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Opinion and Analysis: Culture | Economy | Venezuelan Media

Devaluation, Consumerism, and the Media

In light of Venezuela’s recent currency devaluation, Venezuelan blogger and technology activist Luigino Bracci Roa argues that a change in attitudes towards consumption and technology is required.

We have spent months watching people on [state channel] VTV standing in lines to buy Haier brand refrigerators, stoves, and flat-panel televisions. We have spent years watching anchors on the public media using the latest touch-screen technology to read a Twitter feed. The much-needed discourse against consumerism that must come from us revolutionaries was cancelled out a long time ago with slogans like “the good life” or “living to the fullest”, which were slogans from the presidential campaign that sent the wrong-headed message that being a socialist means having a lot of money to thoughtlessly spend on whatever you want.

But the recent devaluation of 46 percent announced [depending on the calculation used, this has been calculated as 32% or 46.5%]  last Friday has made us start to come back down to Earth. The massive mark-ups in prices that the capitalists make at moments like this, and the ineffectiveness of [the consumer protection agency] Indepabis to regulate speculation, are without a doubt part of the problem.

But we cannot just blame Indepabis. The consumerism that we have in our veins, and that continues to be pumped into us by the media, public and private, is also what causes this speculation. It is the basic concept of supply and demand: if everyone in Venezuela wants to have an iPhone 5 or a Blackberry Z10, the capitalists will raise the price as much as possible, just as long as there are still idiots that will buy them. That’s why we see people selling these little devices at such outrageous prices (a Blackberry Z10 can sell for as much as BsF. 30 thousand, or US$ 4,760), and there are still idiots that buy them.

I am one of those people who thinks that the real revolutionary doesn’t buy things just to show off. In the first place, it is our duty to question possessions and the need for technologies that are being forced upon us by the media. We revolutionaries understand that there exists something known as “programmed obsolescence” that capitalism uses as a way to make us believe that the device that just came out six months ago is already obsolete, and so you should buy a new one.

A true revolutionary researches and learns how to use the cheapest technology, affordable to everyone, so that by making a few changes here and there it can work just as well or better than the top of the line technology.

In other words, a true revolutionary looks into how to use the Chinese tablet that only costs BsF. 1,700 (US$ 270) to make it work as good or better than the iPad that costs BsF. 19,000 (US$ 3,000). A revolutionary can make the Android work better than the iPhone5, and then share that knowledge by teaching others how to do the same so that no one has to make the error of coveting what they cannot afford—something that later translates into frustration and impatience with the economic system that we are trying to create.

Comrade Nicolás Maduro, designated as vice president by President Hugo Chavez, has said basically the same thing. Last week he urged us to “learn to do a lot with a little, to do more with less, to change the rentier culture of oil, in which we were accustomed to do little with a lot. That is the message of efficiency in the use of resources, with love, with creativity, with dedication it is possible to do twice or three times as much, with the utmost neatness and honesty.” For that, the use of open-source technologies (ones that permit us to not only use them, but to study and learn from them, to modify them, improve them, adapt them, and redistribute them) is fundamental.

Of course our small efforts to learn about and teach others to use open-source technology is totally smashed by the gigantic media campaign of the transnational corporations. It is annoying to see a ton of publicity every 15 minutes on [private channels] Televen, Meridiano, or Venevisión promoting consumerism, but it is understandable that during this transition to socialism we have to live with that.

But it is even more annoying that when you change the channel looking for an alternative and you find practically the same thing on the state channels.

Is it necessary for all the TV anchors on [state channel] VTV and Telesur to constantly show their iPad tablets to millions of people hoping to build a new society? Do they understand that product placement, intentional or not, converts those objects into goods desired by millions of people?

Is it necessary for the [state-owned] Bank of Venezuela to flood us with commercials urging us to consume and use our bank cards again and again to accumulate points that we can then use to continue consuming and consuming?

It is necessary for [state-owned telephone company] Movilnet to fall into such brutal contradictions by first promoting cheap and useful smartphones like the Evolución 2, and then suddenly when they run out they start promoting Blackberries?

I understand that in television studios they have tele-prompters, flat-screens and other resources so that journalists and anchors can easily access information. Having a tablet doesn’t make you a better journalist. The tools used by Hugo Chavez in his presentations are markers, whiteboards, maps and sheets of paper. [State-channel television host] Walter Martinez also uses a map, a pointer, and a clipboard. Neither of them have used tablets on television, and no one would dare deny that they both have tremendous communicative skills.

And even if tablets really were necessary, that brings up another question: Do we really have to constantly show on state media the most expensive product of all, in this case the iPad which costs BsF. 19,000 (US$ 3,000)? You don’t have to be a hacker to know that any low-cost Chinese tablet can work for reading Twitter and to show photos, and we can even assemble them here in Venezuela (state-owned VIT is already working on this, and has an interesting product that uses open-source software: the tablet VIT T1100). Let’s be consistent with our ideology.

Another problem related to the Socialist Plan of the Nation 2013 – 2019 has to do with the environmental and socialist aspect of our revolution. As a leftist movement, we should be the first ones teaching people that every time you buy a new piece of technology—whether it is a Chinese tablet or a Blackberry Z10—it means that thousands of enslaved men, women and children in the Congo had to put their lives in danger in order to extract the tantalite, and that thousands of people in southeast Asia, often children, have to work in sweatshops for 16 hours a day or more, with zero labor stability and absurdly low wages so that you can enjoy a device that none of them will every be able to buy.

So that your child can enjoy a Nintendo Wii, thousands of children on the other side of the world had to sacrifice their childhood. Be conscious of that, and make your child conscious of it too.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be “anti-technology” and go live in a cave somewhere. It means that each time we feel that we are being pushed to buy something, we must question ourselves and ask ourselves a thousand times if it is something that we really need, or if we are just obeying a consumerist desire as a result of the media’s manipulation of our emotions.

This is why we need many more messages from the National System of Public Media urging us to end consumerism and to ignore programmed obsolescence. We need to make an alliance with the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of the Communes to teach people how to dispose of harmful devices and products; tell them where and how they can get rid of them, and promote the creation of television programs and commercials that explain how to lengthen the life of technological devices, at the same time combatting the capitalist propaganda that compels us to do the opposite: to consume.

On that note, I congratulate the comrades of the Los Ruices communal council in Caracas for their work in collecting harmful waste like batteries, light bulbs, toner cartridges, and others. This is a demonstration of how our communities can get organized and be consistent with our ideals, with our environment, and with the Plan of the Nation. I hope they can be made visible too by our public media, particularly because three of our public TV channels (VTV, TVes y Telesur) and one of our public radio stations (Radio del Sur) are located within two blocks of where this work is being done.

We have a lot to debate and to change… at the macro and micro levels, in both our revolutionary process and inside each one of us. Let’s not allow this debate to be neutralized. Let’s hit it hard and generate changes.

Translated by Chris Carlson for