They can be seen bundled into sleeping bags, knees drawn up to their chin, maybe a coffee cup on the wet pavement beside them. Their pale faces look up as you approach. Should you give them some money? You draw nearer and notice one man has a daft hipster beard and that other one has stylish black-framed glasses. Still, you bend to drop a pound coin in the paper cup and see it doesn't contain coins but a tall soy latte with a sprinkling of cinnamon.
Yes, those men who huddle in the doorways of ritzy Regent Street aren't homeless; they're queuing outside the Apple Store to be first to get the latest phone. They're known as 'early adopters', though I prefer to call them 'morons'.
The presenter, Jaques Peretti, approaches them, like Attenborough in the wild, to ask why they're here, in this bitter cold, on this damp pavement. They say they're waiting for the new iPhone 5s. One of the 'early morons' (sorry, 'early adopters') says he already owns the iPhone 5. Well, why, asks Peretti, are you so keen on the 5s? What's the difference? It's a different colour, the man says, feebly. 'You don't want to be left!' he adds.
They don't want to be left behind, these men, so they surrender days and nights of their life queuing for a new phone. Days when they could be travelling, socialising, laughing, eating a fine meal, dating a gorgeous woman or seeing their child grow up. They could be doing the things which make us participate in life, which make us feel we are indeed not being left behind. But no - these moneyed buffoons surrender all of that to camp on the street just so they can have a phone which is blue instead of white, or which has touch-screen buttons instead of little bumpy ones. They shall not be left behind!
The programme started off as a brilliant social history of consumerism, tracing how we went from being frugal and sensible to being hollow-eyed hipsters in a urine-dampened doorway. Peretti says Western consumerism really took off during the Cold War, for the obvious reason that there was more money sloshing about but, also, because spending was portrayed as an ideological duty. The West was free, therefore we have choice, so go out and choose between a black car or a red car or a fancy car. Demonstrate your freedom to those Commies via conspicuous consumption.
Naturally, Ford were at the dark heart of this explosion of consumerism. Moving away from the prim dictum that you can have any colour as long as it's black, they switched to the opposite tack. Instead of peddling the same trusty car to everyone, they 'segmented the market', designing an array of cars of all colours and all states of luxury. As you progressed up the social and economic ladder you bought a different car, perhaps in a gleaming, exotic colour or maybe with fancy tailfins. As you grew richer, you ditched the car and sought a grander one.
This was known as 'planned obsolescence': the car wasn't built to last. They were no longer sold for reliability, but for their frills and flash. You soon dumped the car and scrambled for a new one.
The strategy of 'planned obsolescence' was used in other industries too. You might buy an electric toothbrush but the battery compartment would be sealed shut, so you had no choice but to buy a new one when the power waned. The product was made deliberately useless after a set period, spurring you on to discard it and spend, spend, spend! Likewise with lightbulbs which are made to pop or printer cartridges designed to tell the computer they're empty when there's still plenty of usable ink inside. This is planned obsolescence, though some may see it as planned deception.
This programme was fascinating whilst it remained a social history, with a nice helping of psychology thrown in, but towards the end it ventured into investigative journalism, with the presenter haranguing an IKEA executive about their marketing campaign to dump sofas on the street, and there were lots of sly digs at Apple and their batteries. The programme went slightly off the boil here. It wasn't suited to playing at being Panorama. It was far more compelling as an enjoyable history or sociology of how we have sunk from being defined by the work we do to the tacky gadgets we hold.
We can draw our own worrying conclusions about where this need to possess trinkets will lead us; perhaps the brainwashed men in those damp Regent Street doorways can give us a hint.