Friday, January 12, 2007

The Meaning of Gift Cards

Perhaps you, like me, received one or more gift cards this holiday season. Since my birthday is near Christmas, I received quite a few of them within a few weeks. The word to my Mom is: "Mom, there is no way you can imagine what books I want to read or what music I want to hear. Your batting average on both is not good. Your choices for clothing--outside of socks and scarves--are risky, both for size and style. So, please, send a Barnes and Noble gift card." No, I don't put it that sharply, but you get the idea. Mom is very generous and always gets me things besides gift cards, such as her famous Christmas cookies.(My Mom is off-line, so I'm not worrying too much, but some of her friends and relatives are not...It may leak out.)

I just read in The New York Times Magazine that a large percentage of gift card money is never used. I usually use mine within a few weeks or sooner. But that is not what interests me. What does the proliferation of gift cards say about our society, about our relationships? Gift cards cater to individualism and to ease. Let the receiver decide what she wants; it's easier. Yes, it is; but what is lost in the transaction? Gifts, at their best, are creative and involving. I think of a young wife who downloaded, copied, and pasted Jonathan Edwards's selected sermons into a blank book for her husband. That required a deep knowledge of her husband's concerns, considerable time spent, and creativity. (Michelle, you are something else.)

Now compare that delightful customized book to a gift card. With my card, I get to purchase what I want when I want it; or I can let the card expire or lose it. It is all up to me. MeWorld, it is--once again. There are no surprises, no sustained commentary on the appropriateness of the gift, no deep memories made through the giving and receiving. It fits neatly into my wallet. Christmas cookies, made especially by Mom, are in another category.

I received many gift cards this season. And I am thankful for them, please do not get me wrong! I am listening to the fruit of one right now: "Beyond the Wall" by Kenny Garrett, the best alto saxophonist around today, for my money (I mean gift card). But the prevalence of gift cards speaks in a sense to the loneliness and impersonality of our culture. We don't know each other well enough or invest ourselves in each other enough to find the "deep gift," as it were. Moreover, we usually purchase gifts instead of creating them--consumption once again. The Christmas cookies were created, not purchased.

(By the way, those who appreciate this blog, can purchase an Amazon gift card for me any time you like.)


Jeff Burton said...

I agree completely with your analysis of gift cards, but part of the problem lies outside of "MeWorld". The frequency of obligatory gift exchanges has been increasing and plays a role. I always thought the Northwest Indian custom of the Potlatch strange, but now I am beginning to understand.

Yossman said...

My birthday is two days before Christmas. Still don't know if I like it or not.

I struggle with this: I want gift cards, or better even, just money, but people don't like to do that over here (gift cards haven't yet hit the Netherlands in a big way, but it's coming). So I pleaded with my wife and family to give me money. One of my friends made his monetary gift in an original way: he put money in an envelope on which he printed: 'book voucher with world wide validity'. That way he showed insight in my interests, while letting me decide on the book title.

And boy, am I going to order some books on apologetics...

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

If gift card, then books and jazz.

Modus ponens.

Yossman said...

If books and jazz, then happiness.

Modus ponensissimo!

Mark Nenadov said...

"By the way, those who appreciate this blog, can purchase an Amazon gift card for me any time you like."

No... No... Gift cards are so individualistic and impersonal. Next gift I buy you will be that remote control toaster you always wanted.