What’s Good for Consumers … Is Terrible For Human Beings

Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders was published in 1957 and was assigned reading in my high school English class in 1964. To say it had an impact on me is an understatement. I’ve always had a copy of it on my bookshelf over the last 57 years. Not the same copy though; circumstance have a tendency to change as the decades pass. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve bought one to replace the copy that vanished for some reason or another. Now The Hidden Persuaders lives in my e-book reader and is backed up on the server. Looking back on it I don’t think my English teacher thought he was assigning subversive literature … but he did. Karl Marx didn’t make me a commie-socialist-pinko. Vance Packard did.

1957 The Hidden Persuaders – How the advertising industry influences us to buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. This constantly churning activity masks the emptiness of living in a consumerist society. Simply put, useless consumption drives people nuts.

Now I’m going to copy and paste the rest of Packard’s bibliography from Wikipedia. Ain’t technology grand?

1959 The Status Seekers – describing American social stratification and behavior.

1960 The Waste Makers – criticizes planned obsolescence describing the impact of American productivity, especially on the national character.

1962 The Pyramid Climbers – describes the changing impact of American enterprise on managers, the structured lives of corporate executives and the conformity they need to advance in the hierarchy.

1964 The Naked Society – on the threats to privacy posed by new technologies such as computerized filing, modern surveillance techniques and methods for influencing human behavior.

1968 The Sexual Wilderness – on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and changes in male-female relationships.

1972 A Nation of Strangers – about the attrition of communal structure through frequent geographical transfers of corporate executives.

1977 The People Shapers – on the use of psychological & biological testing and experimentation to manipulate human behavior.

1983 Our Endangered Children – discusses growing up in a changing world, warning that American preoccupation with money, power, status, and sex ignored the needs of future generations.

1989 The Ultra Rich: How Much Is Too Much? – examines the lives of thirty American multimillionaires and their extravagances.

Vance Packard started off as a reporter and with his first book, The Hidden Persuaders, became a social critic. If you spend any amount of time clicking around The Internet you’ll find Packard and his books described as prescient.

Not so …

Vance Packard was a reporter and a keen observer. He always wrote about the times in which he lived. He didn’t invent the phrase “Planned Obsolescence” as it had been kicking around since the early 1930’s. But he brought attention to, and popularized, the concept in 1960 with The Waste Makers.

Which brings me back to my current “smart” phone, the Nexus 5. It was released in November 2013 and at the time cost anywhere from $350 – $400. It was discontinued in March 2015 and its operating system, Android 6.0, has not been upgradable since October 2015. When will the apps I use demand an operating system more recent than Android 6? Who knows? Tick Tick Tick …

What compelled Apple fanboys to camp out in front of Apple stores the night before the latest, greatest, iPhone 12 Pro was released? Why would anybody clamor to be first in line to shell out a thousand dollars for a shitty computer that makes phone calls? The answer to those questions are in Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, The Status Seekers, and The Waste Makers.

In 1964 Packard wrote about threats to our privacy by computers and mass surveillance in The Naked Society. Y’know … the same things Edward Snowden warned us about in 2013.

The United States has a wider disparity of wealth between the rich and poor than any other major developed nation. Extra! Extra! Read all about it in Packard’s last book published in 1989, The Ultra Rich: How Much Is Too Much?

In Greek mythology Cassandra was a priestess cursed to utter true prophecies – but never to be believed. What a shitty job! Off the top of my head, I can list these past and present Cassandras: Vance Packard, Morris Berman, Neil Postman, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Lenny Bruce, Noam Chomsky, George Carlin, Greta Thunberg and … I could go on typing about this for the next four or five hours. I’m not tired. But I do eventually have to wrap this up.

The point is … We Were Warned.

Getting back to my goddamned smartphone for a minute …

From Andrew Leonard’s article published in Salon in 2012, There is no Ethical Smartphone:

Labor and environmental abuses are endemic throughout the global electronics industry, from the mining of the minerals used to make the basic components, through their assembly and all the way up to (and beyond) the disposal of last year’s obsolete model. There’s no getting around the hard truth: right now, there is no such thing as an “ethical smartphone.” Or, for that matter, an ethical flat-screen TV, digital camera or any kind of personal computer.

To be more specific, every single one of my electronic toys, your electronic toys, everybody’s electronic toys, were produced in some way during their manufacture by slave labor.

And they are everywhere. Not giving your child a computer and smartphone is considered tantamount to child abuse. I don’t have to defend that statement because we all know it is as true as gravity.

The economy (whatever the fuck that means) runs on slave labor. Just like it did in the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and now the 21st century.

Don’t get your hopes up, but maybe that will change someday. What I mean to say is don’t hold your breath. But in the meantime …

Stop. Buying. All. This. Shit.

To be more precise: Stop Buying All This NEW Shit.

Buy used/refurbished shit.

My wife, son, and I never stepped onto the smartphone treadmill. And it’s not because we’re morally superior human beings. The simple answer is … we’re cheap. If we must own a shitty computer that makes phone calls, we’re going to buy a used one.

A friend of mine and I like to rebuild and repair “old” computers. We call ourselves: Lazarenes.

It’s fun to bring back something from the dead. Just ask Jesus. Since my friend lives in Oregon and I’m here in British Columbia we can’t really get together and form a bowling team. But the shirts would look great.

Being a Lazarene doesn’t solve everything but we have to do whatever we can to put the brakes on this curse of hyper-consumerism. We can’t continue to throw our toxic e-waste on top of the growing mountain ranges made up of our cast-off electronic crap spreading throughout third-world countries.

There are used computer and smartphone shops everywhere. Give them your money because I think the tech-billionaires have enough.

The one area I’m clueless about is how to get Apple’s iOS designers and Android developers to make the operating systems backwards compatible. When they say “We Can’t”, our comeback has to be something more effective than a resounding Fuck You.

I’m just about done with my smartphone/Vance Packard rant. As old people have said since the invention of old people, “It used to be different.

In 1972 I walked into a Salvation Army Thrift Store and bought a Zenith radio that was built in the mid-1930’s. The speaker in its base was huge and the sound quality was fantastic. Behind the cabinet doors was a decent record player and when everybody I knew was spending tons of money on a stereo, I had a dynamite “mono.” The knob for the tuner was about the size of a large orange and even without an antenna the Zenith pulled in stations from all over the country. It was covered in a cherry wood veneer and was about the size of a small upright coffin. In terms of maintenance I had to replace one of the vacuum tubes a few years later. Not bad for a 40 year old “media center.” You can still buy replacement tubes for it. If my ex-wife still has it, the Zenith should still be going strong. I guess the engineers and designers at the Zenith plant back in the 1930’s never got the planned obsolescence memo.

I know this “moment” has been more hectoring than others. I tend to shy away from exhorting people to do anything. But god-dammit … did we really crawl out of the ooze zillions of years ago just to end up wasting our time by distracting ourselves playing with toxic toys? To paraphrase Neal Postman, are we really just amusing ourselves to death? Because if that turns out to be the case, I’m going to have to paraphrase again. This time, Robert Crumb’s brother Charles:

How perfectly goddamned delightful it all was, to be sure.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here