“Default settings” – in information-technology terminology — refers to the basic way a computer system is set up until you decide to make any specific changes. One could say that in our lives, running water, flush toilets, electric lighting, gas stoves and telephones are all part of our own default settings.
As a Chinese woman of a certain age, I have experienced life without these defaults. When I was my daughter’s age, running water was only provided for four hours a day – two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Households had to store water in buckets. My mother used to get up early every morning when water was available and wash the whole family’s clothes. The only electrical appliances owned by our family of four were two 25-watt lights, two 15-watt lights, and a radio.
I was 16 before we had a telephone. As for the stove, I have seen the family go from coal briquettes, to liquid petroleum gas, to natural gas. My live-in nanny Xiaohan is from the countryside, and even today her family still burns firewood for cooking and heating. Their water comes from a well, and they have no flush toilet.
Over the years, the following have all been added to the default settings of my own life: television, refrigerator, washing machine, air conditioning, computer, extractor fan, water cooler, electric fan, rice cooker and microwave oven. My eight-year-old daughter has grown up with these things. She takes it for granted that every family has them, and that they are utterly essential. She cannot imagine being without them.
This is domestic modernisation. It seems that only once we have these things can we lead a respectable, dignified life.
But such appliances all need electricity. In China, 70% of electricity is generated by burning coal. This means carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and CO2 pollution.
I once read a story, in which a philosopher who has spent his life absorbed in study goes to a market one day. He is shocked, and says: “There are so many things here which I have no use for.”
For a long time I was confused – why would the philosopher be so shocked? But now I understand that his shock came from realising the huge gap between his own default settings and those of mainstream society.
Take showering as an example. Thirty years ago, my father – a doctor – went to Tibet for two years as part of the campaign to “aid Tibet”. In these two years, he washed only twice. The first was when he arrived, and the second was when he left. He said that people in the north of Tibet only wash twice in their whole lives – once when they get married, and once just before they die.
The writer Sanmao also described how some people living in the Sahara desert only wash once a year, and this cleansing is regarded as a solemn ceremony. In Xiaohan’s village in the north-east of China, they used to wash only when the season changed. Now they go each month to the bath house in the nearest town. The Dai peoples of Yunnan, in contrast, spend their lives by the water, and rely on it for an income. To them, showering is completely ordinary.
These different peoples wash according to the climate in which they live. How they wash, where they wash and how often they wash is all decided by the local environment, and has become part of their culture over thousands of years.
In modern urban life, washing has become totally separate from the local environment. It has become one of the ceremonies and symbols of modern life. Until I graduated from university, I only washed once a week, but now I have gradually got used to washing every day, and see this as a necessity.
Living in our modern societies, we calmly enjoy the various conveniences of modern life and have come to take them completely for granted; they have become our defaults. We very rarely stop to think do I really need a fridge? Do I really need air conditioning? Do I really need a car? Do I really need to shower every day? Do I really need a new change of clothes every day?
Every time modern technology presents us with a new possibility, we quickly learn to see it as a necessity, and it becomes a default. The process is becoming shorter and shorter. Consumption has become something that we see as only right and proper.
But is it really right and proper? I still have a few vague memories of the details of my childhood. Back then, people would cut up used drinks cans and use the base as an ash tray or vase. The string used for tying up parcels could be collected and sewn together to make bags – the bag I used to take to the market was made in this way. People also would sew together old calendars and cigarette boxes and turn them into curtains. No one looked down on these objects just because they were made cheaply. On the contrary, many of them were very well made, and could be seen as little works of art.
Now things like this are vanishing from our lives. There are now more and more beautiful new products available, and more and more disposable items. This has aroused in us a desire to buy, but it also means we have lost the pleasure that those beautiful homemade things used to bring us. Once, in an arts-and-crafts shop, I saw a curtain that was made to look like the old-style homemade curtains. The materials were not re-used objects, and the effect was not so good. Sometimes I think of all the old coloured paper that we throw away and think that it would be ideal material for this kind of thing. However, it seems that no one thinks about re-use any more.
This is modern society – a lifestyle revolving around consumption and with material satisfaction as the highest aim. The problem is that when new technology becomes a default in our lives, it can no longer bring us happiness or a sense of fulfillment. On the contrary, an absence of these defaults can make us unhappy. This kind of lifestyle leads to higher and higher default levels, and an ever-greater desire to consume.
When the resources that support this consumption have all but disappeared, and the environment can no longer take the strain, it will be too late to cancel these default settings. It is much easier to go from simplicity to extravagance, than to go from extravagance to simplicity. It has always been this way.
Yu Aiqun is a CCTV journalist and editor.
Homepage photo by kevsunblush