice and extravagant, but it makes me outrageously happy on a daily basis (it was something I'd dreamed of all my life) and it hasn't required 'extras' to go along with it.
But the new computer---I'm not sure. Would the happiness of having a top line machine override the sudden plunge in ye olde bank account? Would I feel like yet another greedy consumer?
I'm curious as to what readers of this blog---if there are any!---think. Are there dressing gowns in your life? Things you want/need but can't bring yourself to buy? One of my goals in my upcoming interim is to get students to think about what their purchases mean, besides just what they cost. I've told you a deep dark secret about my own dilemmas---why don't you share? You'd be helping me out as I work on things topics for classroom discussion.
And help from other people is priceless!