Materialism, resources, health, and social well-being: An introduction to the social and health considerations of material goods

           We human beings are often consumers of material things. Whether we actually put much stock in the material world or not these material things play a role in our lives, especially with regards to our health and our bodies. These interactions can be positive or negative depending on one’s relation to the object and how it is used in relation to other people and our own bodily and mental reaction.

            Material objects can play a significantly positive role in our lives. Such is especially the case when material objects enhance or improve our abilities to do things we might not be able to do otherwise. For example, a prosthesis device may significantly allow individuals who are amputees more freedom to go about their daily activities. Alternative and augmentative communication systems (AAC) allow people who either have significant permanent or temporary (such as those recovering from strokes) speech impairments and/or are non-verbal for other reasons (such as autism) to be able to more effectively communicate than they might otherwise. Hearing aids and cochlear implants may benefit those with hearing impairments. Individuals may receive relief from pain and dysfunction with knee and hip replacements. Even non-health related things like computers and dishwashers can potentially save us time and stress if utilized correctly.

            Moreover, in conjunction to improving physical ability, the medical community has also made significant efforts to improve some of these products over the years making, in some cases, significant strides to make these devices more realistic at least for some individuals, greatly improving function. For example, researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have developed a technique called sensory reinnervation to transfer spare muscle and skin to an amputee’s residual limb, allowing them to grow nerves to better control the function of their prosthesis and even be able to “feel” things with it (Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, http://www.ric.org/research/centers/bionic-medicine, downloaded January 4, 2014). Included on the page are some intriguing videos of some of the first patients to receive this procedure. These videos show the range of motion that this procedure allows these individuals and also shows the carrying out of certain life functions.

            One other prominent example of how function can be restored and used to improve function to an individual comes from the late film critic Roger Ebert’s TED talk entitled “Remaking My Voice” (Ebert, March 2011, http://www.ted.com/roger_ebert_remaking_my_voice.html, downloaded January 4, 2014). Having lost the ability to speak after complications from cancer surgery, Ebert “remade” his voice by utilizing old recordings, put together by a studio. These old recordings “formed” his new voice spoken through an AAC application.

            As has been mentioned, there are many advances in joint pain, hearing amplification, and more. These devices allow individuals to lead lives with improved bodily function (communication, movement, and so forth), may have certain aesthetic and/or psychological appeal (such as reconstruction implants for breast cancer survivors), and, in the case of certain assistive technologies, may allow for greater levels of literate achievement (e.g. Romski & Sevcik, 1996; Koppenhoever, Hendrix, & Williams, 2007). .

            However, material items that seem to improve function, etc. can also contain ethical and cultural issues involved. Furthermore, the accumulation of “stuff” in general can have significant health impact. For the remainder of the blog, I would like to quickly review some of these issues.

            Material items are assumed to make our lives better, but certain recent publications have questioned whether these items even improve our physical health (let alone anything else). For example, Miller, Chen, and Brody (2014, January 4, downloaded from http://opinionator.nytimes.com/can-upward-mobility-cost-you-your-health/?reference=opinion, January 4, 2014). report, in a New York Times op-ed article, that upward mobility does not seem to correspond to better health. While there are several variables involved, the authors suggest that one of the variables is the inability of some students to adjust to the management of levels of certain kinds of stresses to which they have not previously exposed. These students have high levels of willpower to succeed, but with success come new stressors. These students are not necessarily able to enjoy their success.

            Meanwhile, Richtal (2013, January 5, downloaded from http://www.nytimes.com/01/05/2014/business/you-cant-take-it-with-you-but-you-still-want-more.html?ref=science, January 4, 2014). reports on a study by Hsee, Jiao, Cai, and Zhang, published in Psychological Science 24, 6, (2013, downloaded from http://www.sagepub.com/content/24/6/852, January 4, 2014) suggesting that humans tend to overly consume resources. Participants were willing to subject themselves to somewhat harsh conditions (in this case a “harsh, white noise”) in order to earn a reward (a piece of chocolate), but came to earn more candies than could be consumed in the time in which researchers allowed them to be consumed. People overestimated their needs and, thus, were more willing to put up with non-favorable conditions in order to be successful. The study suggests that the participants overcompensated for their needs and, thus, did unnecessarily “work” in able to receive their “rewards”.

            The two articles would suggest that human beings, in our society, are subjecting themselves to increased levels of stress to achieve do they have an accurate grasp of when enough is enough. Thus, these individuals are exceeding their capacity in order to achieve material goals that may exceed what they actually need to be successful in life.

            The thornier question, especially from a bioethical standpoint, is what to do when material items are needed in order to carry out function in daily life. The Deaf community, for example, has raised substantial questions about cochlear implants. These concerns often cite the social context issues that are not “cured” through surgical intervention and isolation from the Deaf community and sign language (e.g. National Association of the Deaf, 2000, downloaded from http://www.nad.org/issues/technology/assistive-listening/cochlear-implants; Spencer & Marschark, 2003; Lane, 1998). These individuals argue that being Deaf is cultural in basis and, thus, cochlear implants that seek to “cure” deafness (in that they allow individuals with nerve based hearing damage to be able to hear) diminish their linguistic and cultural community. These individuals are treating D/deafness as a social/cultural community not as impairment. While not necessarily diminishing those who choose implementation, nor to providers, these questions do raise critical questions about whether cure has exceeded social function. Essentially, material things suggest that adjustment to what is normal is the best (and perhaps only) way to go.

            Sometimes, assumptions about cure also assume certain conditions. For example, if an individual with some understandable speech wants to use an AAC device to supplement his or her speech, suggesting that an individual “supplant” his or her voice may not be the most reasonable option in all situations. For example, an AAC device may be fine in conversation, but may be more difficult to utilize in a presentation or even a meeting (e.g. Kasnitz & Block, 2012). For example, these devices may slow down one’s presentation (allowing them to speak less, although more clearly), some may remove certain elements to an individual’s personality (considering the high cost of systems and need for certain factors to be in place such as Ebert’s), and location (assumption of a person remaining statutory in one place, not standing at a reception or party, for example). Just assuming that an AAC device alone may take care of all the individual’s difficulties may not necessarily work all the time for all users. It filters out the need of other social factors such as listening. AAC professionals generally understand needs in the social setting (see, for instance, Buekelman & Miranda, 2005), but other individuals may not.

            While material things can support human life effectively if used correctly, we must also consider the ethical, health, and social concerns related to what material things actually contribute to us as human beings. Technology and other material things can have some degree of benefit. However, careful consideration of impact, both positive and negative is important not just for our own health and welfare, but those of others and, thus, needs to contain consideration of ethical and social considerations.

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