Every shopper should think about reverse engineering consumerism

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I have lived off-campus for almost three years now, and this summer my parents made me clean out my old room at home so that they can store their stuff. Doing so would save them the monthly payment for a public storage space (a feature unique to American consumer culture). In the process of throwing out things, I kept some tech gadgets like an old iPod, keychain merchandise anything with an LED light, to take apart. It’s something I have liked to do for as long as I can remember: reverse engineering, the process of extracting design information, which is fascinating to me.

It felt like anthropological research, looking at the plastic and aluminum casings with “Made in China” imprinted on them; underneath are systems of diodes, wire assemblies and transistors close-fittingly soldered together. The materials were low quality and there were marks of imperfection in the mechanical work. They reflected the pace and behaviors of the workers who assembled them. According to the New York Times, Chinese migrant workers in one factory can produce 10,000 iPhones a day. They must work quickly and mechanically, not talking while working and they must pay monetary penalties if they take long bathroom breaks. Horace Dediu, a blogger and former Nokia business development manager conveys some revelations from Foxconn’s factories in China that it costs Apple about $30 to put together one iPhone, where it is then sold for hundreds of dollars. The workers get paid $1.78 per hour and this is considered to be one of the best wages available for Chinese migrant workers. For cheaper products sold in dollar stores, workers get paid much less. Knowing this, should we be comfortable with our ways of consuming?

The thing is, most people just don’t really think about the processes behind making everyday things accessible to them. There were times I didn’t mind either; I participated in the many holiday shopping seasons we have in America thinking that my ignorance had no real effect. I reasoned that if something was on sale, the social impact must be as little as the price on it. It wasn’t until I did some research in an attempt to reverse engineer our consumer culture that I found a complete counterargument to that reasoning.

The first thing to look at is the model of how consumerism came to be. American advertising pioneer Ernest Elmo Calkins says that there are two kinds of products: The kind that you use, like clothes, and the kind that you use up, like food. Consumerism is getting people to treat the things that they use as if they should be used up. Such marketing philosophy pushes manufacturing overseas, where cutting corners and disregarding safety measures are a normal part of doing business. People only pay attention when the fallout from this course of action shows up on the news — from the eight story factory that collapsed in Dhaka to the factory in Shenzhen that set up nets around the building to prevent suicides caused by employers’ labor abuses. How can we sit still and watch people putting their lives at risk of being torn apart while putting our things together?

In the 1960s, under the leadership of Cesar Chavez, Americans boycotted the purchase of grapes and lettuce to help American migrant workers in the fight for better wages and working conditions. But now when we buy coffee, avocados or bananas from Vietnam, Colombia or Mexico, are we aware of the working conditions endured by the workers who pick our food? When do local and national businesses become the concern of the world? And when do we make them our business?

Most of the time we hear about the migrant workers as number and statistics; by focusing so much on ourselves and our belongings, we relegate individuals on the production line to invisibility. They are like batteries that power the circuit underneath the casing of our phones: Essential but miniscule, unseen and interchangeable.

What I call reverse engineering consumerism is really a state of mindfulness in everyday life. It incites the practice of looking at the big picture. By unscrewing and uncovering a system and paying close attention to the individual parts, we can see that our lives and the lives of the people who make our things are interconnected.

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