On your mark, get set, buy! As Black Friday approaches, consumers are poised for action and retailers cross their fingers. They’re getting ready, as they do every year, to jump for joy over this American phenomenon. But should we really leave so much room for excitement around this celebration of unbridled consumerism and the blind prostration before high-tech that it showcases?
Black Friday was born in the United States where, traditionally, the day after Thanksgiving kicked off the Christmas shopping season. It has since become a major commercial event throughout the world.
With the release of the new iPhone, Black Friday has become the key marketing event of the year for the tech sector. Just a few weeks before Christmas, it’s the perfect time to push the newest innovations and even offer some discounts to make them doubly attractive. Taking the main stage, tech products are the uncontested stars of Black Friday and its offspring, Crazy Week and Cyber Monday, where they represent a quarter of all sales.
Between the collective fascination they have cultivated around the phenomenon and their respective sales pitches, tech’s biggest players have monopolized the conversation around Black Friday, leaving little room for any kind of thoughtful examination or discourse. And yet, this big consumerist fiesta is the ideal occasion to enter into a dialogue around the heavy social and environmental impact of our digital bulimia. There is no shortage of examples. For one, what about the ore sourced from conflict zones, such as Coltan from Central Africa, that ends up in our smartphones? Or how about the working conditions of workers in the tech sector, like those exposed by the suicides that occurred at Foxconn? What about the trap of planned obsolescence and the irreparability of our electronic devices? What about the uncontrolled increase in WEEE (waste of electrical and electronic equipment), expected to hit 50 million tons worldwide in 2018?
Clearly, the sector has no interest in allowing critical discourse to develop that may call into question its volume-based model (over 7 million iPhones produced in 10 years) and its headlong rush to innovate. But it is striking that public opinion, normally so vigilant when it comes to food, cosmetics, automobiles and energy, has been so anesthetized when it comes to tech. When it comes to technology, consumers seem to have adopted the attitude of the three wise monkeys—see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—accepting marketing messages that are barely more sophisticated than those used by the auto industry 50 years ago. Processor frequency has replaced RPM, but we still happily accept technical explanations that are only vaguely comprehensible in exchange for guaranteed performance, escapism, and a symbol of social success.
These simple, elegant objects, literally and figuratively airtight and capable of such amazing feats, are beyond our understanding. Glass? Metal? Plastic? We can’t even identify what they’re made of anymore. They hold such power over us, and have taken on so much importance, that we don’t dare question them. And just like the glory days of “a car for everyone,” their inconveniences are too distant and (seemingly) minimal to distract us from the pleasure of “moving with the times” and the reassuring certainty of not missing out.
But in the end, we can’t help but understand why intellectual laziness plays a large role in our voluntary blindness. Fraud, doubt, and risk is everywhere. Everything is suspicious, everything is contaminated. Why not allow ourselves the small luxury of dreaming about a future that is as clean, sleek and efficient as a smartphone, for once? While it’s true that consumers aren’t encouraged to demystify their devices, it’s also true that they haven’t shown much desire to do so. But if we don’t make room for critical thinking, and begin asking the important questions, no alternative digital models that may be more moral and sane will ever emerge to see the light of day. As in any domain, change can only happen through pressure from the people at large, whether consumers or voters. As long as individuals don’t want to face up to the dramatic social and environmental costs of our excessive consumption of tech products, the situation won’t change. That is truly the darkest aspect of Black Friday.
Vianney Vaute, co–founder of Back Market