Consumerism

Consumerism #

VegaMaw

Vega’s Maw, made for me by @NewtWolfdeer

Look, I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of falling for the tricks used to get people to consume. To buy and buy more. A good sale, even on something I didn’t know I previously wanted, still has a way of making my dumb lil' human brain go “OH!”

The problem is that consumers can easily fall into traps that lead them to buy things for a stupid reasons, these include:

  • Buying something expensive as a status symbol
  • Buying the ‘New version’ which has no meaningful improvement
  • Brand Loyalty (not always bad)
  • Buying from businesses that prevent repairs
  • Buying from businesses that abuse workers or their rights

among many, many other things.

Under Capitalism, there are oposing forces here. On the one hand, greater consumption means more jobs, more money flowing, means a better enconomy, means everyone gets to live a better life.

(or at least this is true if you subscribe to the hyper-capitalist propaganda we’re fed from birth in the US! Yay, Capitalism is all sunshine ☀️ and rainbows 🌈 and absolutely can not be criticized or you’re an evil comunist!)

On the other hand, holy fucking shit everything is on fire. People buy useless shit wrapped in enough plastic to create a fucking Texas sized trash island in the Pacific, we support companies that actively fight against our right to repair or which make products with extreme Planned Obsolescence, and most of us work meaningless jobs just to be able to afford to pay for a fancier car that we will mostly use to get to that job. Meanwhile, if you don’t have a credit card and debt, you’re also fucked because you need to maintain a good Credit Score.(1)

But the real problem is that we all go to work to pay for shit that we don’t need, that we’re not allowed to repair or don’t even really ‘own’(2), that mines our data to advertise to us after we’ve bought the product(3), that randomly removes features years later(4), that we’ve been told has value it doesn’t(5). It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s just piles of bullshit.

We buy too much shit and we feel guilty about it #

We buy to much shit. And I mean shit. A lot of what we buy is distinctly not built to last. Sure, that may be in part because of planned obsolescence. But I think the bigger problem is just not giving a shit. We know that if something breaks we can order a new one, often for less than the cost of a good one to begin with. We know if we forget to bring our refillable bottle, we can buy a 16oz bottle of nearly anything at any gas station. We know not packing a lunch is fine because we can go get a salad in a plastic container that will take 16.5 million years to decompose in a landfill at a wide selection of fast food places. We just don’t care. We buy this shit, and then post like this make us feel guilty for the individually wrapped candies we eat, yet we still feel obligated to get them for kids during the holidays. I feel guilty writing this, yet know my impact will be minimal. I know I can only do so much to change my own habits. I know I’d be angry if prices were higher because of sustainable packaging. I know I’d feel better with less possessions, yet the thought of losing even one to a fire makes me scared. News stories of Amazon throwing away unused goods and of farms destroying unsightly but totally edible crops upset me, yet I don’t have a meaningful solution to these problems that doesn’t end with a punchline of communism. But wallowing in our own existential dread is about as productive as trying to get WalMart to unionize, so where should we start?

We buy too much cheap shit #

How the hell is anyone supposed to compete? It is impossible to put research everything we buy to make sure we’re being ethical consumers. Sure, certifications like those from Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance sound like a reasonable solution; however, both have had their share of controversies showing the labels are largely just marketing and serve to make the consumer feel better, without real oversight. Even then, if your average person is given the choice between BrandA Thing and a 20% more expensive BrandB Thing with a “We care about the environment and stuff” sticker, will they care? Even if you think yes (which, uh, you’re a bit overly optimistic if you do), do you think the company trying to act ethically will really be able to compete with one that doesn’t care?

Plus, even if a brand does get recognition for both a good product and giving a shit about the environment, having reasonably labor standards, etc. there’s very little to stop a competitor from making a nearly identical product and undercutting them enough to just steal the market - like in the video embedded above.

Enforcing Protections #

Alright, so we’ve established nobody gives a shit. Now let’s look at why that’s the case and how we can fix it.

Planned obsolescence, Right to repair #


"To refuse to inform yourself about the basic operation and maintenance of the equpment you depend on was to passively accept that tyranny and agree to its terms: when your equipment works, you'll work, but when your equipment breaks down you'll break down, too. Your posessions would possess you."

- Edward Snowden, in his book Permanant Record

Right to repair and planned obsolescence go hand in hand. Put simply, manufactures don't want to have to compete with themselves, so, if they can make things such that they'll be out of date or fail in time for the next release, it's good business- and one thing that would stop them from doing that is if your stuff was easy to work on and keep running.

Unfortunately, most of expensive big purchases (phones, laptops, cars, etc.) are getting harder to work on. Sometimes this is because of malicious manufacturing that uses copious amounts of glue and weird screws. Sometimes its software locks that would be illegal to even break. Sometimes it’s devices being dependent on servers staying online- like a game server for a multiplayer game.

I said before that people don’t give a shit, they’re willing to just throw away the broken thing and replace it. It’s cheaper and easier.

But WHY is that the case? Manufactures would like you to believe that as our devices become more advanced, it’s simply not possible to make something the consumer can work on. Products like the Framework Laptop make this really hard to believe though. I think that what’s happened is manufactures, over years of saying that it’s impossible, have convinced consumers that they should be scared. Warranty Void If Removed Stickers, legally enforcable or not (npr.org), combined with the abuse of DRM (we’ll get to that in a sec), and these anti-repair designs that glue everything together have trained us as consumers to not expect to fix our devices. The default resolution to failure is replacement, to think about repair is becoming unnatural. Even if this makes for worse products - laptops with storage that can’t be recovered if the CPU fails, phones with worse battery life as they age, etc. - the incentive for a business to make these choice is only growing, espically as the volume of products practices like these push off the shelves is so high it makes it hard for competitors not working at that scale to dream of competing.

Right to Repair legislation as is only seeks to make it so that businesses need to provide schematics and parts to 3rd party repair centers and consumers who wish to repair their devices. I think this is far from enough. I think devices should be required to be designed with a certain level of repairability in mind - Making it easy to replace the battery in your phone, replace the touchpad on your laptop, etc. - If the manufacturer wants an exception to make something extra sleek and sexy, fine! But then they need to build in the cost of free replacment/repair of the most common to wear out parts if they limit the lifespan of the product, and provide it to anyone who brings in a device in need of those services, no questions asked- that way used products can be sold without losing this protection. I’m not saying a 10 year old phone should be covered, but a 3 year old flagship phone where the only problem is battery life? Yeah, that’s bullshit. Similarly, manufactures of goods with software that connects to the internet should be required to provide security updates for the lifetime of the product- and by lifetime I mean actual lifetime as determined by a 3rd party or telemetry that reports the number of still active products.

Furthermore, devices that rely on software or servers to continue running need to have that software distributed DRM free or the server software released to keep things running. It should be impossible for the vendor to make your purchase useless years later.

Anti-consumer practices #

https://dvt.name/2020/02/24/rfc-lets-disrupt-dating-apps/

A classic Silicon Valley tactic — losing money to crush rivals — comes in for scrutiny (Washington Post)

Uber doubles price if your battery is low

Hurting the paying customer, rewarding the pirate? #

Digital Rights Managment or DRM is software that serves to make it harder to pirate software, movies, TV shows, etc. It comes in many fourms, from the ‘basic’ that simply ask for a key and are easy to bypass to the complex that try to trick reverse engineering tools or rely on keys that are built into hardware- like High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection, HDCP, which rides on the back of common protocols like HDMI and DisplayPort to try to prevent people from recording what they’re watching.

The ironic thing about all of these systems is they hurt the consumers:

  • Software DRM:
    • Makes game load times longer and performance worse (YouTube)
    • Make- running tools you own annoying to install on multiple computers
    • Makes some programs require a network connection when they otherwise wouldn’t
    • Makes some software un-usable if the authentication servers go offline
    • May require deep integration into the OS, causing security concerns
    • Makes running software with combatability tools, such as WINE for running Window’s software on Linux, much harder
    • Makes for combatability issues- it may be hard to keep content working as the most common formats change
  • Hardware DRM

[TODO] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Format_shifting

Sometimes, they don’t even want you to be the customer? #

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. This is beyond evil. Now, obviously there are different markets that want different things: There’s a legitimate reason that content on Netflix in the US would be primarily in English, and content in Germany primarily in German. That’s fine. What’s not fine is that while paying for the same service, two Netflix users can’t even access the same content. It’s one thing to make it more visable, it’s a whole different thing to change what’s available. But hey, at least you can go use a different service, right?

Well, not always. Some software, music, and videos may not even be available to purchase depending on your region. Or, maybe they will be but aren’t yet. So, your only option if you want to watch that new TV show at the same time as your foreign friend is good ol' piracy.

But, wait, there’s more!

Some hardware is actually geo-locked. This goes for everything from smart watches sold to only work in Europe but not the US, to Blu-ray discs that won’t play if they’re put in a player from over seas! What the fuck???!

Changing Specs, but not the name? #

Imagine you’re in need of a car, so you do countles of hours of research and settle on a nice little four door electric car that’s supposed to have a 300 mile range. You go to the dealer, test drive it, it’s great. You get it home, and start using it to commute to work every day, 35 miles or so there, so 70 there and back- all highway. You notice you’ve used about a quarter charge, which is about right. Then, a few months in you notice your car isn’t getting nearly the range it should, that same commute now uses up half the charge. You’d be pissed! So, you take it to the dealer and they let you know that for your car, they changed the batteries for any with a serial number above xxxxxx, and those batteries degrade faster. They kindly inform you “The batteries were still what you expected at the time of sale, and all cars get worse with age.” You retort, “Yeah, but the reviewers of this car never saw this, and this isn’t what I though I was paying for!”

While this situation is fictional, this has been happening more and more lately, espically with consumer electronics. For example, Netgear’s GS305P POE switch (YouTube, Serve The Home) has wildly different specs but the same name, Laptop manufactures are using slower RAM after the inital release (Youtube, Linus Tech Tips), and storage is particualry bad- Samsung changing the controllers in SSDs (Arstechnica), ADATA change to slower NAND in SSDs (Tom’s Hardware), … And Western Digital too (Bleeping Computer). It’s a total shit show.

Now, the Samsung one is particularly interesting because for most users it’s actually an improvement. But, that doesn’t fucking matter when it’s still a different product. The most there is doing heavy lifting too, as anyone doing high resolution video editing or injest from a 4k camera may notice a dramatic slow down.

Put plain and simple: If you’re going to meaningfully change a product part way into its release cycle, you absolutely need to make it clear to consumers what those differences are. Transparency is key.

There’s another angle here too. Some products are being sold that are just totally different, but using the same name at launch. I think the most heinous example is of the Nvidia GT1030, where one varient has DDR4 memory and the other GDDR5, resulting in an about 2x performance difference (YouTube, Gamer’s Nexus).

I mean, what the fuck? How is any of this legal?

Resale Price Maintenance #

[TODO]

iPhones are faster in France, buying used products at a loss,

Purchasing Power #

Now, I won’t say that this is always used for evil. For example, some people are implementing Purchasing Power Parity (Wikipedia), which is region based price manipulation, not for the sake of charging richer countries more but for charging those in poorer regions less. Now, the effect is the same, and I’m not sure I like the idea anyway, but I am always open to new ideas, and I think that when done correctly and for the right reasons this can be a good thing; however, I do think the applicable scenarios are limited. There’s a huge difference between offering an educational resource at a reduced cost, trying to increase the market for a Disney movie to extract value from poor nations, and trying to manipulate price to charge those with more power as much as they might be willing to pay by using an algorithm. This seems like a slippery slope that might lead us has brought us to prices that change based on your purchase history and data on how wealthy you seem, which isn’t a good thing either.

This is of course tricky. On one hand, everyone likes the idea of discounts: be it for Seniors, Students, Loyal Customers, or for showing up at the right time of day. On the other hand, almost all discounts are just an excuse to raise the price for a different group of people- those that are presumed to be able to pay more. There’s a lot of complexity here, and the Wikipedia article on Price Discrimination covers a lot of it well, but I think the key take away should be that this is already a problem- what you buy online may well already be changing in price based on where you live, what account you’re logged into, what device you’re using to look at the website. Some of these practices may be of various legality depending on where you live, but good luck trying to stop it.

Pay What You Want #

[TODO]

Advertising #

This video from Tom Scott provides a ton of background information and makes some really good points

Avoiding the Frigid Hellscape of Online Marketing (Soatok’s Blog)

You make a privacy-first service → You get banned on Google (Dan Kozlov)

Native Ads #

psst, if you don’t like YouTube sponsorships spots check out sponsorblock - just be aware of the morality of doing so and like, support people on Patreon or whatever.

Dangerous Ads #

[TODO] Sugar, Drugs

Ads in things you’ve already paid for #

[TODO] Hulu, TVs injecting ads, Chromecast bypassing DNS, etc.

Credit #

App lets banks lock your financed phone if you default on payment

Accelerating Change and Information Overload #

The world is getting faster. Things are moving, flashing at us, blinking with neon colors and screaming at us in increasing attention grabbing, addicting ways. There’s now the attention economy, where time in front of your eyes is evaluated to be worth an increasing amount. An ephemeral cloud of mist, lurking in the air that has been given the moniker The Algorithm influences our choices more and more each day.

This sounds like some sort of plot to an 80’s scifi thriller set in the far future, but instead it’s just part of our /r/ABoringDystopia/ . I know I’m addicted, but that’s the funny thing about true addiction, you don’t really want to stop. I know that speed of things, the ever increasing nightmare of [political shit slinging](political shit slinging) and the amount of news on it is bad for me. That being only a click away from something more interesting has rotted my attention span. That a culture of consumption has made it harder for me to spend time creating. I know that I could make a conscious decision to limit my time on reddit, or to spend more time outside, but sitting in the same spot is comfortable. I’ve dug my own little hole and surrounded it on all sides with walls a mile high to protect me from the advertisements and dissenting views, but in the process I’ve lost so much. I try to read an article on Fox or anything on r/conservative and I get irrationally angry. So instead I keep to browsing my Algorithmically Tailored home page, but after seeing things that interest me I get on a bind of just one more page or I’ll only scroll to one more post or I’ll read after this video and then, even if I do manage to break free and escape into a book, I’m one ~Binng~ of a Telegram notification away from being brought out of my book for something that I find more immediately gratifying.

Then, to add onto that, the censorship, not only are we algorithmically bound to see some content over others, but because of strange advertisement, government, and platform policies and the increasing stupid fact that we still use centralized services, the ever increasing amount of excess photons that we didn’t even ask for that we get blasted into our retinas is filtered in a way that discourages actual free speech because some people’s speech is prioritized.

But, I’m getting off topic, the point of this was to discuss and propose a solution to the issue of being bombarded with information, ads, physical and digital, and content that was not requested.

[TODO…]

Retrograde complaining about Google

[TODO]

[TODO] The Dark Reality Behind America’s Greatest Thrift Store Empire

Somethings I’ve written while thinking about this: #

I’ve posted things like this here before, but I feel like I need to again in light of recent conversations with friends: On Facebook, you are the product and you are you should know what you are funding. I think at this point the Cambridge Analytica scandal[1] is pretty well known, but that is nothing compared to the other things in Facebook’s past. At one point Facebook targeted teenagers and filtered their news feed to be mood based which was found to lead to real world mood changes [2]. But even if these things don’t bother you, you think Facebook just made a mistake, there’s the case of Facebook’s content moderation team being paid less than a living wage and being exposed to situations which lead to severe mental illness [3]. Speaking of mental illness, Facebook owned Instagram’s recommendation algorithm has been found to recommend pro self-harm content to those most vulnerable, which has actually lead to deaths [4].

Think about who you’re giving your data, money, and views to and on what platform you do so. There are alternatives. You don’t have to sell all your data to big organizations to stay in touch. I use Mastodon [5] instead of Twitter, Telegram instead of messenger [6] and a combination of Reddit and the things above instead of Facebook. You do have a choice. If nothing else you can use Facebook in a separate browser or in a container [7] so you’re at least not funding them in full.

Just like voting and contributing to your community, having digital responsibility is important too.

Thanks for reading this, if you want to talk about digital privacy or security you can shoot me a message here and I’ll get back to you next time I log in, or you can message me on Telegram and I’ll get back to you right away.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/…/facebook-cambridge-analytica-expl… [2] https://www.nytimes.com/…/facebook-tinkers-with-users-emoti…

[3] https://www.theverge.com/…/cognizant-facebook-content-moder… [4] https://www.wired.com/…/when-algorithms-think-you-want-to-…/

[5] https://joinmastodon.org/ [6] https://telegram.org/ [7] https://addons.mozilla.org/…/fire…/addon/facebook-container/

I don’t think it’s a lack of morals, I think it’s a lack of accountability combined with the legal requirement for businesses to do what’s in the best interest of shareholders. At some point fines became the cost of doing business, as does lobbying and attempting to get regulatory market capture. While yes I think consumers are guilty of not voting with their wallets for the better alternatives, buying the better alternatives has become impractical when the ones playing dirty can undercut the ones playing nice by such a crazy extent. While I get nobody likes big government, I personally think the best solution is for the FTC, FCC, and EPA to do their jobs: force right to repair, force net neutrality and increase the definition of broadband minimums, implement a carbon tax respectively- among other issues. Capitalism without limits leads to abuse without limits. We complain that Facebook owns basically all of social media, that Amazon workers are peeing in bottles, but still let them buy literally all of their competition before they actually get large enough to compete. We let our politicians take unchecked donations form them that lead to laws that make it even harder for a smaller business to compete or get started, meanwhile not letting them pass any consumer protections like preventing Facebook from knowing when you’re on your period or ClearviewAI from scraping profile pictures to build a nationwide facial recognition database that you can’t opt out of.

Morals aren’t the answer. Regulation with real consequences, consumer protections, unions, blocking mergers, breaking up not just monopolies but even duo and tri and quadopolies (like the media landscape: Sinclar, Fox, Disney) as well as regional non-competes, unfucking that patent system, and undoing the damage Disney did to copyright is. Or at least it would be a start.

I also think it’s partially just a matter of there’s too much going on in the world for most people to give a shit about everything. “The Good Place” did a good job of pointing this out where in the third(?) season it was revealed nobody had gone to heaven in hundreds of years because people couldn’t actually act ethically anymore. They showed a particularly good example where someone didn’t make it in because, unbeknownst to them, the apple they bought at the super market had been harvested with slave labor, and like… What are you supposed to do? Trace down every apples path from tree to you?

Idk man, it just makes me depressed that we have to eternally be careful not to fund douchebags.


If you would like to support my development of OpGuides, please consider supporting me on Patreon or dropping me some spare change on Venmo @vegadeftwing - every little bit helps ❤️