“Farewell to the besoms of heather and bloom
Farewell to the creels and the basket
For the folks of today they would far sooner pay
For a thing that’s been made out of plastic”
There is a small 7mm ratchet spanner on the side of the desk in the department where I work. It was forgotten by an engineer that came to service some equipment a few months ago. I like to pick it up and hold it. It has a weight that gives you a pocket of confidence in your hand. It is stainless steel and shines. The switch that alternates the ratchet is a dark alloy; it reassures the thumb as it snaps left to right. The reason it feels so good to hold is because the design is ergonomic, mimicking the space around your hand. The weight balanced. The function clear. Its moving parts fluid and strong. It is a high quality tool that as you hold it, feels like a natural extension of your hand.
There is something else which makes this little ratchet special. In 2014, this kind of quality is rare.
I spoke to my friend Tom recently, a highly skilled joiner and craftsman. I’ve watched him carefully repair all our sash-box windows over the last 2 years. He showed me a tool box set aside in the back of his Transit. “These I’ve had since I started.” He opened the lid and disclosed a variety of old, but extremely well looked after hand tools. Twelve solid steel chisels with boxwood handles, their edges gleaming; hand drills with chucks still hungry and ready to bite; a claw hammer on a hickory shaft, its patina a testament to servitude. There were others buried beneath, but the back of the van was dark. “All the others,” he motioned to several other buckets filled with screwdrivers, Stanley knives, drill bits, saws, and other bits and pieces, “need replacing every couple of years.” He clunked shut the Transit’s wonky back door.
Samsung seem to have raised the bar on marketing strategy. Forgive me if there is a company that spends more on advertising, but at $14billion for 2013 I doubt anyone is even close. Samsung’s budget has increased 14 fold since 2003 taking spending in this arena to a new level. There are a cluster of other super-corporations all jostling around the $2.5 – $4billion mark. Now that someone has made a move, surely the others will follow.
Maybe 100-120 years ago, marketing and advertising behaved differently to what we see today. It saw itself more of an advising and describing role. This was mainly because as a consumer it was assumed you knew pretty much what you wanted to buy, and the advertising helped you out with the fine tuning, making sure the product came as close as possible to matching your original needs. This allowed the consumer accurate information before buying. This remains the philosophical backbone of advertising. Except these days, it doesn’t really work that way.
The nature of the economical market means that competition always gives rise to competing brands. Take for example shampoo. I have no idea how many different brands there are out there of ‘hair soap’, all probably purporting to be, usually through pseudo-science, different to their rivals. But really, although there will be some variety in quality, all shampoo does the same thing. It cleans your hair. What advertising is doing now, and spending billions to achieve it, is convincing us otherwise.
With this arrangement it would be difficult for quality to be anything other than a market novelty or so expensive as to make it an unlikely purchase for the average consumer. However, there is another, more underhand technique employed inherently into almost all the goods we buy. Its called planned obsolescence, and although economists advocates this ploy through the philosophy of Philip Kotler et al, to me it is quite obviously unethical. The basic idea is that whatever you purchase has a predetermined lifespan before becoming obsolete. Be it having to upgrade your computer’s operating software or a deliberately designed weakness in a mechanism; it all leads to the same thing: a perpetual cycle of purchasing semi-disposable or ‘faulty’ items. I don’t have to mention the Black and Decker Workmate, do I? If anyone compared the version from the 80s to the one of today, it would probably be inferior in every way.
So what’s my point? Ok, so they don’t make things like they used to. So what?
Well I think there is a point to be made here. When we hear western leaders (and by that I mean any country that has allowed itself to be governed by money) talk about ‘progress’, we have all naturally assumed that they had in mind somewhere we were progressing to. Somewhere better. I no longer think that is the case. Instead, we are tracking along on a conveyor belt of consumerism, struck senseless by a global barrage of $500billion worth of advertising. The longer we sit on this banal ride the further we move from quality and closer to a degrading of our way of life. To see human design fail us the way it currently is may have unknown effects on society as a whole. Our consumer driven, disposable culture has distanced us from quality, perhaps even lowering other baselines as it went? Surely it’s not difficult to imagine that inferior tools lead to an inferior job? Let me give you an example. The NHS in Britain has, for the last decade or so, been going through a constant process of planned obsolescence. By that I mean almost all safe and robust systems of practice have been replaced with flimsy, but cheaper, replicas. When these begin to break, they are simply replaced by an even inferior model that runs along for even less time before showing signs of strain. When these weak systems fail completely, it is staff that becomes the focus of the problem, not the blunt and broken tools they are left holding.
And what about the conveyor belt? Anyone interested in where it is carrying us? You could ask your politicians, but their answer would be the usual confused rhetoric. Instead, let me tell you: it goes nowhere, just around and around until it splutters and stops.
Here’s a better question to ask. What’s your definition of progress?