If you’ve ever been at the tail end of a line full of cranky, frenzied, mashed-potato-fueled Black Friday shoppers, you know: we’re a consumer society. Our collective drive to spend, acquire, and replace is so profound that we literally trample bystanders to get our hands on cheap, flat screen televisions.
Even without the excuse of holiday spending, exorbitant consumption remains a year-round phenomenon—especially when it comes to electronics: A new cell phone every 18 months; a new laptop every three years; a new TV every five years. But why is the allure of buying so irresistible—even if we don’t really need anything? If money burns a hole in our collective pockets, who exactly is fanning the flames?
“The cycle of relentless spending and throwing away was engineered,” explains Jacques Peretti of The Men Who Made Us Spend, a three-part documentary that investigates the people who shape the public’s appetite for spending.
Part 1, which aired on BBC 2, follows Peretti across the globe as he traces the rise of planned obsolescence—from deliberately shortened lifespans in light bulbs to non-replaceable batteries in the original iPod. Along the way, he pops into General Motors to explore the birth of the one-model-a-year car (GM called it “the organized creation of dissatisfaction”). And he drops by IKEA and Apple to investigate “continual obsolescence”—the engineered desire to buy something a little newer, a little better, a lot sooner than is actually necessary.
“But the flipside of the hysteria for the new is that the new becomes unwanted—fast,” Peretti explains. “Yesterday’s desired item is tomorrow’s piece of trash.”
That point becomes particularly plain as Peretti tours an e-waste recycling facility in California. On the pallets waiting to be processed for recycling: boxes and boxes of brand new electronic equipment. Even unused, they aren’t new enough to appeal to consumers. It’s the ultimate extrapolation of planned obsolescence: things can be deemed obsolete before they are even opened.
Check out Part 1 of the documentary above. (Spoiler alert: iFixit makes an appearance at about the 51-minute mark.)