More Stuff

It’s Christmas shopping time and most everything is crap. Sorry, might as well say it; most of the stuff wrapped in boxes and mountains of paper is either poorly made or made for only a season of use. The electronic thing you buy will be obsolete before next year so you can buy another one. The toy is for 7-10 year olds; your nephew will be 11 next year and will want something else. Clothing might last a little longer but is subject to the whims of fashion.

I think, rather than enduring longer, most things seem to wear out faster (both in real terms and perception). The obvious examples are computers and digital [bleeping things]. A digital [bleeping thing] is priced low enough that, when it breaks, there is little sense in repairing it (often, by the time it does break, the manufacturer no longer services it anyway). It just gets pitched and a new one is purchased (though I would imagine there are millions of perfectly usable digital [bleeping things] sitting in closets worldwide; they have been replaced with newer better faster models). I have a decent digital [bleeping thing] from 2003. It will probably work for some time; however, should it break, there is no repairing it. Should I decide to purchase a new digital [bleeping thing], none of the accessories for this [bleeping thing] will work with the current equipment. A new purchase would mean starting from scratch. This [bleeping thing] was the price of a decent mechanical [clicking thing] several years ago; had I purchased a decent [clicking thing] in lieu of the [bleeping thing], it would still be repairable, the accessories would work with accessories now (and, no doubt, from the past), and the re-sale value would have held. (Granted there is a whole other discussion here on the cost of film and processing for the several thousand shots I’ve made with the [bleeping thing] vs. a [clicking thing]).

I do have a (way more than decent) 35mm camera. I can use lenses made from the past 50 years on it and can be reasonably sure lenses made in the future will still be compatible. It’s almost entirely mechanical and easy to service. Film, though one would think it’s about dead, keeps getting better every year—so the “sensor” in the camera gets upgraded with every new canister of film in the camera. The manufacturer has guaranteed parts and service for the current model for the next 30 years. Past models of this camera have actually increased in value. This is a made thing that will probably outlast me in usefulness; how many things do we seek that we can say this applies to?

What if, rather than aiming for the latest and shiniest thing, we carefully chose what is most needed and best made? If you are going to spend thousands of dollars over the next ten years on digital cameras, why not go ahead and buy a really good camera that will last a lifetime instead? If you wear out three pair of cheap shoes a year and hobble your feet in the process, why not spend what amounts to less money on good shoes that will last five times longer?

There is a current discussion on Worldchanging on design for 10,000 years. I can’t imagine making a coat that will last this long; however, we have to start thinking about the mounds of waste that represent our fickle wants and habits. Would it be so bad, when we go to buy a thing to think:

  1. Do I really need this thing; do I need it now?
  2. Do I need a new one of these?
  3. Is the use of this thing going to burden me with the need of other things (all the batteries, memory chips, software, fancy dress cases, and tinsel)?
  4. Is there an another way to do this with something that will last longer and cause less waste?
  5. Where did this thing come from and where is it eventually going? (Where will this thing be 100 years from now and will it be useful to anyone else then? This is, I think, an important point. If you now pick up something made 100 years ago I dare say, if it’s working, it will still do the thing it does in some useful manner. What will a 100 year old iPod do?)
  6. And…there is a question that keeps coming to my mind as I work through this master’s course…I’m starting to seriously ask how will this thing help me contribute in some positive way to society? Is the making and selling of this thing good for the future of the world? I don’t think that’s an idealist’s question; it is, in effect, the most practical question we can ask in our daily lives.