iPhone launch sends consumers into a frenzy

iBin: 12 months later and consumers are eager to ‘upgrade’ their phones again.

Another September brings another ‘must have phone’ and Apple fans have been queueing for weeks to replace last year's model. Are we being duped into always wanting the ‘latest thing’?

A visitor from outer space who came across the crowds sleeping rough on New York’s Fifth Avenue might think America had been hit by another devastating financial crisis. Yet these people are not destitute, but desperate — they want to be the first to own the new iPhone 6.

It will be released on September 9th, but queues outside Apple’s flagship store began two weeks ago. Apple has already sold 500m iPhones worldwide, but the promise of a new design and a slightly faster processor has whipped its fans into a frenzy. They are also eager for news about the ‘iWatch‘, a product that may well replace the phone they are queuing to buy.

While few go to the lengths of the Fifth Avenue crowd, experts say our culture is obsessed with the need for the latest thing. A survey has found that under 25s replace their smartphones after just 11 months, as if an update made their older models obsolete. Friends of the Earth says the UK now has more mobile phones than people because of this desire for the most up-to-date item.

Some critics say that companies manipulate us into buying things we do not really need so they can keep on making money. We are made to feel we will be miserable without the upgrade, so we buy the new product. The same thing happens the following year, and we keep spending more.

Others go further and say that products are deliberately built to last just a few years so we have to replace them. This ‘built-in obsolescence’ first started in the 1920s, when a number of lightbulb manufacturers began limiting their lightbulbs’ lifespans to 1,000 hours. Many believe it still happens today. New washing machines last three years fewer than they did a decade ago, and a brand new TV has only a few years of life.

Environmentalists warn that our ‘throwaway culture’ is unsustainable. When we buy new goods, the old ones often cannot be recycled. As we move on to new products, our junk clutters up the planet.

Capitalism 2.0

Some people say that corporations are locking us in to an upgrade culture which manipulates us into buying more and more stuff we don’t need. Not only is it unethical, but it is terrible for the planet. We need to change the way we think and make do with what we have, rather than needlessly consuming more.

Yet others reply that the only way the world grows richer is through people buying things. China has grown rich making everything for the rest of the world and now for its own aspiring middle class. If we bought less, companies would sell less, which would mean fewer jobs, and lower pay. Consuming is at the heart of our capitalist system. It is also in our nature to want the latest thing and we should be thankful technology improves so quickly.

You Decide

  1. Is our society too obsessed with having ‘the latest thing’?
  2. ‘If if weren’t for advertising, people would spend their money much more wisely.’ Do you agree?


  1. List the last six things you bought or had bought for you. In pairs, discuss whether those things were really necessary or things you could have done without.
  2. Read the articles in the ‘Become an expert’ and try to summarise the point of each one in a sentence. Which did you find most convincing and why?

Some People Say...

“We no longer live life. We consume it.’Vicki Robin”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I worry about what I want to buy?
There is nothing wrong with wanting new things, but many of the critics of our consumer culture would say that often people do not really understand why they want what they do. One journalist who interviewed people queueing for the latest iPhone found that many had no idea what was different about the new model.
Are products really not built to last?
It can be hard to say, but critics regularly feel that products could have been designed differently. Many phones come with batteries that cannot be removed, so if it fails, the entire phone must be replaced. Microsoft is currently under investigation in China after it stopped updating Windows XP, which forced millions to buy a more up-to-date alternative.

Word Watch

As well as sending emails and making calls, the watch is expected to be a health device, monitoring the wearer’s pulse and the amount of exercise they have done.
Friends of the earth
The world’s largest environmental network notes that many of the materials that go into making phones, such as tin and copper, require huge mines that can be devastating for the environment.
Known as the ‘Phoebus Cartel’, three major lightbulb manufacturers worked together for twenty years to keep lightbulb lives shorter than technology allows. Yet in Livermore, California, a lightbulb has actually been continuously on for 112 years, showing how durable they can be.
In 2012, 239m new televisions, 444.4m computers and 1.75bn mobile phones were bought, each with a life expectancy of one to three years. Less than half of all this can be recycled, so huge waste dumps are growing across Earth.
The great economist John Maynard Keynes (pronounced like brains) considered consumer spending to be one of the most important drivers of the economy.

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