An image of Mehmet Geren for Heidi.news. A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.
Hijacking your brain | épisode № 01

Running after running shoes

It all started with a Ticinesi teen trying to buy a pair of sneakers in the wee hours of the morning. A nightmare. This episode led our author to grasp the extents of digital addictions, carefully deliberated by those fighting for our attention.
[read the french version]

It all started with a pair of sneakers.

It was complete darkness, his head was slumped on the table over his left arm. His other arm was spread across the kitchen table and on the laptop readied to press a button – the refresh button as I discovered later. This is how I found my nephew Angelo as I, half asleep, tip-toed to the kitchen for a glass of water and bumped into him in the wee hours of the morning. I also discovered that he had appropriated my laptop, but clearly failed to stay awake for whatever he was using it.

Startled, I asked, “What are you doing here?” whilst turning the lights on.

— Shoes go on sale in two and a half hours, he replied drowsily. And by the way, you promised to buy them for my birthday, if I manage to catch them.

— Only if you get them at the regular price and I won’t bid or chase them, I heard myself replying.

Despite my bewilderment in this bizarre situation, I still found myself conversing about “chasing a pair of sneakers” at 05:00 am with a 12-year-old who was barely awake, having crept downstairs in the middle of the night to buy a pair of shoes.


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A young Swiss boy in front of his smartphone. According to a British study, teenagers spends an average of 34 hours a week online | Keystone

Thirty minutes and a couple of coffees later, I was as eagerly sitting right next to him in the living room staring at the laptop screen and sharing his disillusionment as the Adidas site failed to upload. He was convinced the reason was because too many people were trying to do the same thing simultaneously. So, to fight against the invisible army of competitors, we deployed all our artilleries: (generously and unknowingly provided by his parents still fast asleep upstairs) an iPad, a laptop, and four smartphones all trying to reach the elusive website. This pair of “special sneakers” are meant to go on sale, but no one knows when or for how long. It could be for an hour or two, the whole day, or just for 10 minutes. No one knew in advance and that was part of the “game”.

Emotional roller coaster

Angelo explained, these sneakers and Neymar’s haircut were the most discussed topics at his school’s locker room. The Brazilian footballer’s tuft already framed his lovely face, but the shoes -what he desired most - were still missing. They would be the greatest birthday gift for Angelo and that much was clear.

So there we were, seated in the sofa with Angelo biting his nails, his green eyes puffed up from fatigue, and looking forlorn, making me wish I could buy him all the sneakers in the world!


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A crowd is waiting to buy sneakers outside a Darmstadt store | DR

“This time it shouldn't be so hard.” he said with high hope and optimism. “We just need to connect to the site.” Shortly thereafter, he muttered despondently: “I am sure we are too late. We should have been here earlier!”. Such is the emotional roller coaster involved in buying sneakers these days.

He had managed to do it once, a year or so ago, I remembered now. The shoes he got at the time, a pair of Yeezy Boost V2’ designed by Kanye West, are now worth around 800 dollars. Ever since checking the Yeezy value on a sneaker stock market app, checking the stock price became a habit. When a new version was about to be released, the checking became more intense. If the price is high enough, he can in fact sell them through one of the many apps that light up his smartphone. That is only possible if he is ‘plugged in’. Angelo wore those Yeezys a couple of times at family gatherings, though he stood on the sidelines watching his cousins play in the muddy grass because he didn’t want to dirty them. I remember teasing him about it then. But now, having learned more about what lies behind these sneakers, I am angry.

Technically, shoes don't go on sale. They undergo "a drop" (most often online) before they hit the shops. Buying a pair of fancy sneakers is no longer a matter of price and money, but of loyalty. Money matters for sure, but that is secondary. Loyalty in the form of earning access, as was demonstrated by the need to install Adidas’s app on multiple devices, Angelo had some chance of being one of the select few to access the new drop of Adidas sneakers. If you want a pair, you have to prove faithful to a world of apps, sites, Twitter accounts, Instagram profiles, notifications, online communities, celebrities or influencers. You must be willing to follow digital instructions.

Back in the living room, “Drop out August 18th, 8am GMT time”, was the tip we were following that early morning, courtesy of rumors on Sneaker News. It was confirmed by shared account @YeezyMafia - half a million followers on Twitter - and by a number of secondary market resellers such as Bump, Goat, and StockX. These resellers, part of a huge bubble market with inflated prices, often sell highly coveted and sold-out sneakers minutes after the official sale is over. They offer the perfect remedy for those who, despite all the sleep deprivation and pressing refresh buttons incessantly, still failed to score a pair. Often, parents fork out 400 USD for a pair of sneakers so they could pacify their child and pretend to go back to normality until the next “drop” takes place.

Having failed to succeed in our attempt, I suggested we go back to bed and that I would buy him something else instead. Angelo barely looked up nor did he listen. He was totally focused on the screen in front of him, clearly not giving up. Suddenly he sat up:

— Maybe it's not GMT time, let's try the American market. Maybe they will have a raffle. Yes, let's try a raffle on SNS now!

— What is SNS? I asked.

— A beautiful place, was the reply.

So, off we went in search of these elusive sneakers with animated vigor once again. SNS - a.k.a. Sneakersnstuff is indeed a beautiful site full of news and raffles for sneakers. Furiously, switching from one device to another, he started to check if there was a raffle he missed. The chances were low he mused, as he had spent the whole week absorbing all the info on the upcoming drop. But, being at a summer vacation home with limited Wi-Fi connection and not enough data, there was a slight chance he missed something. Alas, no raffle!

— Who decides when you have to do a raffle to get the sneakers? Don't you also have to be 18 to participate anyway? I asked him, as I poured myself yet another coffee.

To like or be liked

By now, the sun was up. He looked at me with that mixture of boredom and annoyance that teenagers sometimes show when they feel adults are sabotaging them. He couldn’t have the answers even if he wanted to; the reality being he was still a 12-year-old and he is not meant to have them. But he wanted the shoes, given everybody in his social circle talks about them, tags them, and posts about them. The social pressure is so intense that he probably would want them even if he does not like them.

He is bombarded and surrounded by the relentless push to not give up, to try harder, and to follow online rumors, profiles, influencer and celebrity accounts. To be part of the buzz, he needs to constantly check times, resellers, and links. He needs be on the go and ready to act whether in the middle of the night, or in the early hours of the morning. He has to ensure his phone is charged and connected. He needs to be online non-stop – not to miss out, to ‘like’ and be ‘liked’, to download and comment. All this prep is supposed to ‘wet-the-appetite’ and desire. The more elusive and exclusive, the bigger the desire and craving. If you fail this time, don’t worry, the next ‘drop’ is just around the corner!

This is the game.

Is it a fun game, or a dire fight? That morning, as I was consoling my nephew and patting his head to soften the sense of defeat, I thought of it as a hijacking of his thoughts, his time, and his desires.

As we sat there dejected, my sister-in-law came downstairs. It had just gone past 8am in the morning although it felt as if a whole day had gone by. My eyes were hurting from too much screen time without my glasses and my body humming with too much coffee.

«BUY NOW!»

My sister-in-law reached out for her phone, which was still making one more attempt to reach the Adidas page. Disappointed, my nephew handed her phone back. He was now ready to admit the game was over. Maybe somebody had woken up much earlier and got all of the shoes to resell them. Perhaps our internet connection was not good enough. Possibly we got the date wrong and the shoes were not selling that morning, who knows. Or maybe, as I started to suspect, we were hostages to some digital marketing plan that manipulated our time and attention. But, who would deploy such a cruel strategy on people’s happiness and imperil their lives? What kept teenagers and their relatives, including myself, hooked and had us do all sorts of crazy things in the middle of the night just to buy a pair of sneakers?

Of course, some may even question why a 12-year-old had easy access to his parents’ laptop and smartphones? It shows how technology is now so pervasive in our daily lives, and how society has embraced this new technology wholeheartedly, largely unaware of its consequences or its workings. These thoughts nagged at me as we sat there trying to solace my nephew.


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Teenagers in Seoul, South Korea | Ahn Young-joon, AP

Distractedly, my sister-in-law looked at her phone ready to start the day on another topic, if only to avoid prolonging the disappointment. Suddenly, a massive banner saying “BUY NOW!” started to flash on the Adidas webpage.

I couldn't believe it! How could this happen when we were ready to give up? What sort of game is this? Excitement and giggles erupted as I rushed for my credit card lest we miss it again. The payment went through and we got the shoes. Hugs followed, but the real questions remained.

Edited by Thomas Hepher and Kookie Habtegaber