Technology and quality environments

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This age we exist in now is special and interesting in that our
technology is rapidly expanding, and continues to allow us to perform
a wider range of activities. But along with this expansion has come a
marked decrease in durability, and maybe diminishing of style -- the
computers and appliances I remember from ten years ago seem to have
just as more durability as the computers and appliances from today
have an increased function and range. And you can go back even further
with this; the appliances and devices of 50 years previous to now are
surprisingly more durable than what you can get today, for any price.
(Have you bought a new $1,000 HEPA vacuum cleaner, and compared its
look and feel to a '55 chrome Hoover?) As objects, the old feel better
to use and to hold than what you get at Wal-Mart -- or from a high
priced yuppie catalog, for that matter. Even expensive objects today
feel flimsy compared with the older counterpart. This is especially
notable with building construction: compare today's $500,000 developer
home or multi-million dollar office with an older architect-designed
and craftsmen-built home or office; which is made to last, or looks
more inviting?

What I wonder Philip is have you ever felt this too, and if so, what
do you make of it -- is it the price we pay for a continually
increased function? And how do you deal with it? (i.e. does it disturb
you at all to live among objects that are shoddy and flimsy...)

-- Allison Palmer, December 28, 2001


Quality and feel is hard to quantify and it tends to get rationalized out of the American economic system. For example, running a really good photo lab requires hiring conscientious experienced people. But nobody wants to pay for that when they can get their prints developed for $4 less at Walmart. When the brand-new 19-year-old at Walmart scratches their negs they'll scream and yell but actually it was their own unwillingness to pay a reasonable price that led to the scratching.

Another good example is the water hose. When driving around in an RV you're supposed to fill your fresh water tank from a drinking-water certified water hose. The only ones that you can find cost $6 at Walmart or $12 at an RV dealer. They have cheap connectors that leak. I met a camper in Nova Scotia who had a non-leaking water hose with solid brass hardware on the ends. Turned out he had bought it for $25 a couple of decades earlier. But it isn't obvious when hose shopping that the cheap ones will leak so they've crowded the expensive (usable) products out of the market.

For building construction we Americans have a rich history of shoddy building. You'll never hear a creaking stair in Germany. Europeans build with the goal of making their homes last 100 years. The cost of building is at least 2X or 3X an American house of the same size. This doesn't actually make sense. We build stuff to last 25 years and figure that we'll put the extra money in the bank. By the time the McMansion has fallen down we will have earned enough interest to tear it down and build a brand-new junky wooden house. This attitude has bitten us big-time here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most of the houses were built rather shoddily 100 years ago. City bureaucracy is so expensive to deal with that nobody can afford to tear them down and rebuild. So we're left with some of the ugliest sagging housing stock in the country. You'd think it was a slum if you couldn't see the $1 million price tags on these dumps (the price is kept high because Harvard and MIT keep drawing people to town and zoning laws make it impossible to build more housing).

The PC example that you've chosen is a good one. We've had excellent progress along the dimensions that people are accustomed to measuring: price, memory, and CPU clock speed. We've had zero progress on noise (though Europeans manufacture near-silent PCs), compactness, or case aesthetics. In an economy where I can buy anything that I want, how come I can't buy a wood-veneer PC case to fit into my living room?

I think the only hope is in countries where the craftsman heritage is stronger. You have to go to Germany and Holland to find high quality aquarium filters, for example. It is the Europeans who actually believe that smaller, fewer, and higher quality is better. An Italian would rather have one nice outfit than 14 days of ugly clothing from Lands End.

On the plus side, the American system of mass production (carried out mostly in China, of course, these days) has provided a much larger percentage of the population with a high objective standard of living. We have 2X the square footage of housing per person as in the 1950s. Everyone has a car. Everyone has a cheaply encased TV, PC, telephone, etc. The rich are inconvenienced because the price of truly nice stuff is insane (that Electrolux vacuum will cost 6X the price of a machine at Walmart; custom cabinetry for your livingroom will cost 100X the price of Ikea shelving; a Mercedes is 4X the price of a car that will do the job nearly as well; a motorhome with a tasteful durable interior is about 10X the price of the mass-produced Winnebago that I bought). But the middle class mostly only suffer because their huge detached houses necessitate spread-out development so they never get to see farmland or forest but at the same time are forced to drive if they want a cup of coffee or to talk to another person face to face.

The Pattern Language book is really about this. The authors want America to be more like Europe circa 1955. Small shops where the proprietor personally selects and stands behind the goods. People crowded into villages around public squares leaving the countryside relatively unblemished. Offices, small workshops, and shops integrated with housing so that children have some idea of what it means to be an adult worker (i.e., that money doesn't simply come home with Mommy and Daddy every night at 6). But all over the world when people are given the opportunity to live like this they reject it. They buy the 4000 square foot McMansion with home theater. Since they're driving anyway they bypass the specialty shop and head for Walmart.

Are we depressed yet?

-- Philip Greenspun, January 1, 2002

Trade frills for quality.

I was getting depressed reading this until I remembered that you can get all kinds of quality vintage goods for reasonable prices on eBay.

OK, maybe I'm still a little depressed, because you aren't likely to find a '55 chrome Hoover in working order on eBay or anywhere else. (Except perhaps if you can rebuild one yourself).

Allison is right that poor quality is the price you must pay for increased function in mass-produced goods. The only way to fight it is to buy items with less functionality. Actually, functionality is a bad word, and should be banned. I'm talking about those laundry lists of marketable "features" (another bad word) that adorn most product packages and displays. Manufacturers know that if they have 3 more bells and 2 more whistles for the same price as their competitors, they will sell more units. This is especially true when they are marketing to unsophisticated buyers. That is why the quality of your typical consumer stereo was much better 30 years ago when there was no such thing as DSP or 5-channel surround.

So look for items with only one really nice bell and no whistles, and be willing to pay the same as the other stuff, and then you might find affordable quality.

I will use cameras as an example. Most people buy point and shoot cameras with Pinnochio-like zoom lenses, for an average price of say, $250. This is de rigueur for bad vacation photos and snapshots that make loved family members appear possessed by evil spirits. So you look for no-frills. There's Kodaks, for about $50, and slightly better than their disposable cameras. But remember the formula, go no-frills but pay the same as for the frills. So you can get a nice camera from Yashica or Canon with a non-zooming lens for around $200. This will be a nice camera that takes sharp pictures and has a fast enough lens that you can shoot indoors without a flash. And if you want to zoom you can learn to use your feet! Or better yet, you can go on eBay and buy a classic 60's rangefinder with an amazing lens for $50, or a manual-focus SLR from the 70's for $100.

This may not always work, but it is a good rule of thumb for shopping.

-- Ben Ballard, January 9, 2002